In 1935 Carlo Levi a native of Turin, was banished to a remote region in southern Italy. His anti-fascist beliefs and activism led to his exile in Grassano and Gagliano. Levi was a painter, doctor, and writer. His book Christ Stopped At Eboli focuses on his year in the Lucania region and the people he encountered there. Despite his status as a political prisoner Levi was welcomed with open arms for the people of this area were naturally gracious hosts.
The villages of Grassano and Gagliano were extremely poor. They lacked basic goods because there were no shops in the village. A typical though meager diet consisted of bread, oil, crushed tomatoes, and peppers. The villages did not have many modern items, and those they did were not often utilized. One working bathroom in the town stood as a retreat for animals rather than people. Only one car was also found in the area. Homes were sparsely furnished; the most frequent decoration consisted of an American dollar, a photo of the American president Roosevelt, or the Madonna Viggiano displayed on their walls. Healthcare was atrocious. The two doctors in town were invariably inept. The peasants simply did not trust the in-town physicians and therefore counted on Levi’s medical skills instead. Malaria took the lives of many villagers; it was merciless and rampant. Education was available, but as Levi stated, the mayor who taught class spent more time overlooking the balcony than educating the children.
“The title of the book comes from an expression by the people of Gagliano who say of themselves, ‘Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli’ which means, in effect, that they feel they have been bypassed by Christianity, by morality, by history itself — that they have somehow been excluded from the full human experience.” The religious values of the villages Levi visited were a mixture of Christianity and mysticism. While the people were pious in the sense that they were moral and kind, they were not exactly religious. They did not avidly attend church and in fact ostracized their priest who was a drunk and allegedly had sexual relations of a profane nature. The priest however had just as much dislike for the people as evident by his statement “The people here are donkeys not Christians.” It seems that Christianity was not fully embraced; this is shown by the multitude of priests bearing illegitimate children and the scandalous sexual relations that were often overlooked. Superstitions, gnomes, and spells, seemed to shape day-to-day tasks, not Christ and the belief in God. People however did attend church on holidays like Christmas and did respect the Madonna. When reading this it becomes apparent that Christianity was an idea introduced but never completely adopted.
The southern half of Italy was not completely on-board with Mussolini and his fascist government. The southerners were looked upon as inferior citizens. Levi recalls one local man’s view that he and his fellow people were not even considered humans, rather dogs. He tells another Northerners view of the southerners “inherent racial inferiority”. The people specifically felt torn from Italy, and looked to America as a beacon of hope and prosperity rather than Rome. Levi writes ”Yes, New York, rather than Rome or Naples would be the real capital of the peasants of Lucania, if these men without a country could have a capital at all.” He is insinuating that the peasants and people of Lucania have no country which cares for them. The people were in dire shape, they lived in complete destitution and yet nothing was being done to provide for them. The war with Abyssinia only served to remind them of the impossibility of immigrating to America.
In 1935 Italy began a quick war in Abyssinia or present day Ethiopia. The people in Levi’s village thought little to nothing about it. It did not faze them and they had no hope of any gain because of it. Levi refers to them as being indifferent to the war cause, and mentions only one man who enlisted to escape a troubled home life. He does notice however that they do not talk about WWI despite the fact that a large number of men in the village lost their lives.
Near the end of his stay Levi takes a trip to the north to attend a funeral. After spending almost a year in Lucania he feels an awkwardness he hadn’t experienced before. As he talks with friends and acquaintances about politics he begins to uncover a common ignorance about the issue of Southern Italy. He listens as people share their opinions on “the problems of the south” about who is to blame and what can be done. A commonality is found amongst all their answers, the state must take action! They must do “something concretely useful, and beneficent, and miraculous.” Levi chalks this response up to having fourteen years worth of fascist notions in their heads. He goes on to explain how the idea of a united “utopian” Italy has been subconsciously ingrained in all of them.
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