Commentary Magazine


Iron-A Memoir

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 consciences, 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.

Here it was not like that: here things got serious, the confrontation with matter, both our mother and our enemy, was more taxing and more immediate. At two o’clock in the afternoon Professor D., an ascetic, absentminded-looking man, handed each of us exactly one gram of a certain powder. By the end of the next day we had to complete a qualitative analysis of it, make a note of which metals and non-metals it contained; our report had to be in writing, as clear-cut as a court statement, because neither doubts nor hesitations were allowed. Every time we had to make a choice, we had to make up our minds: a mature and responsible task that, for which Fascism had not prepared us. It had a good, dry, clean taste.

Some elements were easy, obvious, incapable of concealing themselves, like iron and copper; others were deceitful, elusive, like bismuth and cadmium. We had a way to discover them, a laborious, age-old scheme of systematic research, a kind of steam-roller-cum-fine-comb from which nothing, in theory, could escape. I, however, preferred thinking up my own way each time, with quick improvised raids, as in running warfare, instead of the usual exhausting routine of trench warfare. I sublimated mercury into tiny drops, transformed sodium into chloride and identified it in the little hopper-shaped slabs under my microscope. Either way, here one’s relationship with matter changed, became dialectical: a fencing bout, a match between two opponents. Two uneven opponents: on one side, with his queries, was the fledgling, defenseless chemist, with the textbook by Autenrieth, his only ally, by him (because Professor D., often called upon for help in difficult cases, kept scrupulously neutral, declining to give his opinion: a wise policy, because if someone gives an opinion he can make a mistake, and professors must never make mistakes). On the opposite side, with her enigmatic replies, was matter, deceptively passive, as old as time and with her incredible store of tricks, as solemn and subtle as the Sphinx. At that time I was just beginning to struggle with German, and I was enthralled with the word Urstoff (which literally means element, primary substance) and its prefix Ur, which expresses precisely ancient origin, remote distance in space and in time.

Here nobody had wasted many words warning us against acids, caustics, fires, and explosions; apparently, according to the tough ethics of the Institute, natural selection was relied on to pick out those of us who were the fittest for physical and professional survival. There were few hoods; in the course of systematic analysis each of us, following the prescriptions of our textbook, conscientiously released a great deal of hydrochloric acid and ammonia into the open air; therefore a thick snow-white mist of ammonium chloride hung permanently over the lab and deposited itself on the windowpanes in tiny sparkling crystals. The chamber for hydrogen sulphide, with its lethal atmosphere, was haunted by couples in search of seclusion and by a few odd individuals who ate their snacks there.

Through the gloom, and in the industrious silence, suddenly we heard a Piedmontese voice saying: “Nuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus ferrum.” It was March 1939; a few days earlier we had heard the nearly identical solemn announcement (“Habemus Papam”) with which the conclave had dissolved and Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli had been admitted to the Seat of Peter. Many people placed their hopes in him, because you always have to hope in something or someone. The person who had uttered the blasphemy was Sandro, the quiet fellow.

Sandro was an outsider among us. He was a boy of medium height, thin and wiry; he never wore an overcoat, not even on the coldest days. He came to lectures wearing worn-out velvet knickerbockers, rough woollen knee-socks, and sometimes a short black cape which reminded me of the turn-of-the-century writer, Renato Fucini. He had big, rough hands, a bony, rugged profile; his face was baked by the sun and his forehead was low beneath his hair, which he wore very short, in a crew-cut. He walked with the long, deliberate stride of a farmer.

Anti-Semitic legislation had been passed a few months earlier, and I too was becoming an outsider. My Christian companions were polite people; none of them or any of the teachers had ever directed a hostile word or gesture at me, but I could feel them growing apart from me, and, following an ancient pattern, I was growing apart from them as well; every glance exchanged between them and me was accompanied by a tiny but perceptible flash of mistrust and suspicion. What do you think of me? What do I represent to you? The same as I did six months ago, an equal who just does not go to Mass, or the Jew who, according to Dante, “may not in your midst laugh at you”?

I had noticed, with amazement and joy, that something was beginning to grow between Sandro and me. It was not the friendship of two kindred people at all: on the contrary, the difference in our backgrounds made us rich in goods to exchange, like two merchants who meet having come from lands remote and unknown to each other. Neither was it the usual, wonderful confidence one has at twenty: I never achieved that with Sandro. I soon realized he was generous, subtle, persevering, and brave, with just a touch of recklessness: even so, he could be wild and elusive. Although we were at the age when people, out of need, instinct, and shamelessness, inflict on one another whatever is teeming in their heads and elsewhere (this age can last a long time, but ends with the first compromise), nothing had seeped through his shell of reserve, nothing of his inner world—which you could sense as rich and thriving—but a few rare, dramatically interrupted hints. He was like a cat, that you could live with for ten years without ever being allowed to penetrate its precious skin.

