Sunday, February 15, 2009

Christ Stopped at Eboli

Christ Stopped at Eboli (or in Italian Cristo si è fermato a Eboli) was written by Carlo Levi in 1943-1944. It is a story about the time Levi spends in exile as a political prisoner in a small town in southern Italy. Levi, a painter, doctor and writer was also an anti-Fascist. As punishment by the then ruling Fascist government, Levi was exiled at the start of the Abyssinian War (1935) to the Basilicata region (previously known as Lucania) of Italy. In the book Levi first spends time at Grassano but is then transferred to Gagliano where he spends most of his exile. The town of Gagliano in the book is the real life town named Aliano.

The key to understanding the title is in Chapter 1: “’We’re not Christians,’ they say. ‘Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli.’ ‘Christian,’ in their way of speaking means ‘human being,’ and this almost proverbial phrase that I have so often heard them repeat may be no more than the expression of a hopeless feeling of inferiority.” The town of Eboli is close to Salerno and Aliano is over 70 km southeast. At that time, the way of life in the small hilltop towns of Basilicata was a world apart from the northern towns.

In 1979, the book was adapted as a movie. Here’s a clip on YouTube where Levi is eating his first supper in Gagliano. The widow that Levi first stays with is telling him how a “peasant witch-woman” ensnared her husband and eventually poisoned him. You can hear a “strega” and maybe a “puttana” in her description of what happened. A clarinet-playing tax collector shows up to share dinner at the widow’s house. This corresponds roughly to Chapter 5 in the book.

Why you might be interested in this book? It will open a small window on understanding peasant life in southern Italy. This book helped propel the “Problem of the South” into national discourse after World War II. In a chapter towards the end of the book Levi lays out what he sees as the three aspects of the problem: very different cultures (city versus country, post-Christian versus pre-Christian that can never mix), impoverished lands (often made worse by the faraway government in Rome), and the small, but bitter middle class in these isolated towns that end up suppressing the peasants more than helping.

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