Thursday, 15 November 2012

CARLO LEVI Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945)

Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, 2000

'Too bad!  Someone had it in for you.'  You, too, are subject to fate.  You, too, are here because of the power of ill will, because of an evil star; you are tossed hither and yon by the hostile workings of magic.  And you, too, are a man; you are one of us.  Never mind what motives impelled you, politics, legalities, or the illusion of reason.  Such things as reason, or cause and effect, do not exist; there is only an adverse fate, a will for evil, which is the magic power of things.  The state is one shape of this fate, like the wind that devours the harvest and the fever that feeds on our blood.  There can be no attitude towards fate except patience and silence.  Of what use are words?  And what can a man do?  Nothing.

Translated by FRANCES FRENAYE (1947)

The Book:  In 1935 the Italian artist, writer, doctor and political activist Carlo Levi was released from prison –– where he'd been sent for protesting against Mussolini's decision to invade Abyssinia (now called Ethiopia) –– and exiled to what, at that time, was the dirt poor remote southern province of Lucania.  Levi would be detained in Lucania for a year, completely cut off from his family, friends and the active social and political life he'd been living as a young anti-Fascist organizer in the prosperous northern city of Turin. 

Christ Stopped at Eboli is the story of what happened to him during this year –– the people he encountered in the tiny village of Aliano (which he renamed 'Gagliano' in his book), the loneliness he endured, the lessons its overtaxed, underfed, malaria-ridden peasants taught him about man's inhumanity to man and how the poor had no choice but to bear their burdens in uncomplaining silence because no one in the north cared enough about their plight to help or even notice them.  Levi was like an extra-terrestrial, dropped from outer space onto an alien planet ruled by centuries of ignorance and superstition, where people could supposedly turn into wolves and back into humans in the space of a single night, where treasure buried by the brigands who once ruled the region might be stumbled upon at any moment inside a cave or at the bottom of a rock-strewn gully, where the lucky sometimes got to flee to America only to return, willingly, to the same life of unrelieved drudgery twenty or thirty years later, their hard-earned savings wasted on buying land that was too arid to farm and too exorbitantly taxed to make it profitable to sell.  

Although he was primarily an artist and writer and no longer a practicing physician, Levi became a doctor to the peasants, treating their terrible wounds and diseases as best he could without proper medical supplies or any real hope of curing them.  They didn't care.  His presence alone was enough to provide them with the small measure of hope and comfort that Mussolini's Fascist state so callously refused to provide.  They revered the prisoner not only for his skills as a healer, but also as an educated man who'd had the courage to stand up to 'the ones in Rome' and was stoically paying the price for it.  Although they were poor and ignorant, thinking themselves to be beyond salvation because they lived in a forgotten corner of Italy that 'Christ did not visit' (they believed that their Saviour's 'journey' –– in other words, his influence –– ended at the far-off town of Eboli), Levi quickly came to prefer their company to that of the town's ruling elite –– its hypochondriac mayor Don Luigi, the mayor's overbearing sister Donna Caterina, the village's official physician, Dr Gibilisco, who refused to treat anyone who couldn't afford to pay him handsomely for his services but still chose to view the newcomer's arrival as a potential threat to his livelihood.  Levi also forged a friendship of sorts with the village priest, Don Trajella –– an educated, cultivated man who, unlike himself, had become so disillusioned with humanity that he'd lost all self-respect and chose to live in a dirty little house as a misanthropic, Latin-spouting hermit with only his deranged ninety year old mother to keep him company.

Two peasant boys, painted in Aliano, 1935
Levi survived his exile by reading, writing, painting and seeking solace in the company of his faithful white dog, Barone –– a beast the superstitious villagers believed possessed special magical powers.  He was treated well by Don Luigi –– housed decently with a local servant woman coming in each day to cook and clean for him –– and was even given permission to return briefly to Turin to attend a family funeral.  'But when I got there,' he wrote, 'I felt isolated, faraway, and unable to adapt myself to the places and persons I had longed to seePart of me by now seemed foreign to their interests, ambitions, activities, and hopes; their life was no longer mine and it no longer touched me.'  

This is perhaps the most moving revelation of the many revelations this important, beautifully written book has to offer.  Exile, Levi suggested, is in some ways worse than being locked inside a prison cell.  The incarcerated prisoner is denied any freedom whatsoever while the exile, permitted to roam around but never truly free to go where he pleases when he pleases, is obliged to live as a kind of mute spectator in the world, divided from its affairs and separated from those he loves as though by a thin but completely impenetrable glass wall, powerless to share his thoughts and feelings with another living soul. 

Christ Stopped at Eboli is also a valuable political document, a damning exposé of Fascism which explains, in ordinary layman's terms, how the movement warped people's personalities in the same way it warped and destroyed so many Italian lives.  It remains a sobering reminder of the damage that Mussolini's regime did to the Italian people and of the damage that tyrants like him continue to wreak on the lives of innocent souls everywhere.  Happily, Levi's book shed some much-needed light on the problems facing southern Italy and helped to bring about significant changes in the way the post-war government chose to treat its neediest, most economically deprived citizens.  Thanks to him, Lucania became a place filled with human beings and not just another spot on the map that his prosperous northern countrymen found it all too convenient to ignore.

