“Sandro seemed to be made of iron, and he was connected to iron by an ancient relationship: his forefathers, he told me, were tinkerers (magnín) and blacksmiths (fré) in the Canavese valleys. They made nails on a carbon forge; they circumscribed wagon wheels with scalding rims; they battered slabs of metal until they became deaf. And he himself, when he noticed in rocks the red vein of iron, he seemed as if he were meeting a friend.”
By Primo Levi
Translated from Italian by Bren Cavallo
It was night outside the walls of Chemical Institute, the night of Europe: Chamberlain returned duped from Europe, Hitler entered Prague without firing a shot, Franco took Barcelona and concentrated his efforts on Madrid. Fascist Italy, the minor thief, had occupied Albania, and the premonition of catastrophe condensed like a slimy dew in houses and on the streets, in cautious discussions and dozing consciences.
But inside the thick walls that the night did not penetrate, fascist censorship – the regimes masterpiece – kept us separated from the world in a white anesthetized limbo.
About thirty of us managed to overcome the severe barrier of the first year exams. We were assigned to the second year’s qualitative analysis laboratory. We had entered in the vast, dark, smoky hall like those moving into the House of the Lord reflecting on their steps. The former lab, where I worked with zinc, now seemed like an infantile exercise. Like as children when we played at cooking, something – by means of fair or foul – would surely come forth, perhaps too scarce, perhaps not pure enough. But you needed to be hopeless or pigheaded back then to not get magnesium sulfate or potassium bromide from bromine.
Not here. Here the act was serious, and the confrontation with Mother Matter, our inimical mother, was harder and closer. At two in the afternoon, Professor D., with his ascetic and distracted air, handed out to each student exactly one gram of a certain powder. By the next day, we had to complete a qualitative analysis, that is, we reported which metals and non-metals it was composed of. We submitted in writing, like a police report, only yes’ or no’s because we were not allowed doubt or hesitation. Each time was a choice, a deliberation, a mature and responsible undertaking to which fascism had not prepared us, and that emanated a good, clean, dry odor.
There were easy and straightforward elements incapable of hiding themselves, such as iron and copper. Others were insidious and elusive, like bismuth and cadmium. There was a method, a cumbersome plan for systematic research, a type of fine-tooth comb mixed with steamroller from which nothing (in theory) could escape. But I preferred each time to invent my own path, with rapid extemporaneous trips, as in a war of athletic competition, instead of the exhausting routine of a war of position: sublimate mercury into droplets, transform sodium into chloride, and recognize it under a microscope.
One way or another, here the rapport with the Matter changed. It became dialectical: it was fencing, a one on one match, two unequal adversaries. On one end, to interrogate, the unfledged chemist, helpless, with a copy of the Auntrieth at his side as his only ally (because D., often called to aid in difficult cases, maintained a scrupulous neutrality, and refused to opine: a wise stance, since whoever gives advice can make mistakes, and a professor must never be incorrect). On the other, to respond to the mysteries, the Matter, with its sly passivity ancient as the Universe and prodigiously rich with deception, solemn and subtle like the Sphinx.
I was beginning to understand German, and I fell in love with the term Urstoff (which means “element”: literally, “primal substance”) and the prefix Ur that appeared in it and expresses ancient origin, remote distance in space and time.
Not even here, no one used many words to teach us how to defend ourselves against acids, caustics, from fires and explosions. It seemed that, according to the rough morals of the Institute, this was to spur the process of natural selection, to select the most qualified among us for physical and professional survival. There were few ventilation hoods. Each person, following the rules of the text, in the course of systematic analysis, conscientiously let into the air a good dose of hydrochloric acid and ammonia so that the lab was permanently stagnate with an acrid cloud of ammonium chloride, which deposited on the windowpanes minute scintillating crystals. The hydro-sulfuric acid chamber with its lethal atmosphere drew in couples seeking privacy, as well as solitary people, as a place to eat their snacks.
