chapter  3
Transgressive Legacies of Memory: The Concept of Techné in Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table
Pages 20

In a book called Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory, Lawrence L. Langer noted that the common aspect of verbal and written testimonies provided by various witnesses is ‘the struggle with the impossible task of making their recollections of camp experience coalesce with the rest of their lives. . . . Each work refl ects not defi ance but a basic human need to interpret the meaning of one’s experience, or to pierce the obscurities that shroud it in apparent meaninglessness’ (1991: 3, 57). It is precisely this comprehension impetus that drove Italian writer and fi rst-generation survivor Primo Levi to write his award-winning books beginning with the very early Se questo è un uomo (If This is a Man, 1947) and continuing with La Tregua (The Truce, 1963), Storie naturali (Natural Histories, 1966), Vizio di forma (Formal Defect, 1971) and the much-appreciated Il sistema periodico (The Periodic Table, 1975).1 The aspect that distinguishes The Periodic Table from the other works is the summative and intrinsically humanist intent of combining in narrative form the author’s technical skills as a chemist with his experience as a camp inmate and Holocaust survivor. Hard to classify in terms of genre due to its intriguing mix of technical science, poetic mythology and life writing, this piece is often referred to as a memoir, ‘a condensed Buildungsroman,’ (Gordon 2001: 140) a ‘symbolic autobiography’ (Scheiber 2007: 47) or ‘an intellectual biography,’ (Guiliani 2003: 7) and even a mystery; each description covers but a limited array of this work’s many facets.