A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I’m continuing to explore my newly-found obsession with Italy (having discovered how pathetically little I know about a country that is coming to mean so much to me). Christ Stopped at Eboli (Cristo si è fermato a Eboli) is a work written in well within the first century of the unified Italy that again, like Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard and Gavin Maxwell’s and Norman Lewis’s works on Sicily, underlines just how remote the South of Italy is from the powerhouse of the North, and always has been, forever under some colonial rule or other, even if ostensibly by their own compatriots.
Carlo Levi was an Italian-Jewish writer and painter born in Turin, trained as a doctor but living a literary and artistic life. Engaged in opposition to Mussolini’s government, in 1935 Levi, along with many others deemed to be political opponents, was sent into internal exile as a political prisoner. He was sent to the remote, desolate country in the ‘instep’ of Italy, then known as Lucania, now as Basilicata. He spent a year in the small impoverished towns of Grassano and Aliano (Gagliano in the book). In Gagliano he found himself in demand for his medical skills, though he had never practised. Under constant surveillance by the authorities, embodied by the young Fascist mayor, Levi still had the inner freedom to observe the harsh life of the people of Lucania. The class system is firmly in place, with the peasants a class apart. The land is poor, deforested and subject to the centralised planning of an ignorant regime, demanding crops from it that it was never fit to bear. The mismanagement of the land means that malaria is endemic, and the health of everyone, peasants and middling sort alike, is undermined The landscape is lunar – all white clay, that turns to soup in the rains and causes buildings to collapse without anyone feeling any particular outrage.
Levi describes a society which has its roots back in a past so dim that none can identify it. The peasants’ faith is a mix of Catholic Christianity with deep beliefs in ancient deities, magic, mythical beasts and witchcraft. (The point of the title is that at Eboli is the mainline road and rail junction where the thoroughfares branch into the dead-end tracks and branch-lines that lead to Lucania – modern Italy, even early-modern Italy, stops there). The social structure is further defined by emigration – just as in Sicily, Lucania has its ‘Americanos’. Men emigrate to the US in vast numbers. Some just vanish, leaving wives and children in some sort of half-life; some deprive themselves over there to save money to send home; and a few return with comparative riches, only to be cheated of them in deals that leave them with unproductive land to farm. Throughout, Levi admires the stoicism and endurance of the people he lives with. He describes without judging them their strategies for survival, particularly the women. He celebrates their inner lives and their generosity to strangers (including him).
I’ve had this book by my bedside for nearly a year, and have finally been prompted to read it by watching Andrew Graham Dixon and Giorgio Locatelli’s excellent TV series Italy Unpacked. This week, they visited Matera, in Basilicata – an extraordinary city carved out of the mountains in a maze of caves and tracks. Now a place of curiosity and heritage, we were reminded that once, and in living memory at that, it had been a place of utter penury and suffering, and that Levi had documented it. So, this was my reminder to read this very, very overdue library book. In one of the most powerful passages, Levi (who is not allowed out of Gagliano) has a visit from his sister, also a doctor, who passed through Matera on her journey. Using words he puts in her mouth, Levi paints a place of Dantesque horror, of malaria, starvation, cave-dwelling and death, neglected by the shiny new state.
Levi, released from internal exile after one year, stored all these impressions in his mind and wrote them all down in Christ Stopped at Eboli after the fall of Mussolini, nearly ten years later. Levi’s prose is beautiful (in translation too). His outlook is humane, and his polemic consists purely in applying his artist’s eye and describing what he saw, while giving the people he encountered a voice. Although what he is describing could be unimaginable, through his imagination and empathy the reader is forced to confront the realities of Italy’s neglected South, the ‘Mezzogiorno’, while valuing the unique gifts and strengths of its people. I can understand now why it is regarded as a classic. Its subject matter can be grim, but it is a luminous book, shining with humanity, and I am delighted I have read it at last.
Carlo Levi: Christ Stopped at Eboli. London: Penguin Books, 2000. 256pp (Penguin Modern Classics)
ISBN 13: 9780141183213