Through the fog, and in the busy silence, we heard a Piedmontese voice say: “Nuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus ferrum.” (“I am announcing that he has given us this great joy. We have iron.”) It was March of 1939, and a few days earlier an almost identical solemn announcement (“Habemus Papum”) had been released by the conclave that had raised to the Papal Throne the Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, in whom many put their confidence, since one must put their confidence in someone or something. The person that announced this blasphemy was Sandro.
Among us chemistry students, Sandro was a loner. He was a boy of medium height, thin but muscular, who not even on the coldest of days wore his overcoat. He came to class in worn velvet knickers, gray woolen knee-socks, and sometimes a black cape that made me think of the writer Renato Fucini. He had large callused hands and an angular coarse profile. His face was baked by the sun, and he had a low forehead beneath his hairline, which he wore very short and cut in a brush. He walked with the long slow strides of a peasant.
Just a few months earlier, the racial laws had been proclaimed, and I too became a loner. My Christian classmates were civil people, not one among them nor among the professors had directed towards me any inimical words or gestures. But I felt them distancing themselves, and following ancient behaviors, I distanced myself as well. Every look exchanged between me and them was accompanied by a miniscule but perceptible flash of diffidence and suspicion. What do you think of me? What am I to you? The same as six months ago, your equal who does not go to mass? Or the Jew, who is, in Dante’s words, “Among you, laughs at you.”
I had observed, with amazement and joy, that something was blooming between me and Sandro. It wasn’t a friendship based completely on affinity. On the contrary, it was the diversity in our origins that that made us rich in exchangeable goods, as two merchants that meet coming from two different remote and mutually unknown areas. It wasn’t even the normal, portentous confidence of twenty-year-olds (this, with Sandro, I never attained). I soon realized that he was generous, subtle, tenacious, and brave, almost to the point of arrogance. But he possessed an elusive, wild quality, so that even though we were at the age in which one has the need, instinct, and immodesty of inflicting on each other all that swarms in their heads and elsewhere (and is an age that can last long, but ends with the first compromise), nothing had filtered through his shell of restraint, nothing of his inner world, that felt surely dense and fertile, except for the occasional dramatically incomplete allusion. He was like a cat with whom you can live with for decades without it ever consenting for you to penetrate its sacred skin.
We had much to concede to each other. I told him that we were like a cation and an anion, but Sandro didn’t seem to accept the comparison. He was born on the Serra d’Ivrea, beautiful land, but harsh. He was the son of a mason, and he spent the summers as a shepherd. Not a shepherd of souls, but a shepherd of a sheep. And not because of Arcadian rhetoric, nor because of eccentricity, but with happiness, because of love for the earth and grass, and because of an abundance of heart. He had a curious ability to mimic, and when we spoke of cows, hens, of sheep and dogs, he transformed, imitating their look, their movements, and their voices, becoming happy and seeming to turn into an animal himself, like a sorcerer.
He taught me about plants and animals, but of his family he spoke little. His father had died when he was a child, he was a simple and poor man, and since the boy was cunning, they had decided to make him study so that he could bring home money.
He had accepted this with Piedmontese earnestness, but without enthusiasm. Sandro had followed the long route of high school aiming for the maximal results with minimum effort. He was not interested in Catallus or Decartes, only interested in passing his courses, and skiing or rock climbing on Sundays. He had chosen chemistry because it had seemed to him better than other disciplines: it was a craft working with things that one sees and touches, a way to put food on ones table less tiring than working as a carpenter or a farmer.
We started studying physics together, and Sandro was astonished when I tried to explain to him some of the ideas that at that time I was confusedly cultivating. The nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, consisted in making himself a man of the Matter, and the reason I enrolled in Chemistry was because I wanted to stay faithful to that nobility. That to conquer matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves, and as such the Periodic Table of Mendeleev, which, in recent weeks, we had been laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all of the poetry digested in high school. On second thought, it even rhymed! That, if you searched for the bridge, the missing link, between the world of letters and the world of things, one didn’t have to look far. It was there, in the Auntrieth, in our smoky labs, and in our future craft.
In the end, and fundamentally, was he an honest and open boy that didn’t smell of the fascist stench that tainted the sky? Did he not perceive it as an ignominy that a thinking man should be requested to believe without thinking? Did he not feel disgust towards all the dogmas, all unproven affirmations, all of the imperatives?