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We had a lot to give each other. I told him we were like a cation and an anion, but Sandro did not seem to grasp the comparison. He had been born on the beautiful, barren Serra d’Ivrea. He was the son of a bricklayer, and he spent his summers tending a flock—I don’t mean a flock of souls, I mean a flock of sheep. He did this not because he was eccentric or full of airy-fairy Arcadian ideas, but because he was happy doing it, he did it out of love for the earth and grass, to which he was drawn. He had a strange flair for mimicry; whenever he talked about cows, hens, sheep, and dogs he was transformed, he imitated the way they looked at you, the way they moved and the sounds they made; he was happy and seemed to change himself into an animal, like a magician. He taught me about plants and animals, but told me little about his family. His father had died when he was a child. His folks were poor, simple people; since the lad was bright, they had decided to let him stay on at school so that he could bring some money into the house. He had agreed with typical Piedmontese resolve, but without enthusiasm. He had gone through the whole stretch of secondary school aiming at the highest marks with the least effort. He did not care about Catullus and Descartes, the important thing was to pass his exams and spend his Sundays skiing or climbing. He has chosen chemistry because it seemed better to him than any other course: it involved things you could see and touch; as a way of earning a living, it was less strenuous than being a carpenter or farmer.

We began to study physics together. Sandro was amazed when I tried to explain to him some of the confused ideas I had been developing at that time. That the nobility of man, attained in a hundred centuries of trial and error, consisted in his gaining power over matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That to conquer matter is to understand it, and to understand it is necessary in order to understand the universe and ourselves: so Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, which we were laboriously learning to unravel in those very weeks, was poetry, more noble and solemn than all the poems we had swallowed at school; come to think of it, it even rhymed! That, if he was looking for the bridge, the missing link between the world of paper and the world of real things, he did not have to look far, it was right there, in the Autenrieth textbook, in our smoky labs, and in our future work.

Finally, the most important thing: couldn’t he, an honest, forthright boy, smell the sky-polluting stink of Fascist “truth”? Didn’t he consider it shameful that a thinking man should be asked to believe without thinking? Did he not feel repulsion for all dogmas, all unsubstantiated statements, all imperatives? He did feel it: how, then, could he help but sense a new dignity, a new majesty in our work—how could he fail to realize that the chemistry and the physics we were feeding on, besides being vital nourishment in themselves, were the antidote to Fascism he and I were looking for, because they were clear and could be checked at every stage, and they were not woven of lies and waffle like the radio and the newspapers?

Sandro listened to me with ironical attention, always ready to put me in my place with a couple of gentle, dry words whenever I overstepped into rhetoric; but something was maturing in him (certainly the merit was not all due to me: those were months full of fatal events), something that disturbed him because it was at the same time both new and old. Until that time he had read nothing but Salgari, London, and Kipling, but suddenly he became a madly avid reader: he assimilated and remembered everything, and everything shaped up in him spontaneously into a way of life. At the same time he began to study seriously, and his academic average shot up from C+ to A—. Out of unconscious gratitude, and possibly because he wanted to get his own back too, he, in his turn, began to take my education in hand, and he gave me to understand that it was lacking. I might well be right: matter might well be our teacher, and, for want of a better, even our political school. But he had a different matter, a different teacher, he wanted to show me: not the powders of qualitative analysis, but the true, authentic, timeless Urstoff: the rock and ice of the nearby mountains. He proved to me without difficulty that I was not qualified to talk about matter. How intimate, how familiar had I been up to then with the four elements of Empedocles? Did I know how to light a stove? How to wade through a stream? Had I experienced blizzards high up in the mountains? Did I know how seeds sprout? No: so he too had something vital to teach me.

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Our comradeship was born, and it was the beginning of a frantic period for me. Sandro seemed to be made of iron, and ancient kinship bonds connected iron with him. The fathers of his fathers, he told me, had been tinkers and blacksmiths in the Canavese valleys. They used to make nails on their charcoal forges, and put red-hot irons on the wheels of carts; they used to hammer metal sheets until they were deafened by the sound of it; as for him, he felt as if he had found a long-lost friend whenever he spotted the red vein of iron in the peaks he climbed. In winter, whenever the need seized him, he would tie his skis onto his rusty bicycle, set off early, and pedal as far as the snow. He would not have any money, but just an artichoke in one pocket and the other full of lettuce; he would get back in the evening, or even the following day, having slept somewhere in a hayloft; the more he had starved and frozen in blizzards, the happier and healthier he was.

