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‘Iron’ by Primo Levi
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‘Iron’ is a biographical essay by twentieth century Italian-Jewish chemist and writer, Primo Levi and forms part of his greater work The Periodic Table. It chronicles his developing friendship with a fellow chemist and outsider during a time when fascism was spreading, like a cancer, across Europe.
Levi pictures fascism using a variety of metaphors including “the night of Europe”, a disease, and a “grumous dew” with a terrible “stench”. In contrast, Chemistry and the scientific method are pictured as “white”, something “from which a emanated a good smell, dry and clean” and “an antidote”.
Within this safe but ever narrowing world where rationalism triumphs over propaganda, Levi meets Sandro, who he describes as “blasphemous”, “laconic” and “sarcastic”. Sandro is a “loner”, “the quiet one”. Levi, too, is an outsider but not by choice: “the laws against the Jews had been proclaimed…following an ancient pattern, I withdrew as well.” The allusion here is to the ostracisms and proscriptions of the Jewish people across the centuries, an horrific tradition beginning in Egypt’s biblical past four thousand years earlier.
In an attempt to capture Sandro’s personality—which remains “elusive, untamed”—and their friendship, Levi engages two seemingly contradictory central metaphors: the elements of their chemical studies and the wild but pastoral scenery of the Piedmont region. Sandro is “made of iron” (hence the title of the essay) but also “cat with whom one could live for decades without ever being permitted to penetrate its sacred pelt”. Their friendship is “cation and anion” (a mixing of positive and negative ions) but also something personified and wild, “a comradeship was born”.
It is only when the action moves from the lab to the wilderness that this conflict is resolved. Matter, personified as “Mother” and “teacher” is not to be found in the lab but in the “true, authentic, timeless Urstoff, the rocks and ice of the nearby mountains”. This appropriation of the German word for element empowers Levi’s writing, his use of language, like the wilderness, is outside the control of fascism. It is here in this “island”, this “elsewhere” that Sandro finds “his place”, “a new communion with the earth and sky”. The use of Christian allusion within what is consistently pictured as a pagan setting serves to devalue and mock the colleagues who “were civil people…but withdrew” with their “dozing consciences”. The mocking tone is broadened to include the whole of Italy, “the small time pirate”.
In contrast to those who warrant Levi’s derision, Sandro is spoken of with a respect bordering, at times, on awe. As well as being “made of iron”, Sandro is a paradox, displaying “sinister hilarity” and “splendid bad faith”. He becomes not only Levi’s comrade but also his teacher preparing them both for “an iron future, drawing closer month by month”. The “iron” in Levi’s future is surviving Auschwitz, for which his treks with Sandro helped prepare him. But “they didn’t help Sandro, or not for long”. At the end of the essay Levi anchors the almost mythological Sandro to history, “Sandro Delmastro, the first man to be killed fighting in the Resistance with the Action Party’s Piedmontese Military Command”.
Levi’s chronicle of a significant but short friendship between two outsiders is also a struggle—like the chemist “fencing” with the elements—to “dress” his “elusive” friend and their friendship in words. Ironically, although Sandro was “not the sort of person you can tell stories about”, stories are all that remain, “nothing but words”.

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