Saturday, July 18, 2015

Christ stopped at Eboli, Carlo Levi

Cristo si è fermato a Eboli by Carlo LeviCarlo 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.

These 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.

Being 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).

Christianity 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?

On 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 air.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Love this Italian author!!! Great review. Matt