Carlo Levi was sent in exile to a Southern Italian village (current name Aliano) in the mid 1930's as a political prisoner because of his anti-fascism. This book is his recollection of one of the three years he spent there.
The village is very small, isolated, and ridden
with misery and illness. What could have been a dreadfully boring memoir
becomes a beautiful, poetic work of art under the artistic sensitivity
of Mr Levi's pen.
What gives the book a true soul, and really
elevates it, is the deep, heartfelt sense of longing and love that Levi
has for the people he lived with in this village, and, in particular,
for the farmers.
He focuses on the misery of the farmers'
condition, their fatalistic and pessimistic worldview, their stubbornness, their eternal patience, their living untouched by history's
grand schemes, and uncared for by the state, by anyone.
farmers live in one-room houses, with their animals under their bed, and
their infants hanging over their bed, in cribs. On the walls, each of
them have two images: a black Holy Mary, and, fascinating fact,
President Roosevelt. That's because "America", for many southern
Italians in those times, was something like paradise. Some came back
from America, only to live the rest of their lives in regret.
Italian, I'm amazed at having missed this book until now. Even at
school, they didn't try to shove it down my throat as they often do in
Italian schools (the best way to make you want to burn a book and go
kill its author with your bare hands is to teach it at school. This
trick really works wonders if delivered with a nasal voice, an
under-average sensitivity, and a massive dose of stupidity).
had a very diluted flavor in these lands, that's why the farmers live
with ancient pagan traditions that have nothing to do with christian
religion, like magic potions, legends, in a world where people, animals
and imagination are just one thing, and nothing is too complicated or
dramatic, including death.
What Levi keeps hammering on is a
sense of inevitable defeat of the farmer as a citizen of the state. He
sees good people being exploited by whoever has money and power, and he
says that the state should be a state for the farmers as well. All very
well, although he often comes across as idealistic, too theoretical and
naive, especially in his political reflections, articulated at the end
of the book. Or perhaps he wasn't naive at all, and he was just painting
himself as the man who loves the humble and defenseless, since by the
time he wrote this book he had already joined the Italian communist
party, and he was later elected in the Senate. But my bet is, he was a
rather idealistic man.
Now, what I really saw through this book
was a privileged member of the Italian society of the '30s (Levi's
family was very wealthy), a good, well educated man with an artistic
sensitivity, spending 3 years as the revered "smartest guy in the
village", doing nothing but painting and reading, in sunny southern
Italy. How's that for an alternative to prison? Even better than being a convict in Finland. Where do I sign up?
a more serious note, Levi's book is perhaps the only autobiographical
book I've read where the author doesn't talk much about himself at all.
Sure, a wise approach for a young politician, but also a breath of fresh
Recommended for readers who want to immerse themselves in
the silence of a primitive, ancient reality that is light years from our
neurotic lives of today, but at the same time feels more deeply
authentic. For those farmers, and I guess for most farmers, life has
always been stripped bare, to the bone. A white, shining bone that we
21st century soft and plump westerners often forget.
A hard-core experience to live through the eyes of an artistic outsider.