Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945) by Carlo Levi: A remarkable memoir
Old Favourites: A striking account of a year in exile in a tiny village in southern Italy
Carlo Levi was confined as a political prisoner in the tiny village of Gagliano in southern Italy, in 1935.
Carlo Levi was sent into internal exile in 1935 because of his opposition to fascism and confined as a political prisoner in the tiny village of Gagliano in southern Italy. So remote, forgotten and neglected was the village that the people there told him: “We’re not Christians. Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli.” (Eboli was where the north-south coastal road and rail routes stopped.)
Levi’s account of his year in Gagliano is a remarkable memoir about “a world apart … hedged in by custom and sorrow, cut off from History and the State, eternally patient … [A] land without comfort or solace where the peasant lives out his motionless civilisation on barren ground in remote poverty, and in the presence of death”.
Although he was a political exile, the people welcomed him. Southern Italians felt little attachment to Mussolini and his fascist government. Northerners regarded them as racially inferior and they looked to the US for hope of material prosperity rather than Italy. “Yes, New York, rather than Rome or Naples, would be the real capital of the peasants of Lucania, if these men without a country could have a capital at all,” Levi writes, conveying that their own country cared nothing for them, leaving them to live their lives in destitution.
His training as a doctor means he can help the villagers (the two official village doctors are pretty useless) and this gives him privileged insights into the personalities of his neighbours, from the local “wise woman”, to whom magical powers are ascribed, to the lonely old alcoholic priest. Levi does not romanticise or patronise the villagers but describes them with affection and vividly presents a sense of their lives. In a book short on fun, some of the most amusing incidents relate to the pompous fascist mayor’s attempts to interest the villagers in Mussolini’s radio speeches, to their collective boredom.
The quiet, unassuming, unsentimental almost austere prose is one of the book’s most striking features, making it a memoir of a rare and unforgettable beauty.