Posts Tagged ‘Primo Levi’

Pieter Odendaal. Stof en ander onsigbare wêrelde

Sunday, July 31st, 2011

Die volgende tekste verteenwoordig ’n soort steekproef van wat ek die afgelope tyd gelees het. Hulle bevolk my drome en maak my sterk – hulle laat my glo dat dit tog die moeite werd is om te skryf. Terwyl ek besig was om die uittreksels oor te tik, besef ek toe skielik dat ek klaarblyklik ‘n obsessie met stof en ander klein dinge ontwikkel het. Snaakse goed gebeur as jy die natuurwetenskappe en poësie met mekaar begin meng.

Uittreksel uit The English Patient (1992) deur Michael Ondaatje


There is a whirlwind in Southern Morocco, the aajej, against which the fellahin defend themselves with knives. There is the africo, which has at times reached into the city of Rome. The alm, a fall wind out of Yugoslavia. The arifi […] which scorches with numerous tongues. These are permanent winds that live in the present tense.

There are other, less constant winds that change direction, that can knock down horse and rider and realign themselves anticlockwise. The bist roz leaps into Afghanistan for 170 days – burying villages. There is the hot, dry ghibli from Tunis, which rolls and rolls and produces a nervous condition. The haboob – a Sudan dust storm that dresses in bright yellow walls a thousand metres high and is followed by rain. The harmattan, which blows and eventually drowns itself into the Atlantic. Imbat, a sea breeze in North Africa. Some winds that just sigh towards the sky. Night dust storms that come with the cold. The khamsin, a dust in Egypt from March to May, named after the Arabic word for “fifty”, blooming for fifty days – the ninth plague of Egypt. The datoo out of Gibraltar, which carries fragrance.

There is also the —, the secret wind of the dessert, whose name was erased by a king after his son died within it. And the nafhat – a blast out of Arabia. […]

Other, private winds.

Travelling along the ground like a flood. Blasting off paint, throwing down telephone poles, transporting stones and statue heads. The harmattan blows across the Sahara filled with red dust, dust as fire, as flour, entering and coagulating in the locks of rifles. Mariners called this red wind the “sea of darkness.” Red sand fogs out of the Sahara were deposited as far north as Cornwall and Devon, producing showers of mud so great this was also mistaken for blood. “Blood rains were widely reported in Portugal and Spain in 1901.”

There are always millions of tons of dust in the air, just as there are millions of cubes of air in the earth and more living flesh in the soil (worms, beetles, underground creatures) than there is grazing and existing on it. Herodotus records the death of various armies engulfed in the simoom who were never seen again. […]

Dust storms in three shapes. The whirl. The column. The sheet. In the first the horizon is lost. In the second you are surrounded by waltzing Ginns. The third, the sheet, is copper-tinted. Nature seems to be on fire.


“Carbon” uit The periodic table deur Primo Levi


Our character lies for hundreds of millions of years, bound to its three atoms of oxygen and one of calcium, in the form of limestone: it already has a very long cosmic history behind it, but we shall ignore it. […] Its existence, whose monotony cannot be thought of without horror, is a pitiless alternation of hots and colds, that is, of oscillations […] a trifle more restricted and a trifle more ample: an imprisonment, for this potentially living personage, worthy of the Catholic Hell. To it, until the present moment, the present tense is suited, which is that of description, rather than of narration – it is congealed in an eternal present, barely scratched by the moderate quivers of thermal agitation.

But, precisely for the good fortune of the narrator, whose story could otherwise have come to an end, the limestone rock ledge of which the atom forms a part lies on the surface. It lies within reach of man and his pickax (all honor to the pickax and its modern equivalents; they are still the most important intermediaries in the millennial dialogue between the elements and man): at any moment, which I, the narrator, decide out of pure caprice to be the year 1840 – a blow of the pickax detached it and sent it on its way to the lime kiln, plunging it into the world of things that change. It was roasted until it separated from the calcium […]. Still firmly clinging to two of its three former oxygen companions, it issued from the chimney and took the path of the air. Its story, which once was immobile, now turned tumultuous.