In summer, when he set off on his own, he often took his dog along to keep him company. The dog was a small, yellow, undignified-looking mongrel. Sandro told me, acting out the animal episode as usual, that as a puppy the dog had had an encounter with a cat. He had gone too close to the litter of newly-born kittens; the cat had taken umbrage, had begun to spit and arch her back, but the puppy had not yet learned the meaning of these warning signals and had stood there like a fool. The cat had attacked him, pursued and caught up with him, and scratched him on the nose: as a consequence, the dog had suffered a permanent trauma; he felt humiliated. So Sandro made him a rag ball, explained to him that it was a cat and gave it to him every morning, so that he might avenge himself of the insult on it and thus restore his canine honor. For this same therapeutic reason Sandro took him climbing for recreation. He used to tie him to one end of the rope and himself to the other, then leave the dog curled up on a ledge, while he started to climb. When the rope had run out, he used to pull him up gently; the dog soon learned the trick, and would climb with all four paws up against the nearly vertical face of rock, his nose turned upward, whining softly as if he were dreaming.

Sandro climbed more by instinct than by any technical knowledge, trusting the strength of his hands; when grasping a handhold, he addressed ironical greetings to the silicon, the calcium, and the magnesium he had learned to recognize in the mineralogy course. He considered his day wasted unless he had somehow or other used up his reserves of energy, and when he did so, his eyes became brighter. He explained to me that a sedentary life causes a layer of fat to grow behind the eyes, which is not healthy; when you exert yourself, the fat burns up and your eyes sink back into their sockets and become sharper.

He spoke about his own deeds with great reluctance. He did not (unlike me) belong to the category of people who do things for the sake of being able to talk about them: he was not fond of bragging, or actually of talking at all. It was as if, just as no one had taught him to climb, no one had taught him to speak, either; he did not express himself in the same way as anyone else, he only gave the gist of things.

When necessary, he could carry a rucksack weighing sixty pounds, but usually he went without: his pockets were enough for him, full—as I said—of vegetables, and with a piece of bread, a penknife, sometimes a dog-eared copy of the Alpine Club guidebook, and at all times a roll of wire for emergency repairs. He did not carry the guidebook around because he believed in it, but rather for the opposite reason. He dismissed it because he saw it as a burden, and furthermore as a bastard thing, a loathsome hybrid between snow and peaks on one side and paper on the other. He carried it on his climbs in order to scorn it; he was happy if he could find fault with it, even if that meant trouble for him and his fellow climbers. He could walk for two days without food, or eat three meals at one go and then set out. To him all seasons were suitable. In winter he would go skiing, but not to the well-equipped, fashionable resorts, which he avoided and laconically jeered at. As we were too poor to buy sealskins to put on our skis for uphill climbs, he had shown me how to sew together rough hempen cloths—Spartan contraptions which absorb water and then freeze like frozen cod—which we had to tie around our waists when running downhill. He dragged me along in exhausting slogs in fresh snow, far from any human signs, following itineraries which he seemed to know by instinct, like a savage. In summer we went from mountain hut to mountain hut, getting drunk with sunshine, exhaustion, and wind, scraping the skin of our fingertips on rock faces never before touched by human hands. But we never went on well-known peaks, nor did we seek memorable feats: he did not care about these things at all. The important thing for him was to find his own limitations, to test and strengthen himself; he also felt a mysterious need to prepare himself (and me) for coming times of iron, which were getting nearer month by month.

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The sight of Sandro in the mountains reconciled me with the world and made me forget the nightmare which was hanging over Europe. He belonged there, he was made for them, just like the dormouse whose whistle and face he mimicked. In the mountains he lit up with silent, infectious happiness; with him I felt a new communion with the earth and sky. There my need for freedom merged with the peak of my strength and with the hunger to understand things that had led me to chemistry. At dawn, rubbing our eyes, we would go out through the little door of the Martinotti shelter; all around us, barely touched by the sun, the snowy and dark mountains seemed new, as if created in the night which had just gone by, and at the same time ageless. They were an island, another world.

Actually we did not always have to climb high and go a long way. In spring and autumn Sandro’s haunts were the rock faces climbers trained on. There are quite a few of them, two or three hours’ bicycle ride away from Turin, and I would really like to know whether people still use them: the Haystack Peaks with the Wolkmann Tower, the Teeth, Roca Patanüa (Naked Rock), Plô, Sbarüa, and others with plain, homely names. As to the last one, Sbarüa, I think it was discovered by Sandro himself, or by a mythical brother of his, whom Sandro never let me meet; but, from the rare hints he dropped, I gathered this brother was to Sandro what Sandro was to the rest of ordinary people. Sbarüa is a noun derived from the Piedmontese verb sbarüé, which means “to frighten”: the peak itself is a prism of granite, about a hundred and twenty yards high, looming over a small hill bristling with brambles and copses. Just like Dante’s Old Man of Crete, it is split all the way up by a crack which gets narrower and narrower as the climber goes up it, till he is forced to get out onto the face, where he actually “gets frightened.” There at that time was a solitary nail, charitably left by Sandro’s brother.

