Book Review: Christ stopped at Eboli

After reading a fairly extensive list of books on Italian subject matter written by foreigners I thought it was about time to read some more books by Italians, in their English translations I hasten to add. I have previously made the the assertion at least once before that non-Italians sometimes have the best insight into Italy and its complicated history because they approach the subject unburdened by regional bias or the influence of having been taught Italian history in Italian schools.

Carlo Levi's book, Christ stopped at Eboli

I might want to revise that observation or at least qualify it after reading Carlo Levi’s seminal work ‘Christ stopped at Eboli’. But on the other hand Carlo Levi himself felt completely foreign in the remote corner of Lucania (Basilicata) that is the subject matter here, and he was writing about an area and a people with whom he had nothing in common, not even language or history, so maybe he fits my general observation after all, despite being Italian.

This was Carlo Levi’s first book and it’s an insightful and powerfully evocative account of his year of exile in Gagliano in 1935/36. Gagliano’s real name is Aliano but this alternative spelling in the book reflects the local dialect and pronunciation. Even today it is remote and inaccessible and it’s not even clear which direction you should come from to reach it, probably from Eboli I’m guessing, but in 1936 the title of the book could just as easily have been ‘Civilization stopped at Eboli’ such were its deprivations and isolation.

Carlo Levi was born in 1902, a native of Turin, highly educated, urban and sophisticated with a medical degree and by 1935 he was already a talented painter and had lived for several years in Paris, continuing medical research there that he had begun earlier in Turin after his graduation. A true Renaissance man in many respects, but he was also political and in 1931 he joined the anti-fascist movement Giustizia e Libertà started by Carlo and Nello Roselli three years earlier. These were dangerous times for active and outspoken anti-fascists with a radical anti-Mussolini agenda and Levi was arrested in 1934 and subsequently exiled to Grassano and then Gagliano. The Roselli brothers suffered a much worse fate.

For someone like me who prefers books to paintings it’s a shame Carlo Levi didn’t focus solely on writing in later life because this is a really superb book, written in a style that makes it hard to believe that it was his first book. He describes the simplest things with amazing clarity and richness of language and perhaps some praise here should also go to the translator Francis Frenaye. There are certain similarities with both the subject matter and the writing style to Thomas Hardy, whose novels were mostly about the peasantry of rural ‘Wessex’ in the 1870s and 1880s.

The forgotten and abandoned peasants of rural and impoverished Lucania in the 1930s were in just about every respect about 100 years behind those in both England and more northern parts of Italy and Carlo Levi’s depiction of their world is more like one would expect of the 1830s rather than the 1930s.

Carlo Levi on the right returning to Aliano many years later

Families in Gagliano lived in one room which served as kitchen and bedroom. There was one large bed for everyone and underneath were the barnyard animals including pigs and chickens. No running water, no electricity and little food. Malaria and trachoma were rife and the tax collector rode in on his horse and rode out again with whatever he could take from them, a goat or some possession of little value that he missed the last time.

It’s hard to tell who was worse between the petty and vindictive local fascist officials or the priests, with their piousness undisturbed and untroubled by their squalid affairs and numerous illegitimate children while, just like the taxman, always complaining about the missing tithes from the peasants.

Neither God nor man did anything for these people and noticeably missing from the walls of their pathetic dwellings were any pictures of Mussolini, the King of Italy or even Garibaldi. Instead there was always the Black Madonna of Viggiano and President Roosevelt and sometimes a dollar bill also proudly pinned to the wall. The sad fact wrote Carlo Levi is that while Gagliano had only 1,200 residents in 1935, there were a further 2,000 men from Gagliano in America and his first town of exile, nearby Grassano, had a similar litany of wholesale emigration to New York.

(When you extrapolate these astonishing numbers all across the mezzogiorno and combine them with the additional 4 million from 1951 to 1971 who left the south to find work in the north or to emigrate to the only remaining countries open to them after the war like Australia, then it's not surprising that today houses in deserted southern villages are selling for a dollar to try to avoid becoming ghost towns).

By 1935 it had been 64 years since the unification of Italy was completed with Rome as its capital and if anything life had gone backwards for Gagliano, and all Italy did for them was to sacrifice their few healthy young men in wars, first World War One and then again, at the time of Levi’s book, for Mussolini’s ill-fated empire building in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia).

After the end of Levi’s exile, when he was pardoned in a burst of fascist jubilation on the back of the capture of Addis Ababa, Carlo Levi went to France (like Carlo Rosselli) but returned to Italy in 1943 and was imprisoned in Florence. He wrote this book in that city in the early part of 1944 on his release from jail after Mussolini himself had been arrested.

lower Matera
The lower Matera 'Sassi' (caves), carved out of the limestone rock thousands of years ago, now modernized

So shocking were the lives and conditions of Gagliano and other areas of the south that after the publication of this book in 1945, Italians were forced for the first time to confront the realities of conditions there. The closest town of any size to Gagliano is Matera and in the book Carlo Levi describes his sister’s stop there in 1935 on her way to visit him and her shock at the sight of people living in caves in conditions virtually unchanged for centuries with 50% infant mortality.

In 1948, partly thanks to this book, the Italian Justice Minister called Matera a ‘national shame’ and finally the problems got some attention at the political level resulting several years later in a large resettlement of these cave dwellers.

Despite the fact that lower Matera today is very sanitized with boutique hotels and shops and apartments where the caves used to be and in fact was the European Capital of Culture in 2019, it's still a bit of an eerie place to walk around and I remain astonished to think that during my lifetime there was a part of western Europe where people were still living in caves with their animals.

In spite of the subject matter, this is not a depressing book at all. Instead it’s a fascinating study of people in difficult circumstances and how they adapt and manage. It's also about the sheer waste and incompetence of fascist Italy and the over-zealous petty bureaucracy that it inevitably spawned (not unlike the European Union today). Carlo Levi himself was also changed by his experience and I’m sure his year in exile served him well later when he became an Italian Senator as an independent, affiliated to the Italian Communist Party. I know very little about his politics later and his time as a Senator in Rome but his political musings in this book do not seem particularly radical with his conclusion being that centralized power under any banner by either Rome or the absentee Basilicata landlords didn’t do much for Aliano and more local decision making power was essential as part of any lasting solution.

His affection for the people of this town remained undiminished throughout the rest of his life and his final request was to be buried in Aliano, where his body now lies.