85 years after his death, the story of the physicist Ettore Majorana becomes the protagonist of the novel by Mimmo Gangemi, The restless atom (Solferino). A first-person narration, which reconnects the few clues and the many hypotheses in a story that interweaves personal drama and political tragedy along the twentieth century.
Why does Majorana continue to intrigue after 85 years?
«It always happens when an unsolved mystery hovers, even more so if it concerns a character of “clear fame” such as Ettore Majorana – in fact, in 1938, three months before his disappearance, he obtained, precisely “for clear fame”, the chair of Theoretical Physics at the University of Naples. It has also happened that, over the decades, new elements have emerged, of more or less credible sightings, of the alleged collaboration with Nazi Germany, of an escape to South America, of the renunciation of research in favor of a life as a bum, etc., which they have fueled debate and sometimes morbid curiosity, and transformed into legend the presumable descent from the world of a scientist defined by Enrico Fermi as a genius comparable to Galileo and Newton, but “lacking in common sense”. Then, the Majorana affair is set in the study of the atom and in the evolution of nuclear power, with the destructive potential already tested and now more current than ever, and this has helped to keep memory and imagination alive».
How did you get there, after such different novels?
«The aura of mystery around Majorana has fascinated me ever since I read in 1976 “The disappearance of Majorana”, by Leonardo Sciascia. I studied the man and the scientist by drawing on the large amount of writings concerning him. And I have repeatedly attempted a narration based on established truths, half-truths, hypotheses, reports that seemed closest to reality, or at least acceptable. I couldn’t. And I gave up. Until I became so immersed in Majorana, but in the Majorana built by my mind after having thoroughly documented myself, that I understood I had to tell it in the first person, as if I were my Majorana, taking advantage of the space that, strangely, the narrative had left empty. It worked. Regarding diversity, I have the good fortune, or the defect, of being able to range over several literary genres. This, which is partly historical, I lacked».
Where is the line between history, fiction and mystery?
“It’s not fully defined. The events that revolve around Majorana are faithful to history. Majorana, on the other hand, is credible in the sense that the events in which he is personally involved could have occurred in a rather similar way. And this leads me to affirm that the imagination, provided it is based on a certain amount of concreteness and plausibility, knows how to make up for history, succeeds where history impotently gets stuck. There is a consequential logic in all the lives that Majorana goes through and interprets to hide himself from the world, to escape from himself, and erase the past rather to embrace a different future. Of course, the story comes from the belief that there was no suicide. And that’s how it is: he doesn’t commit suicide by announcing the intention in advance, he does it quickly and away; one does not commit suicide after having collected and brought with him the back wages and the considerable share of the paternal inheritance, this suggests the intention of creating a new existence elsewhere, without the weight of science; a man who knows how to swim does not decide to commit suicide by drowning, because the instinct of self-preservation would prevail and it would become a terrible end, due to exhaustion of strength».
Among the various hypotheses on Majorana’s fate, which one seems to you the most realistic?
«I don’t believe much in leaving the world in the Certosa di Serra San Bruno. But, having written it Sciascia, I could not give it up, out of respect for the great writer. It seems true that he had contracted tuberculosis, a disease of which to be ashamed and silent at the time, because there is a record of a nurse who looked after him. Then there is Germany and there is his contribution to the atomic bomb: he could belong to the truth, he was pro-German, not pro-Nazi, and he admired Werner Heisenberg, former Nobel and with whom he had collaborated in Leipzig. The most realistic part is that of South America: there is a photo from 1950 taken on a steamer which is about to dock in Buenos Aires and which portrays, in the company of the Nazi criminal Eichmann, a man who looks too much like him, without being certain that he is him because he wears sunglasses, and a second photo in Venezuela as “Mr. Bini” and which still sees an investigation from 2015 by the Rome prosecutor’s office still open, with the anthropometric measurements that would indicate Majorana and Bini as the same person».
What is instead the most suggestive hypothesis, from a narrative point of view?
“Life as a bum. The one in which Majorana finds, if not the peace pursued and denied by his genius, a bit of respite, annulling himself. On Majorana who dies as a homeless man there is the fantasy that arose from the idea that such a conflicted and controversial man was suited to such an epilogue, that way out of the pitfalls of the world and from not knowing how to adapt to living in his time. In this regard, there is an investigation by Paolo Borsellino, from 1988, when he was Prosecutor of Marsala, on the death of the homeless Tommaso Lipari, indicated as Majorana ».
Where does the German track come from. would it really have been “nothing more than science”?
«The admiration for German physicists and for the level reached in the study of the atom had involved him to the point that, after returning from Leipzig, when anti-Semitic discrimination had already begun, he affirmed that it was not right that six hundred thousand Jews affected sixty millions of Germans and this caused a strong quarrel with Emilio Segrè, another of the boys from Via Panisperna and a Jew. Those who worked on the atomic bomb, faced with the destructive possibilities of nuclear power, justified themselves, more with their consciences, that the advances would be science capable of producing immense quantities of energy and therefore progress for humanity, with the bomb which, if carried out, it would not have been a weapon to really be used but only a threat to win victory and a convenient peace. They deceived themselves: the scientist cannot give up penetrating the unknown; and perhaps Majorana had intuited the catastrophic path and avoided it by disappearing».