LEAD Action News
2 no 4
Lead in Literature
This is the second half of "Lead" a chapter from The Periodic Table, a book by Primo Levi. The first half was reprinted in LEAD Action News Vol 2 No 3.
First published in Great Britain by Michael Joseph Ltd 1985. Published in Abacus by Sphere Books Ltd 1986, London. English translation copyright 1984 by Shocken Books Inc. Italian text copyright 1975 Giulio Einaudi editore. s.p.a., Torino published by agreement with Einaudi Editore SpA, Turin.
...many reasons impelled me to continue my journey. First: I wanted to see the warm countries, where they say olives and lemons grow. Second: I wanted to see the sea, not the stormy sea from which came my ancestor with the blue teeth, but the tepid sea, from which comes salt. Third: there's no point in having gold and carrying it on your back, with the continuous terror that at night or during a drinking bout someone will steal it from you. Fourth, and to sum up: I wanted to spend the gold on a sea voyage, to get to know the sea and sailors, because sailors need lead, even if they do not know it.
So I left: I walked for two months, descending a large sad valley until it opened out on a plain. There were meadows and wheat fields and a sharp smell of burnt brushwood which filled me with nostalgia for my country: autumn, in all the countries of the world, has the same smell of dead leaves, of resting earth, of bundles of burning branches, in short, of things which are ending, and you think "forever." I came across a fortified city - there are none as large back home - at the confluence of two rivers; there was a market fair with slaves, meats, wine; filthy, solid, dishevelled girls; a tavern with a good fire - and I spent the winter there: it snowed as it does back home. I left in March, and after a month of walking I found the sea, which was not blue but gray, bellowed like a bison, and hurled itself on the land as though it wanted to devour it: at the thought that it never rested, never had rested since the beginning of the world, my courage failed me. But I still continued down the road to the cast, along the beach, because the sea fascinated me and I could not tear myself away from it.
I found another city, and I stopped there, also because my gold was beginning to come to an end. They were fishermen and strange folk, who came by ship from various, very distant countries: they bought and sold; at night they fought over the women and knifed each other in the alleyways. Then I too bought a heavy knife made of bronze in a leather sheath; to carry tied to my waist under my clothes. They knew glass but not mirrors; that is, they only had small mirrors of polished bronze, cheap things, the kind that get scratched immediately and distort the colours. If you have lead it is not difficult to make a glass mirror, but I made a fuss about parting with the secret, I told them that it is an art which only we Rodmunds know, that a goddess named Frigga taught it to us, and other foolishness which they swallowed hook, line, and sinker.
I needed money: I looked around me, found near the port a glazier who seemed rather intelligent, and made a deal with him.
From him I learned several things - first of all, that glass can be blown: I liked that system a great deal, and I even had him teach it to me, and one day or another I will also try to blow lead or melted bronze (but they are too liquid, I doubt whether I'll succeed). I, however, taught him that on a still-hot pane of glass you can pour melted lead and obtain mirrors not so large but luminous, without flaws, which last for many years. He in fact was rather adept: he had a secret for making coloured glass and fashioned variegated glass panes that were beautiful to look at. I was full of enthusiasm for the collaboration and invented a process of making mirrors also with the rounded caps of blown glass, pouring the lead into it or spreading it on the outside: if you looked into them you see yourself either very large or very small, or even all crooked: these mirrors are not liked by women, but all children insist on getting them. Through the summer and fall we sold mirrors to the merchants, who paid well for them; but meanwhile I was talking with them and tried to gather as much information as I could on a region which many of them knew.
It was astounding to see how those people, who actually spent half their lives on the sea, had such confused notions about the cardinal points and distances; but, in short, on one point they were all agreed: that is, that by sailing south, some said a thousand miles, others said ten times farther than that, you came to a land which the sun had burnt to dust, rich in unusual trees and animals, and inhabited by ferocious men with black skin. But many stated as a certainty that halfway along you encountered a large island called Icnusa, which was the island of metals: they told the strangest stories about this island, which was inhabited by giants, whereas the horses, oxen, even rabbits and chickens were tiny; that the women gave orders and fought the wars, while the men watched over the livestock and spun the wool; that these giants were devourers of men, especially foreigners; that it was a land of utter whoredom, where the husbands exchanged wives and even the animals coupled haphazardly, wolves with cats, bears with cows; that the women's period of pregnancy lasted only three day-,, then the women gave birth and immediately told the infant: "Get moving, bring me the scissors and turn on the light, so I can cut your umbilical cord." Still others said that along its coasts there are fortresses built of rock, big as mountains; that everything on that island is made of rock - the points of the spears, the wheels of the wagons, even the women's combs and sewing needles: also the pots to cook with, and that they actually have stones which burn and they set them alight under these pots; that along their roads, to guard the crossroads, there are petrified monsters frightening to look at. I listened to all these things with a grave face, but within myself I was laughing loud enough to burst, because by now I have roamed the world enough and know that all is just like your hometown: for the rest, I too, when I get back and tell stories about the countries I've been in, amuse myself by inventing weird tales; indeed, here they tell fantastic stories about my country - for example, that our buffalo do not have knees and all you have to do to slaughter them is saw through the trees against which they lean at night to rest: their weight breaks the tree; they fall down and cannot get up again.
As to metals, however, they were all in agreement: many merchants and sea captains had brought loads of raw or finished metal from the island to land, but they were crude folk and from their accounts it was hard to understand what metal they were referring to; also because not all spoke the same language and no one spoke mine, and there was a great confusion of terms. They said, for example, "kalibe' and there was absolutely no way to figure out whether they meant iron, silver, or bronze. Others called "sider" either iron or ice, and they were so ignorant as to insist that the ice in the mountains, with the passing of the centuries and beneath the weight of the rock, hardens and first becomes rock crystal and later iron-bearing rock.
