For an Italian, creativity is the law. It has nothing to do with inventing or improving a system: it is
literally a way of being. Italians, wanderers by genome and definition, have built their culture on correcting
the course, on taking alternative roads - a propulsive element that, first of all, saved them and then made
them identifiable in the world.
It is a harsh winter of 1946, meat and coal are still rationed, no one has a car, and yet, never before has there been so much hope and freedom in Italy. Primo, however, lives in poverty: the things he had seen and suffered in the concentration camp burned a hole inside him, he feels closer to the dead than to the living, he almost feels guilty for being human. He writes short, bloody poems and works as a chemist in a large paint factory a few kilometres from Turin.
One day, his superior takes him to a corner in the yard and shows him thousands of bright orange square blocks. He lets him touch them: they’re gelatinous and mushy. "What do they look like to you, Dr Levi?" the manager asks him. "Livers," Primo replies. It's exactly that: the phenomenon that has produced them is called infegatamento, literally livering. It’s not really clear why, but this is what can happen in the paint making process - from liquid, it becomes solid, with the consistency of a liver. But every time it happens, it means there’s serious damage - the product is to be thrown away.
Primo's job is to figure it out, do tests and trials and understand why it happens. And "Ah", says the manager in closing, "It goes without saying that you also have to find a way to recover those paints".
Primo throws himself so deeply into this partly chemical, partly detective problem that he feels strange energy on those days- a reason, a meaning. The feeling is so pervasive that even his writing seems to change – it’s no longer an account of a sacrifice, of martyrdom, but a lucid construction, a chemist's work that weighs and breaks down facts, and human nature.
Like all paints, those orange monsters spring from the encounter between chromate and resin. So Primo goes to the archives and checks the birth certificate of each batch. He notices something strange - the chromate values are all inexorably the same: 29.5%. With all the fluctuations in method and the inevitable analytical
errors, it’s extremely unlikely that different batches, produced on different days, would all have the same
So Primo gets hold of the inviolable testing instructions. Here he finds another anomaly: 'Once the pigment has disintegrated,' the instructions say, 'add 23 drops of the reagent.' Primo thinks that one drop isn’t such a definite unit to bear such a definite numerical coefficient. An analytical officer, a fussy and unimaginative little judge, perhaps hunted by the fascists or a fascist hunted by the partisans, must have preferred peace of mind to duty - thus "2 or 3 drops" had become "23".
Primo neutralises the excess basicity with some ammonium chloride and then puts the paint livers into a ball mill, letting it run for a few hours. The next day, there comes out a smooth, fluid paint that looks freshly made, reborn from like the Phoenix from ashes. In those days, Primo Levi is only at the beginning of the process that will make him a writer capable of illuminating the grey molecules of human nature, the epic of the submerged and the saved. Like the bad paint that turned back to its fluid consistency , his writing too turns and revolts becoming a witness to a century’s distortions. If This Is a Man is a small and yet immense act of returning to life.
That's it: regenerating, changing direction. Discovering America in search of a new route to the Indies. Inventing the telephone to talk to a sick mother lying in bed in another room, inventing the battery while trying to understand the effect of electrical impulses on an animal muscle. An Italian is not the things he does or produces, an Italian is how he does or produces such things.