He did feel it. So how could he not feel a new dignity and majesty in our field of study? How could he ignore that the chemistry and physics on which we subsisted, moreover being vital nourishment in themselves, were the antidote to fascism that we were seeking, because they were clear and distinct and verifiable at every step, and not woven with lies and conceit, such as the radio and newspapers?
Sandro listened to me with ironic attention, always ready to dismantle me with two courteous and dry words when I trespassed into rhetoric. But something was maturing in him (certainly not only by my merit; these months were full of fatal events), something that was disturbing him because it was together new and old. He, who until then had not yet read Salgari, London, and Kipling, became a furious reader. He digested and remembered everything, and everything in him spontaneously arranged itself into his way of life. Along with that, he began to study, and his average grew from a C- to an A. At the same time, out of unconscious gratitude, and maybe also out of a desire for revenge, he also took an interest in my education, and made me realize that it was lacking. I could have also been right. It could be that Matter is our teacher, and perhaps, for lack of something better, our political ideology. But he had another matter to lead me to, another educator: not the powder of the Qualitative lab, but the true, the authentic Urstoff without time, the rocks and ice of the nearby mountains. He showed me without tire that I didn’t have the credentials to talk about matter. Whatever trade, whatever confidence had I had until then with Empedocle’s four elements? Did I know how to light a stove? To wade across a torrent? Did I know the upper layers of a storm? The germination of seeds? No, and so he too had something vital to teach me.
A partnership was born, and there began for me a frenetic season. Sandro seemed to be made of iron, and he was connected to iron by an ancient relationship: his forefathers, he told me, were tinkerers (magnín) and blacksmiths (fré) in the Canavese valleys. They made nails on a carbon forge; they circumscribed wagon wheels with scalding rims; they battered slabs of metal until they became deaf. And he himself, when he noticed in rocks the red vein of iron, he seemed as if he were meeting a friend. In the winter, when he felt the drive, he would tie his skis to his rusty bike, and leaving bright and early, would pedal until he reached the snow, without money, and only an artichoke in one pocket and lettuce in the other. He returned at night, or even the next day, sleeping in haylofts, and the more storms and hunger that he had suffered, the happier and healthier he would be.
In the summer, when he embarked on his solo journeys, he often brought along his dog to keep him company. It was a yellow mutt that always wore a humbled expression. In fact, as Sandro recounted, imitating in his way the animal episode, he had as a puppy an unfortunate incident with a cat. He got too close to a litter of newborn kittens, their mother became affronted and began to hiss and puff up, but the pup was too young to have learned the meaning of those signals and foolishly remained there. The mother cat attacked him, chased him, caught him, and scratched his nose: the dog became permanently traumatized. He felt dishonored, and so Sandro constructed for him a cloth ball, told him that it was the cat, and every morning would give it to him so that he could exact his revenge on it for the insult and restored his canine honor. For the same therapeutic reasons, Sandro took him to the mountains, so that he could enjoy himself: he tied one end of a rope to the dog and the other to himself, put the dog on a rock ledge, and climbed. When the rope ended he pulled it up gently, and the dog learned, and ran with his muzzle pointed up on his four paws up the nearly vertical rock wall, softly whining as if it were singing.
Sandro climbed the rocks more by instinct than with technique, putting confidence in the strength of his hands, and ironically, giving his regards within the rock to which he clung, the silicon, calcium, and magnesium that he learned to recognize in his mineralogy classes. He seemed to have lost a day if he hadn’t reached the depths his energy reserves, and so his countenance was lively. He explained to me that, living a sedentary life, a deposit of fat forms behind the eyes which is unhealthy. Working hard, the fat is burned up, the eyes sink back into their sockets and become sharper.
Of his exploits, he spoke with extreme avarice. He wasn’t the type of person who would do things so that he could talk about them (like myself). He didn’t like big words, or words in general. He also seemed to talk, as in climbing, as if no one had taught him: he spoke like no one else, saying only the kernel of things.