To put it bluntly, I was fed up with these female occupations and wanted to go and see this Icnusa. I handed over to the glazier my share in the business, and with that money, plus the money I had made from the mirrors, I got passage on board a cargo ship; but you don't leave in the winter, there is the north wind, or the west wind, or the south wind, or the southwest wind - in brief, it appears that no wind is good, and that until April the best thing is to stay on land, get drunk, bet your shirt on the dice games, and get some girl in the port pregnant.
We left in April. The ship was loaded with jugs of wine; besides the owner there was the crew chief, four sailors, and twenty rowers chained to their benches. The crew chief came from Kriti and was a big liar: he told stories about a country where there lived men called Big Ears, who have ears so huge that they wrap themselves in them to sleep in the winter, and about animals called Alfil with tails in the front who understand the language of men.
I must confess that I had trouble accustoming myself to life aboard ship: it dances under your feet, leans a bit to the right and a bit to the left, it is hard to cat and sleep, and you step on each other's feet due to the lack of space; besides, the chained rowers stare at you with such ferocious eyes as to make you think that, if they weren't in fact chained, they would tear you to pieces in a flash: and the owner told me that sometimes it happens. On the other hand, when the wind is favourable, the sail billows out, the rowers lift their oars, and you think you are flying in an enchanted silence; you see dolphins leap out of the water, and the sailors claim that they can discover, from the expression on their snouts, the weather we will have the next day. That ship was well plastered with pitch and yet the entire keel was riddled with holes; they were ship worms, they explained. In port, too, I had seen that all the mooted ships were worm-eaten: there was nothing to be done, said the owner, who was also the captain. When the ship is old, it's broken up and burnt; but I had an idea, and the same for the anchor. It's stupid to make it out of iron; the rust devours it, and it doesn't last two years. And fishing nets? Those sailors, when the wind is good, dropped a net that had wooden floats and rocks as ballast. Rocks! If they had been lead they could have been four times less cumbersome. Of course I did not say a word to anyone, but - as you too will understand - I was already thinking of the lead I would dig out of Icnusa's entrails, and I was selling the bearskin before I had shot the bear.
We came in sight of the island after eleven days at sea. We entered a small harbor by rowing; around us there were granite cliffs and slaves who were carving columns. They were not giants and they did not sleep in their own cars; they were made like us and communicated well enough with the sailors, but their guards did not let them speak. This was a land of rocks and wind, which I liked on sight: the air was full of the smell of herbs, bitter and wild, and the people seemed strong and simple.
The land of metals was two days' walk away: I hired a donkey with a driver, and this is actually true, they are small donkeys (though not like cats, as they say on the mainland) but robust and tough; in short, in all rumours there may be some truth, perhaps a truth hidden beneath veils of words, like a riddle. For example, I saw that the story of the rock fortresses was quite correct; they are not as big as mountains, but solid, regular in shape, with hewn stones fitted together with precision. And what is curious is that everyone says that "they have always been there,' and nobody knows by whom, how, why, and when they were built. That the islanders devour foreigners, however, is a great lie. Going in stages they led me to the mine without making any difficulties or indulging in mysteries, as if their land belonged to everyone.
The land of metals is enough to make you drunk, as happens when a hound enters a wood full of game and jumps from scent to scent, shivering all over and going half crazy.
It is near the sea, a line of hills which on high become rocky crags, and near and far, all the way to the horizon, one sees plumes of smoke from the foundries, surrounded by people working, free and slaves: and the story of the stone that burns is also true; I could scarcely believe my eyes. It doesn't catch fire easily, but then it produces a great deal of heat and lasts for a long time. They brought it there from God knows where, in baskets on donkeys' backs - it is black, greasy, fragile, and not very heavy.
So, as I was saying, there are marvellous stones, certainly heavy with metals never seen, which surf- ace in white, violet, and blue streaks: beneath that land there must be a fabulous tracery of veins. I would willingly have lost myself in it, tapping, digging, and testing; but I am a Rodmund, and my rock is lead. I immediately set to work.
I found a deposit on the country's western border, where I believe nobody had ever searched: in fact, there were no pits, nor tunnels, nor heaps of rubble, and there weren't even any signs on the surface; the rocks on the surface were like all the other rocks. But just below, the lead was there: and this is a thing of which I had often thought, that we prospectors believe we find the metal with our eyes, experience, and skill, but in reality what guides is something more profound, a force like that which guides the salmon to go back up our rivers, or the swallows to return to the nest. Perhaps it happens with us as with the water diviners, who do not know what guides them to the water, but something does guide them and twists the wand in their hands.
I can't say how, but right there was the lead: I felt it under my feet, turbid, poisonous, and heavy, stretching for two miles along a brook in a wood where wild bees nest in the lightning-struck tree trunks. In a short time I had bought slaves who dug for me, and as soon as I had laid aside a bit of money I also bought myself a woman. Not just to have a good time: I chose her carefully, not looking so much for beauty but rather that she be healthy, wide in the hips, young, and merry. I chose her like that, so that she gives me a Rodmund, and our art does not perish; and I haven't been behindhand, because my hands and knees have begun to shake, and my teeth are loose in my gums and have turned blue like those of my ancestor who came from the sea. This Rodmund will be born at the end of the coming winter, in this land where palms grow, salt condenses, and at night you can hear the wild dogs baying on the track of a bear. In this village I have founded near the brook of the wild bees, and to which I would have liked to give a name in my language, which I am forgetting, Bak der Binnen, meaning "Brook of the Bees": but the people here have accepted the name only in part, and among themselves, in their language, which by now is mine, they call it Bacu Abis.
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Updated 14 November 2012