|Portrait de Carlo Levi by Carl Van Vechten, photographer (created/published: 1947 June 4) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|The cover for a 2006 paperback edition of Christ Stopped at Eboli. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
I am re-reading a good number of books that mightily impressed me half a century ago when I was an eager youngster. Some of them I have found disappointing. But one that certainly stands the test of time as a magnificent work is Carlo Levi’s remarkable memoir of a year spent in southern Italy, when he was a 1930s anti-fascist and was exiled to three years in a village so remote it sounds like it belonged to another planet.
I had already read this book when, in 1954, I visited the Venice Biennale, one of the world’s great art-shows. I was 26 at the time, had started my career in journalism in New Zealand in 1945 as a sports reporter, and was only just beginning to find out what the real world was like. I was innocent of the values of art (as of most other values, I may add, in parenthesis) and it is perhaps not surprising that the two rooms I happened on that were filled with Levi’s intense, brooding paintings of the southern peasants about whom he had written such a memorable book, should have hit me like a bomb. I can still recall their black eyes, gazing out at us almost in an accusing way, as if just by virtue of looking upon their images we were somehow accepting some measure of blame for their hapless condition.
Levi, having studied medicine at university, later chose to follow an artistic life as a painter and writer, but when he arrived in this poverty-stricken village to which he had been assigned by the Fascist authorities, he found himself, willy-nilly forced into action as a doctor, in spite of the lack of equipment and medicines.
“Of children I saw an infinite number,” writes Levi. “They appeared from everywhere, in the dust and heat, amid flies, stark naked or clothed in rags; I have never in all my life seen such a picture of poverty. My profession has brought me in daily contact with dozens of sick, ill-kempt children, but I never even dreamed of seeing a sight like this. I saw children sitting on the doorsteps, in the dirt, while the sun beat down on them with their eyes half-closed and their eyelids red and swollen; flies crawled across the lids, but the children stayed quite still, without raising a hand to brush them away…. The women, when they saw me look in the doors, asked me to come in, and in the dark, smelly caves where they lived I saw children lying on the floor under torn blankets, with their teeth chattering from fever. Others, reduced to skin and bones by dysentery, could hardly drag themselves about…”
And so it went on, and on, as this well-educated exile, who wanted to spend his time painting, was forced by the ineptitude of the two local doctors to undertake healing missions that he knew in advance were more or less futile.
Where the book picks up is when he turns to describing the local authorities, the venal Mayor, the drunken priests, the corrupt landed gentry. He found that every priest who had occupied the post in the parish had given birth to children, who were whisked off to some religious orphanage and brought up there. Many of the village women had a reputation as witches, who followed a strict series of outlandish imperatives. Some women had given birth to as many as 15 children, most of them to different men, but most of them died.
As he investigated the hopeless social circumstances of the peasants, who tried fruitlessly to bring produce out of the barren clay that overlay the rocks of the surrounding hills, he began to understand how they said they were not Christians in these villages, because “Christ stopped at Eboli”, further north.
One of the most revealing and pathetic of Levi’s descriptions, and one that gives an adequate impression of the hopelessness that pervaded the region, is of his first visit to the village priest, Don Trajella. “He was subject to intestinal hemorrhages, but, misanthropic as he was, he said nothing and continued to walk about the village without paying them the least attention. Don Cosimina, the kindly postmaster, the only friend of the old man, who spent hours in the post office reciting his epigrams, begged me to pay him a friendly visit and at the same time see if there was anything I could do for him.”
So he went off, and found the priest living with his mother in an impoverished hovel. “He hastened to offer me wine, which I had to accept in order not to hurt his feelings, in spite of the fact that it was in the glass that his mother and he must have used for years without washing, at least to judge from the black, greasy crust around the rim. Don Trajella had no servant and by now he was so accustomed to the filth that he no longer noticed it.”
Levi noticed he had some books that lay covered by dust and dirt. “What do you expect?” asked the priest. “In a place like this --- he is talking of some art-works he performed when younger --- there’s no point in reading. I had some fine books…There are some rare editions among them When I came here the swine that carried my books smeared them with tar, just to annoy me. I lost all desire to open them and I left them just like that on the floor. They’ve lain there for years.”
This surely is an indifference, a sense of hopelessness carried to the nth degree, and it is all the more impressive in that it comes from the local priest responsible for the spiritual welfare of the populace.
“I’ve done nothing” ---he is talking of some art-works that he performed when younger --- said the priest, “ever since I’ve been here among the heathen, in partibus infidelium, bringing the sacraments of Mother Church, as they say, to these heretics who will have none of them. Once upon a time such things (indicating his art-works) amused me. But here they’re quite impossible. There’s no point in doing anything in this place. Have another glass of wine, Don Carlo.”
Yet in spite of their indifference and negativity, Levi seems to have developed an affection and admiration for these tough peasants, who had resisted every army, every religion, every ideology that had washed over them during the centuries, and had somehow or other survived.
His conclusions as to what might be done about their enforced isolation from the mainstream of human life, even more than from Italian life, were somewhat complex and surprising. The problem, he wrote, had three dimensions: First, “we are faced with two very different civilizations, a pre-Christian civilization and one that is no longer Christian, stand face to face. As long as the second imposes its deification of the State upon the first, they will be in conflict….Peasant civilization will always be the loser, but it will not be entirely crushed…. Just as long as Rome rules over Matera (the major town in the region), Matera will be lawless and despairing, and Rome despairing and tyrannical.”
Second: the trouble is economic, the dilemma poverty. The land has been gradually impoverished, forests removed, rivers often run dry. “There is no capital, no industry, no savings, no schools; emigration is no longer possible, taxes are unduly heavy, and malaria is everywhere. All this is in large part due to the ill-advised intentions and efforts of the State, a State in which the peasants cannot feel they have a stake, and which has brought them only poverty and deserts.”
Third (and the most interesting part of this equation) is the social side of the problem. Surprisingly, Levi absolves the owners of the big landed estates of primary responsibility. “Rather, (the peasants’) real enemies, those who cut them off from any hope of freedom and a decent existence, are to be found among the middle-class village tyrants. This class is physically and morally degenerate and no longer able to fulfil its original function. It lives off petty thievery and the bastardized tradition of feudal rights. Only with the suppression of this class and the substitution of something better can the difficulties of the South find a solution.”
To perform this, he writes, the Italian State will have to be renewed from top to bottom.
I need write no more about the page by page stimulus offered by this exceptional work of humanism, which hit the post-war world like a bomb and made of Carlo Levi an honoured writer and artist. Rather surprisingly, when an amnesty was offered to honor the fall of Addis Ababa in the Italian war against Ethiopia, and the political exiles were declared free, all the other exiles in the region hurried to get out of it. But Levi, drawn to the peasants and their problems, and their fierce unyielding resistance to authority as he was, lingered for a good ten days before he managed to pack up and take his leave.