When necessary, he took along with him a thirty kilogram pack, although usually he traveled without it. His pockets were enough, and inside them were vegetables, and as I mentioned earlier, a piece of bread, a pocketknife, sometimes the Italian Alpine Club guide (very worn out), and always a skein of iron wire for emergency repairs.
The guide, in fact, he brought not because he believed in it. On the contrary, for the opposite reason, he rejected it because he felt like it encumbered him. Not only that, he also felt that it was a bastard creature, a detestable hybrid between snow and rocks mixed with paper. He brought it to the mountains to vilify it, happy if he could find any mistake, possibly even with it was at his and his companions’ expense.
He could walk two days without eating, or eating three meals altogether and then leaving. For him, all of the seasons were good. Skiing in the winter, but not at the well-equipped worldly ski slopes, which he stayed away from with laconic scorn. Too poor to buy ourselves the sealskin for the ascents, he showed me how to sew on cloth made of rough hemp – Spartan devices that absorb water and then freeze like cod, and need to be tied around you for the descent. He dragged me along on exhausting outings in the fresh snow, far from any human traces, following paths that he seemed to intuit like a savage. In the summer, from shelter to shelter, getting drunk off the sun, the effort, and the wind, and scraping the skin on our fingertips on rocks never touched before by human hands: but not on the famous peaks, nor in search of a memorable undertaking; these weren’t at all important to him. What was important to him was to recognize his limits, to test and improve himself; more obscurely, he felt the need to prepare himself (and me) for an iron future, advancing closer month by month.
To see Sandro in the mountains reconciled you with the world, and made you forget the nightmare weighing on Europe. It was his place, what he had been made for, like the marmots whose whistle and snout he imitated. In the mountains he became happy, a happiness both silent and contagious like a light turning on. It evoked in me a new communion with the earth and the sky, in which they merged with my need for freedom, the fullness of the strengths, and the hunger to understand the things that had drawn me towards chemistry.
We went out at dawn rubbing our eyes from the door of the Martinotti bivouac. There surrounding us, just touched by the sun, were the white and brown mountains, new as if they were created when the night had just ended, yet innumerably ancient. They were an island, an elsewhere.
However, it wasn’t always necessary to go high and far. In the middle seasons, Sandro’s reign was the rock gymnasiums. There are many different ones two or three hours by bicycle from Turin, and I would be curious to know if they are still frequented: I Picchi deal Pagliaio with the Torrione Wolkmann, I Denti di Cumiana, Roca Patanüa (which translates to Naked Rock), the Plô, the Sbarüa, and others, with homely and modest names.
The last, the Sbarüa, seemed to me to have been discovered by Sandro himself, or by a mythical brother that Sandro never let me see, but that from his limited hints must have been to him as he was to your average mortal. Sbarüa is from the verb sbarüé which means “to evoke terror”. The Sbarüa is a prism of granite that sticks out a hundred meters above a modest hill bristly with blackberry bushes and a coppice, like Dante’s Old Man of Crete, chopped up from the base to the summit by a crack that gets narrower as it ascends, until it forces the climber to get onto the rock wall, where, at that point, you are terrified, and where there only was a single stud, left charitably by Sandro’s brother.
These were curious places, frequented by a few dozen aficionados of our kind, all of whom Sandro knew by name or face: we climbed up, not without technical problems, in the middle of the annoying buzzing of flies attracted by our sweat, climbing up firm rock walls interrupted by grassy ledges on which grew ferns and strawberries, or in the fall blackberries. Every so often we used as handholds the trunks of stunted trees, deeply rooted in the cracks. After a few hours we reached the summit, which were calm pastures where cows gazed at us with indifferent eyes. We then descended at breakneck speed, in a few minutes, by paths sprinkled with cow dung, both old and new, to recover our bicycles.