Those were peculiar places, where only a few dozen enthusiasts like us used to go; Sandro knew all of them, by name or by sight. We would go up, not without technical problems, amid the tiresome buzzing of bluebottles attracted by our sweat, climbing up faces of good sound rock, broken by grassy ledges covered with ferns or strawberries, and in autumn with blackberries. Occasionally we used little stunted tree trunks rooted in the cracks as handholds. After a few hours we would get to the summit, which, far from being a summit, was in most cases a peaceful meadow, where cows gazed at us indifferently. We then would get down in a few minutes to collect our bicycles, going at breakneck speed along paths scattered with old and fresh cow dung.

On other occasions we undertook more complicated climbs. There was no question of taking the easy way out: Sandro used to say that if we wanted to admire landscapes, we would have time to do that at forty. “Let’s go, shall we?” he asked me—in dialect—one day in February. He meant that, as the weather was favorable, we could set out that evening for our winter climb of the Tooth of M., which we had been planning for some weeks. We slept at an inn and set out the following day, not too early, without knowing exactly what time it was—Sandro did not like watches and clocks, their quiet continuous warning seemed to him an arbitrary intrusion. We flung ourselves boldly into the mist, and emerged from it at around one o’clock, into dazzling sunshine. We were on the ridge of a peak which turned out to be the wrong one.

Then I said that we could go down about a hundred yards, cross at a point halfway up and continue our climb up the next ridge; or better still, since we were already there, we could go on climbing the wrong peak and make do with it—it was only about forty yards lower than the other one anyway. But Sandro, in magnificent bad faith, said in a few terse syllables that my second proposal was all right, but that then, “along the easy northwest ridge” (a sarcastic quote from the above-mentioned Alpine Club guidebook) we would reach the Tooth of M. in half an hour all the same; it was not worth being twenty, he added, if we couldn’t afford the luxury of going up the wrong way.

The “easy ridge” might well have been easy, elementary in fact, in summer; we, however, found it uncomfortable going. The rock was wet on the sunny side and covered with black verglas on the dark side; between one crag and the next there were patches of soft snow where we sank up to our waists. We got to the top at five; I was staggering pitifully, and Sandro was seized by a fit of sinister laughter which I found irritating.

“How do we get down?”

“We’ll see,” he answered, and he added mysteriously, “The worst that can happen to us is that we’ll have a taste of the wild.” Well, we had that all right, in the course of that long night. We got down in two hours; we were hardly helped by our rope, which had frozen into a stiff, evil tangle which got hooked onto all the crags and rang on the rock like a cable. At seven o’clock we were on the shore of a small frozen lake, and it was dark. We ate the little that we had left, built an ineffective little wall of rubble on the side the wind was blowing from and lay down to sleep on the ground, huddled close together. It was as if time itself had frozen; every now and then we stood up to keep our circulation going, and it was always the same time; the wind was still blowing, there was still a ghost of a moon, still at the same place in the sky, and before the moon there was still the same wild cavalcade of ragged clouds. We had taken our boots off, just as they did in the books by Lammer which Sandro loved, and we kept our feet in our rucksacks. At the first, dismal light, which seemed to come from the snow rather than from the sky, we got up with our limbs stiff and our eyes wild from lack of sleep, hunger, and lying on the hard ground; we found our boots so frozen that they rang like bells, and we had to sit on them like brooding hens before we could put them on.

But we went back to the valley without any outside help. When the innkeeper, sniggering and looking askance at our drawn faces, asked us how we had got on, we cheekily replied that we had had an excellent climb, then paid the bill and left in a dignified manner. This was the taste of the wild. Now that many years have gone by, I regret having had so little of this taste, because, of all the good things life has given me, nothing has ever remotely resembled it: the taste of strength and freedom—freedom to make mistakes, too—and of being in charge of one’s own destiny. Therefore I am grateful to Sandro for having consciously led me into trouble, on that escapade and others which were foolhardy only in appearance. I know for sure that they did help me later on.

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They did not help him, or not for long. Sandro was Sandro Delmastro, the first to die of the Piedmont Resistance Commando Unit of the Action party. After a few extremely active months, in April 1944 he was captured by the Fascists. He did not give in and tried to escape from the Fascist headquarters in Cuneo. He was hit in the back of the neck by a burst of machine-gun fire, shot by a monstrous teen-aged assassin, one of those miserable fifteen-year-old borstal boys recruited by Mussolini’s “Italian Social Republic.” His body lay neglected for a long time in the middle of the street, because the Fascists had forbidden people to grant it burial.

Today I know that it is a hopeless task to clothe a man with words, to make him live again in writing—especially a man like Sandro. He was not a man one can tell stories about or build a monument to, he who used to laugh at monuments. He existed only in his actions. Now that they are over, nothing is left of him, nothing but, as I said, words.

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