on April 2, 2004
This brilliant book is an account of Carlo Levi's banishment to a remote village in southern Italy for his opposition to Fascism in 1935. The title may be a bit misleading: this book is not about an incarnation of the deity that alighted in a place called Eboli. Eboli, a town of no consequence to the action of the book, is, rather, the farthest south Christianity (read: civilization) got. Gagliano, the town in which Levi arrives to carry out his exile, is as far south from Eboli as Eboli is from Naples, and is the end of the road in more than one respect.
In Gagliano, Levi lives a somewhat enviable (for an exile, at least) existence painting, writing, and, as a doctor, administering to the sick and injured. But the book is not about Levi's good works among the peasants. Rather, it is a series of sublime sketches about a people so grim, so primitive, so impoverished, so imbued with superstition and pagan ritual (Gagliano has a village priest, but he's drunk most of the time) that they seem an alien species. Levi doesn't so much understand them as observe them and paint them with words.
Levi's artistic gifts extend to his descriptions, and phrases such as "Grassano...is a streak of white at the summit of a bare hill" make the book come alive. It is clear that Frances Frenaye, the translator, deserves no small credit in this respect. This is a haunting work, and one of the most memorable books I have ever enjoyed.
on December 25, 1999
This a memoir of Carlo Levi`s experience as a political exile during the fascist regime, at the outset of the Abyssinian war. The setting is a remote village in Lucania, southern Italy, a region characterized by poverty, malaria, completely forgotten and neglected by the State. Levi's artistic sensitivity describes the people, the landscape, with an acute human feeling. This is the other side of Italy, the reverse of the rich, famous, well-developed North. After reading this book, it is easy to understand why so many Italians were tempted to emigrate to the American continent. Levi's ability to socialize and understand the peasant mentality is outstanding; it's a merit to his personality. The fact that he did not isolate himself from the people around the village, regardless of social and cultural level, enable him, after his realease, to write this book with a deep understanding of the social, political, religious, economical, and cultural problems of Southern Italy. The style is simple, direct, and elegant. Why Christ, why Eboli? the author only wants to say that the "civilized world" of Christianity has not reached this region of Italy, be it in Eboli or any other village of the South. An interesting book, written by someone whose main occupation in life was not be a writer. Levi was trained as a doctor, and as a "social doctor" he brush-stroked his thoughts into this memoir.
on January 30, 2006
This is a moving account of Carlo Levi's house -- or better, town -- arrest in a remote corner of Italy during the Mussolini era, when the fascists determined that it was much less expensive for them to put political prisoners in out of the way villages and have the local police responsible for keeping them there, than to put them in prison.
What must have felt like banishment, Levi soon turned into one of the most lyrical books I have ever read.
Now, remember, that he was writing about a place that had not changed since the time of Christ--hence the title. He is not writing about religion, but rather, about a region, where the realities of poverty, of peasants farming a harsh landscape controlled by absentee landowners, nonetheless had the power to interest and enchant.
Levi describes both the warmth and the backwardness of the people, the humbleness of their homes (so humble the only natural light comes into them when the door is open--there are no windows). He recounts the marvelous meals he enjoyed there, made from next to nothing, the sound of the workers' return from the fields, and more. He laments that when he asks about local folk songs, there are none. This -- a wild terrain chosen as backdrop in the recent film "The Passion of the Christ" -- is not a landscape to inspire singing.
The towns are like small outposts on the steep sides of the valleys. The only signs of rising above the poverty are displayed in households where someone in the family has gone far away to work in places like Pittsburgh, and sent money home. Think what it must have meant, that the rigors of steel mills and coal mines were an improvement over life in this region.
Visit with Levi a place where times seemed to have stood still--and a place that would look and feel much the same, were you to visit today. Other than the "discovery" of the Basilicata cuisine -- now popular at specialty restaurants in Rome and other Italian cities -- even now, few "travel" books will tell you about this undiscovered region. If you want to get off the beaten path, go.
It is a primitive beauty. And if you cannot go in person, do let Levi take you there.
One added note, for anyone whose ancestors came from this part of Italy, the book is a "must read". It is more than likely that your grandparents and great-grandparents did not tell you much about the place they left behind. Levi can and does, poetically and sympathetically.
