Carlo Levi: Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli)
This is, of course, the book Levi is known for. The rest of his books are barely read, even in Italy. It is not really a novel but then there are quite a few books on this site that are not really novels. It tells of a year in the life of Levi, when he was sent into exile to a remote village in 1935 for anti-fascist activities. It is therefore strictly speaking a memoir but a semi-fictionalised one. He writes it as a memoir, i.e. much later and recalling a promise he had made to the peasants to return to the village, a promise he has not fulfilled. The village is called Gagliano but is based on the real life village of Aliano.
The title of the book is based on a statement made by the peasants to the effect that Christ, Christianity, civilization, call it what you will, never came to the village. (Eboli is the train station nearest to Gagliano.) They have suffered and, all too often, when people came it was as conquerors, not as saviours. Levi writes beautiful prose to describe the relatively mundane life of the community. He writes about the other political prisoners, about the superstitions, practices and concerns of the peasants and, above all about the characters he meets there. As he had some medical training (but not a great deal), the local inhabitants want him to become their doctor, a task he is naturally reluctant to undertake but ends up doing so.
You read this book for Levi’s wonderful descriptions – descriptions of this lost, Christ-abandoned village, of the peasants who, as Levi clearly points out, are human beings, even if others (and sometimes they themselves) do not think so, and, of their customs and superstitions which may seem strange or quaint to us but are important to them as our customs and superstitions – not necessarily better – are to us. The disputes – between the mayor and the priest or just one inhabitant against another – are all part and parcel of life in a village and Levi does not judge them, any more than he judges other parts of their life. It is very clear that his sympathies lie with these people, even if he has been unable to return there because of the vicissitudes of war, and he has left us with a marvellous book about them.
First published 1945 by Einaudi
First published in English 1947 by Farrar, Straus
Translated by Frances Frenaye