It was caught by the wind, flung down on the earth, lifted ten kilometers high. It was breathed in by a falcon, descending into its precipitous lungs, but did not penetrate its rich blood and was expelled. It dissolved three times in the water of the sea, once in the water of a cascading torrent, and again was expelled. It traveled with the wind for eight years: now high, now low, on the sea and among the clouds, over forests, deserts, and limitless expanses of ice; then it stumbled into capture and organic adventure.


The atom we are speaking of, accompanied by its two satellites which maintained it in a gaseous state, was borne by the wind along a row of vines in the year 1848. It had the good fortune to brush against a leaf, penetrate it, and be nailed there by a ray of the sun. If my language here becomes imprecise and allusive, it is not only because of my ignorance: this decisive event, this instantaneous work a tre – of the carbon dioxide, the light, and the vegetal greenery – has not yet been described in definitive terms, and perhaps it will not be for a long time to come, so different is it from that other ‘organic’ chemistry which is the cumbersome, slow, and ponderous work of man: and yet this refined, minute, and quick-witted chemistry was ‘invented’ two or three billion years ago by our silent sisters, the plants, which do not experiment and do not discuss, and whose temperature is identical to that of the environment in which they live.



My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow,
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.

An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the heading, with a single pluck

Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,
fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.

I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.

© Seamus Heaney, 1966. Death of a Naturalist.


Uittreksel uit Wetware: A computer in every living cell (2009) deur Dennis Bray


At the beginning of the twentieth century, biologists knew that single-celled organisms are capable of complicated sequences of actions in response to a wide variety of stimuli. All free-living cells, including bacteria, amoebae, and ciliates, can detect chemicals in their surrounding media. They achieve this sense of taste and smell, as we do with our sense of smell, because molecules in the outside wourld stick specifically to their surfaces. Signals generated by proteins in the membrane then tell the sel about possible sources of food and potentially damaging environments. Amoebae crawl over surfaces and steer past obstacles they cannot surmount. […] An amoeba can immediately tell an Euglena cyst from a grain of sand of the same size and will devour the former while rejecting the latter. […] In the world of the very smhe beating of a cilium can send vibrations over distances of hundreds of sel diameters. Cells could use the magnitude and rhythms of these waterborne vibrations to gain a sense of what is in their neighbourhood, rather like a primitive vorm of hearing. Almost all single-celled organisms respond to light. Ciliates such as paramecia move to weak light but are repelled by strong light. The single-celled Chlamydomonas has a so-called eyespot containing pigment molecules that enable it to detect the direction of incoming light. There is even a ciliate called Erythropsidium that spends its life attached to the bottom of the pond, watching the world through a large eye equipped with a lens. Strange indeed, since in most eyes a lens serves to focus images onto a retina, an outpocketing of the brain. But there is no retina here, no brain.



Wat ek met berge gemeen het – dis nou
plattes met handlangers of hooggebore
enkelinge – is bra mind, toegegee.
Maar ek deel met hulle ’n legio
spelonke wat ligskrefies inlaat;
maar innooi so nimmer as te nooit.

Nee, ek is ’n spelonk hoog aan ’n hang
bo die see, met ’n gedreun in my
en ’n oop verweerde aangesig en ’n skerp
reuk van vlermuis- en dassiemis en –pis
en ’n bek vol lig en lief en waan
en ek bulder binnensmonds en ek treur.

Maar ek sou wou wees: die een
tussen baie met die groot druipsteensale
en die wonderskone wete en ek sou wag.
En ek sou die steenbokkie, die vlugtende,
wat in my verdwaal, langsaam laat vrek
en sy skelet toedrup tot fantasie.

Grot is ek: bewaarder van geslagte
se skreeuende gebeentes en hopies klip.
Grot ek: die berghaan se klankversterker.
Die berghaan draal. Hy sleep skalks
sy klein stompstertskadu deur my,
en met die skaduprent op my tong

stamel ek my ganse leegheid.

© Wilma Stockenström, 1984. Monsterverse.