OUTSIDE THE walls of the Chemistry Institute it was night, the night of Europe: Chamberlain had returned from Munich tricked, Hitler had entered Prague without firing a shot, Franco had crushed Barcelona and was settled in Madrid. Fascist Italy, a,lesser pirate, had occupied Albania, and the premonition of,imminent disaster was condensed in houses and streets, in cautious conversations and in drowsy consci- ences, like slimy dew.
But the night did not penetrate those thick walls: Fascist censorship itself, masterpiece of the regime, kept us apart from the world, in a white, anesthetized no-man’s-land. About thirty of us had got over the difficult hurdle of first-year exams and had been admitted to the second-year qualitative-analysis laboratory. We had entered that huge, dark, smoky room like someone who enters the House of God, reflecting as he goes. The work in the previous laboratory, where I had done experiments with zinc, seemed elementary to us now, just as when children play at cooking: you always did get something in the end, somehow or other, maybe too little of it, maybe not quite pure, but you always did: you really had to be incompetent, or stubborn, not to succeed in obtaining magnesium sulphate from magnesite, or potassium bromide from bromine.
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