Other times our undertakings were more demanding, and never any tranquil excursions, since Sandro said that we would have plenty of time to see the views when we were forty. “Lets get going, shall we?” he said one February day, which meant in his language that, as the weather was good, we could leave in the evening for a winter ascension of the Dente di M. that we planned weeks earlier. We slept at an inn and left the next day, not too early, at an undetermined hour (Sandro was not fond of watches: he felt that their tacit admonishment was an unnecessary intrusion); we plunged audaciously into the fog, and got out of it at about one, in gleaming sunlight, and on the ridge of a peak that was not where we wanted to be.
I said that we should be able to go down about a hundred meters, cross over to the next slope, and climb that one. Or better yet, since we were already there, continue climbing and be content with climbing the wrong peak that was only forty meters lower than the other. But Sandro, with splendidly bad faith, said in few dense syllables that my last proposal was ok, but that then, “by way of the easy northwest ridge” (this was a sarcastic citation from the aforementioned alpine club guide) we could also reach, in half an hour, the Dente di M., and that it wasn’t worth being twenty if you could permit yourself the luxury of taking the wrong route.
The easy ridge must have been easy, rather elementary in the summer, yet we found it in discomforting condition. The rock was wet on the side facing the sun and covered in black ice on the dark side. Between one large spike of rock and another lay hollows of melting snow that went up to our waists. We made it to the top at five, I having pitifully dragged myself along, Sandro stricken with a sinister hilarity that I found irritating.
“And how do we get down?”
“We will see,” he responded; and added mysteriously: “The worst that can come of this is to have to taste bear meat.” Well, we tasted it, the meat of a bear, in the course of that night, which turned out to be very long. We descended in two hours, badly helped by the rope, which was frozen. The rope became a malicious rigid tangle that caught on each projection of rock and sounded on the stone like the cable of an aerial tramway. At seven, we were on the shore of a frozen lake, and it was dark. We ate what little we had brought, constructed a useless small stone wall against the wind, and set ourselves on the ground to sleep, pressed against each other. It was as if time itself were frozen. We got up every so often to regain circulation, and always at the same time. The wind never stopped blowing, there was always the ghost of the moon, always at the same point in its arc, and in front of the moon a fantastic cavalcade of torn up clouds, always the same. We had taken off our shoes, as described in the books of Lammer, which were dear to Sandro, and had put our feet in our packs; at the first funereal light, that seemed to come from the snow and not from the sky, we rose up with our frozen limbs, eyes wild from the lack of sleep, hunger, and the hardness of our bed: and we found our shoes so frozen that they rang like bells, and to put them on we needed to sit on them like hens.
But we returned to the valley with our own means and to the innkeeper who asked us, snickering, how things went, while looking furtively at our goggle-eyed faces. We responded impudently that we had an optimal excursion. We paid the bill and left with dignity. It was this, the bear meat; and now, after many years have passed, I regret having eaten so little, since in my entire life nothing had ever done me so well, nothing had had, not even remotely, the taste of that meat, that had the taste of strengths and freedom, freedom to make mistakes, and master of my own destiny. For this, I am grateful to Sandro. For having led me consciously into danger, on that trip and other apparently foolish undertakings, and I know for certain they helped me later on.
They didn’t help Sandro, or not for long. Sandro was Sandro Delmastro, the first man killed fighting with the Action Party’s Piedmontese Military Command. After months of extreme tension, in April of 1944, he was captured by the fascists. He didn’t surrender, and he tried to escape from the local Fascist Party headquarters in Cuneo. He was killed by a submachine gun burst in the back of the neck by a monstrous child-executioner, one of those wretched fifteen year old thugs that the republic of Salò had enlisted from youth detention centers. His body remained abandoned for a long time in the middle of the road because the fascists forbade the population to bury him.
Today I know that it is a hopeless enterprise to dress a man in words, to make him live again on a page of writing. Especially a man like Sandro. He wasn’t a man you can tell stories about, or the kind to whom people erect monuments. He was the type to laugh at such monuments. He was defined by his actions. When they finished, nothing of him remained, nothing but words, precisely.
Primo Levi is an Italian Jewish chemist and writer. He spent a year as a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. The story above is from his collection, The Periodic Table (1975), which you can purchase here.
Bren Cavallo is an Italian American mathematician and jazz pianist. He resides in Manhattan and teaches at the City University of New York.
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