Chemical Contaminations: Allegory and Alterity in Primo Levi's Il Sistema Periodico

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What if differing rather than consensus were the issue for thinking?--(Jean-Francois Lyotard, Le differand)

Despite a title that alludes to one of the principle scientific systems of classifying knowledge--namely, Mendeleev's categorization of the chemical elements--Primo Levi's Il sistema periodico (1975) is a thoroughly heterogeneous text that defies easy categories. In this text, Levi highlights the interdependence of scientific and philosophical discourses, blurs the genres of autobiography and fiction, and relentlessly points to the impossibility of arriving at the elemental or the pure in any field. (l) Loosely based on the author's career as a chemist, the narrative is chronologically ordered. It progresses from Levi's first unpredictable chemical experiment, conducted as an adolescent in a homemade laboratory, to his formal university education under the fascist regime. One brief chapter at the center of the text is devoted to his imprisonment at Auschwitz, and the remainder of the book concludes with stories inspired by his career as a chemist in post-war Italy. Punctuating this ordered chronology, however, are chapters dedicated to fictional characters completely unrelated to Levi's personal narrative. Moreover, these chapters often read in a stylistic register quite different from the rest of the book. Self-consciously pointing out the heterogeneity of his own work, Levi refers to Il sistema periodico as "my stories about chemistry" and calls the novel neither "a chemical treatise ... nor an autobiography" but "in some fashion a history" (cited in Patruno 56). Hybridity is a central formal element of this text, whose twenty-one chapters seem at times more like a loosely related set of short stories than chapters of a novel. Indeed, these "stories about chemistry" are perhaps most connected by the fact that each is intriguingly named for an element of the periodic table, and each contains an allegory based in some way upon the properties of that element.

Despite the fact that allegory is a predominant narrative trope in this text, readers may well be puzzled by the function allegory plays in the opening chapter, "Argon," which is an affectionate, lyrical history of Levi's immediate and extended family. On the one hand, it is clear that Levi's relatives in Argon--assimilated Jews who are nevertheless distinct from their Turin community--should be compared with inert gasses: "talmente inerti, talmente paghi della loro condizione, che non interferiscono in alcuna reazione chimica, non si combinano con alcun altro elemento" (741). On the other hand, "Argon" is not an allegory of separation and isolation drawn from the example of the gasses, but exactly the opposite: it is a tale concerned with contamination, amalgamation, and miscegenation. Moreover, at the stylistic level, "Argon" demonstrates a notable discursive hybridity; it hovers between the anthropological and the mythological, between the familiarity of micro-history and the grandiosity of epic history. Even the character sketches show how different cultures and religions mix: Jewish uncles fall in love with, marry, or live with goya [Gentiles]; Levi's grandmother attends the local synagogue and the local church on alternate weekends; and his Jewish father never fails to buy the tempting prosciutto hanging in the butcher's window (although never without a sense of guilt). Finally, at the linguistic level, "Argon" shifts between standard Italian, Piedmontese dialect, and Hebrew, often tracing the history and etymology of Levi's lessico famigliare--as Natalia Ginzburg would put it-- in order to note odd coincidences such as the "insospettata analogia fonetica tra l'ebraico e il piemontese" (743). The example of "Argon" begs the question: why is allegory, an overarching rhetorical trope of Il sistema periodico, undermined at the outset of Levi's text?

This essay focuses on episodes in the novel, such as the one just mentioned, in which Levi presents a chemical allegory that initially does not quite seem to make sense. …