The Periodic Table is not a novel, nor an autobiography, but a collection of short stories – some of them true, others fictional. Primo Levi already wrote a book about his experiences in the Holocaust, called If This is A Man, and as a result The Periodic Table hardly touches on the Holocaust at all. Instead, the book is mainly focused on fragments of Levi’s life before and after World War 2 with a few short stories that he wrote in his youth mixed in.
Unsurprisingly, the quality of the stories is a mixed bag. It’s not so much a problem with the writing than with the actual content of the stories – the ones focusing on snapshots of Levi’s career as a chemist, such as Sulfur and Uranium were at times quite inaccessible thanks to the constant references to chemistry. It was the stories that focused on the more impactful moments of Levi’s life that were the most appealing.
Yet despite Levi’s insistence that The Periodic Table was not about the Holocaust, the one story which did focus on the Holocaust, Vanadium, was easily the most interesting. Even then, the story did not dwell so much on the horrors of the Holocaust but rather focused on Levi still working in chemistry at Auchwitz. It was not the section of the story that was set in Auchwitz but the section detailing Levi’s reflection on his experiences in the following decades that was the most interesting. In Vanadium, a camp guard from Auchwitz contacts Levi expressing repentence and requests a meeting. Levi is unsure of how to deal with the situation, and it seems as though he still hasn’t decided how he should feel about the camp guard at the time of writing The Periodic Table.
The stories focusing on Levi’s youth were also entertaining – such as Argon, Hydrogen, Zinc, Iron, Potassium and Nickel. Though most of these stories are about chemistry, what sets these stories apart from the others is that they aren’t really about chemistry – that’s just the common theme that ties them together. What the reader can actually see from these stories is the dramatic change in Italy’s political landscape over the years and the way that the rise of fascism affects Levi’s view of himself and the way that his peers view him.
The writing in The Periodic Table is extremely thoughtful and reflective. Despite the fact that some of the stories may hold more appeal than others, even the less interesting ones are carried by the strength of Levi’s writing, and make the best stories even more engaging when you finally reach them.
The Periodic Table is a book that I would definitely recommend to people, whether they’re interested in chemistry or not, although the book’s reluctance to cover the Holocaust was frustrating at times. If I could go back, I would read If This is A Man before The Periodic Table in order to prevent this.