In anticipation of my trip to Puglia in southern Italy I picked up Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli. The book isn’t set in Puglia but in Lucania, now known as Basilicata, a smaller region to the west. But it describes a striking picture of the south of Italy as it was in the 1930s. In the early 1930s Levi was exiled to Lucania for dissent against Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship. It says a lot that the towns of southern Italy made good places to exile people as punishment. Levi was from Turin, a European city with ideas and conveniences: there were bathrooms, running water, electricity. But in the south of Italy there were no modernities, no running water, no toilets; there was poverty, superstitions and the way of life of isolated communities.
Surprisingly Levi doesn’t write about what it’s like to be exiled, or at least he doesn’t write about the difficulties of being in exile directly. But instead Christ Stopped at Eboli is about the people he met and observed during his exile, whose lives were also a kind of exile. Also surprisingly Levi doesn’t write with bitterness about those restricted years, but with an exacting care and force of observation that lends dignity to the people that became part of his life.
Levi was exiled first to Grassano and then to Gagliano (Agliano), small towns where magic, witches, spells and potions were very much alive, where people dumped their sewage out the window, where the peasants struggled with their barren plots of land and never got ahead but behind. For many reasons but most of all their poverty, the peasants did not trust religion (Catholicism) or the state (Fascism). They had always been separate from the north of Italy and were often overlooked when social improvements were doled out, though they were the ones who most needed them. Because their lives were tied so closely with the land, the peasants were closer to its natural mysteries. They had a natural, simple way of life so different from the Italians in the north.
There is no room for religion, because to them everything participates in divinity, everything is actually, not merely symbolically, divine: Christ and the goat; the heavens above, and the beasts of the field below; everything is bound up in a natural magic. Even the ceremonies of the church become pagan rites, celebrating the existence of inanimate things, which the peasants endow with a soul, and the innumerable earthy divinities of the village.
In Gagliano, Carlo Levi enjoyed respect from both the peasants and gentry. The latter respected him because he was a cultured man, and the well-off people were eager to seem cultured as well. And the former respected him because he wasn’t Gagliano gentry and had studied medicine. The peasants did not trust the other two doctors of the village to the point of refusing to see them even if seriously suffering. Malaria was common then, along with other problems.
Because Levi was accepted by everyone in the town, from the cast-out priest to the witch who cleaned and cooked for him, and because he wasn’t allowed to leave the small town’s boundaries for the year he lived there, Levi learned the town’s and its inhabitants’ intimate details. His year’s confinement was spent in small-town politics, inclement weather and a town with nothing around it but the bare and ragged hills. Often he felt time stand still, that boredom could not become more boring. But he used his time to paint the people and the landscapes, and when his exile was over and the war nearly over, he wrote this book, an enduring portrait of a place that time might have forgotten but cannot be forgotten now.
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