Self Portrait with Beard, 1929
The WriterCarlo Levi was born on 29 November 1902 in Turin.  His father was a wealthy Jewish surgeon and his mother Annetta was the sister of the Italian socialist leader, Claudio Treves.  Treves, a committed Socialist who co-founded Italy's United Socialist Party, was forced to flee to Paris in 1926 after Mussolini's newly-elected Fascist government banned the organization and publicly denounced him as a criminal.

Levi graduated from high school in 1917 and entered the University of Turin to study medicine – studies he pursued while simultaneously pursuing equally challenging careers as a painter and fledgling political activist.  He received his medical degree in 1924 and was soon invited to exhibit his work at the sixteenth Venice Biennale.  Despite this early artistic success, he took a full-time job as a researcher at the University of Turin, studying diseases of the liver and the bile tract under the distinguished professor Dr Micheli.  His research work took him to Paris in 1927 where, perhaps influenced by his uncle, he abandoned his medical studies to devote himself exclusively to art and political activism.  

CARLO LEVI, c. 1950
In 1929, while still in Paris, he joined the anti-Fascist movement known as Giustizia e Libertà [Justice and Liberty] and was named one of its Italian co-directors.  This organization viewed Mussolini as a ruthless murderer whose policy of unlimited territorial expansion would one destroy Italy and its people and pledged itself to removing Il Duce from power by whatever means available.  It was the organization's plan, never carried out, to use an aircraft to drop a bomb on the dictator's official residence in the Piazza Venezia which probably led to Levi's arrest, show trial and subsequent imprisonment.  (He had already earned a reputation as a troublemaker by speaking out against Mussolini's plan to 'conquer' Abyssinia as a means of expanding the 'New Roman Empire' the dictator was intent on creating with himself cast in the role of the modern Julius Caesar.)  He was released from prison in 1935, only to find that the government now intended to exile him to Lucania for three years.  He was originally sent to the town of Grassano before being relocated to the even poorer, even more isolated hilltop village of Aliano.  

Levi was pardoned in 1936, as were many other Italian political exiles in the wake of the Fascist 'victory' in Africa, and almost immediately returned to France.  He remained in France until 1941, when it became too dangerous for anyone of even vaguely Jewish ancestry to live in territory occupied by the Nazis, and returned to Italy to resume the ongoing fight against Fascism.  He was arrested again in Florence in 1941 and sent to that city's Murate prison, from which he was released in July 1943 after Mussolini was arrested and replaced as Prime Minister on the orders of Victor Immanuel III, the last King of Italy.  He spent the remainder of the war hiding in the nearby Palazzo Pitti, where he reworked the notes he'd made in Aliano into the book that would eventually become Christo si è fermato a Eboli.  

FRANCESCO ROSI film adaptation, 1979
Levi returned to Rome after the war, where he published Christ Stopped at Eboli and continued to paint, write and work for the newly formed Italian Action Party.  He published many other works of non-fiction during the next eighteen years including L'Oroglio [The Watch], a study of a post-war cabinet crisis, Le parole sono pietre [Words are Stones], a study of Sicily and La doppia notte dei tigli [The Two-Fold Night] which examined conditions in post-war Germany.  He was elected to the Italian senate in 1963 and reelected to it in 1968, where he proudly (and usefully) served as a Communist-backed senator until 1972.  During this time he continued to paint and held occasional exhibitions of his work in Europe and North America.  He never married and died of pneumonia, in Rome, on 4 January 1975.  

At his request, his remains were buried in Aliano, where there is now a Carlo Levi Museum and a Carlo Levi Literary Park dedicated to his life and work which allows visitors to see the fully-restored house he occupied during the time he was forced to call the village home.  An award-winning cinematic adaptation of Christ Stopped at Eboli, directed by Francesco Rosi and starring Gian Maria Volonté as Levi and Irene Papas as his peasant housekeeper Giulia, was released in 1979, eventually going on to win the BAFTA for 'Best Foreign Film' and several other international awards.

The original English translation of Christ Stopped at Eboli has never been out of print since it was originally published in 1947.  It should be easily obtainable via your local library, bookstore or favourite online retailer.  Click HERE to visit the website (in translated English) of THE CARLO LEVI MUSEUM in Aliano.  You can see more of his paintings by Googling the name CARLO LEVI and clicking on the word 'Images' when the results appear onscreen.  

The FRANCESCO ROSI film is still available as both a Region 1 (US) and Region 2 (UK/Europe) DVD, although be sure to buy the 'Director Approved Completely Restored Version' released by Italian company GRECCI GORI (with excellent English subtitles) as it contains the longer 145 minute cinematic version of the film.  A 214 minute TV miniseries version was released in the early 1980s for the British and European market but has not yet been released on DVD.

You might also enjoy:
MORRIS WEST The Devil's Advocate (1959)
BRIGITTE HAMANN Hitler's Vienna: A Dictator's Apprenticeship (1999)
RK NARAYAN The Guide (1958)

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