If you find this review helpful you might want to read some of my other reviews, including those on subjects ranging from biography to architecture, as well as religion and fiction.
on January 28, 1997
Why read this book? The title won't reel you in. It's not about Christ. It's not religious. It's not even about Eboli. It's about Lucania, a remote village in Italy. So remote, so inconsequential that even Christ never bothered to visit the village, but stopped short at Eboli. It's not really a novel, but more of a cross between a novella and a diary. Having said all that it isn't, let me tell you what it is. It is the true story of a doctor who is banished to a remote village in Italy due to his anti-fascist views during the Abyssinian war. What a turn off! So why read it? It is humorous. It is poignant. It is timeless. And yes, it is a page turner. May we all face adversity with the grace and dignity of Carlo Levi
on March 20, 2000
I think this is my favourite book. It is certainly one I wouldpack amongst my Top Ten for life on a desert island. It is about theindomitability of human spirit. It is about attempted repression and inhumanity of fascism, yet it is about the small wonders and joys that are human life. Eboli, the nearest major town is the 'last outpost' of civilization - beyond which are 'heathens', untouched by Christ, or salvation. Of course that is a metaphor, not reality, for our little village has the same corrupt and stifling religiosity as elsewhere.
This is one of those personal accounts that makes it possible to begin to understand the enormity of the outrage of political repression, and ultimately war.
on December 15, 2006
Carlo Levi writes in his usual warm style and gives us a timeless lesson of how one can face hardship with dignity. This book, which is hard to classify, has been described as everything from a novel to a diary and a memoir. Either way, it is a unique, moving and poignant look into the era of when Fascists controlled Italy and the lives of the people within it. Levi's descriptions of the people of the hilltop village of Lucania, where he was exiled by the Fascists in the 1930s, are precise and heartwarming. His descriptions of the landscape makes one feel as if they are there. Carlo Levi has produced a true masterpiece.
In a pre-Marley world, a young Italian doctor and artist with socialist ideas was exiled for three years to a remote southern Italian village by Mussolini's Fascist party. While it's not entirely clear where his money came from, he was allowed to keep a dog, have visitors and talk with the villagers freely. Because the two local doctors amounted to little more than antiquated quacks, Carlo Levi was pushed into practicing medicine. The sentence required that he not leave the village and that he find his own quarters. A dozen other exiles lived in the village, but contact among them was limited as well. That's how a liberal Jewish intellectual from Turino came to live among the peasants, petit bourgeoisie, and envy-wracked country gentry of Gagliano village in the mountains of what is today Italy's Basilicata region. Villages here, in the 1930s, lived a life far from any government assistance. Even Christ stopped (it was said) at Eboli, a town at the northern edge of the poverty-stricken region. Levi writes brilliantly of life in the remote village---the discouraged priest, the Fascist mayor (who, though strict with the exiles, wants Levi's approval as a "man of culture"), the mayor's manipulative sister, the peasant women maids who worked for him---and the difficult lives they had, without any aid from the outside world. Levi paints a picture of a place tied to its past, with 19th century struggles between bandits (peasants) and the landowners only the last of the struggles. Outside occupiers had marched in and out for centuries, but for the most part, the peasants kept their heads down and worked in their malarial fields in the valley below. CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI evokes above all the world of the forgotten people of Italy, taxed, drafted into armies for wars they never understood, and then ignored. Rome gave them nothing, only sent tax collectors and imposed mayors who called useless meetings and gave fatuous speeches. But don't think that the peasants were unaware of the outside world. It was just that their ties with the wider world did not lie in Rome, but in the big city slums of America. A huge percent of the village men went off to America to labor, sent money and goods, and often never returned, leaving an equal number of women alone. The men who returned mostly plunged back into village life. When their foreign funds dried up, they became part of traditional life once more, not having changed dramatically in their foreign sojourn.
Levi writes of all this and a lot more. He created it on the basis of one year's stay, because he received an amnesty when Addis Ababa fell to Mussolini's army. You would have to use the word "lyrical" to describe the style. The inhabitants of Gagliano and surrounding villages are drawn vividly, the connections of peasants, village, nature, the saints, the church, the magical spirits, social class, and politics so well-knit that you absorb a "village study" better than most professional anthropologists' before you know it. This is a masterpiece. One of the best books I have read in a long time.
This is a perfect memoir. It recounts the year Levi spent as a political prisoner in 1935 in Gagliano, a hamlet in southern Italy so remote that it seems almost untouched by modern life. Levi, a painter, writer, physician, and sometime musician, is a quiet presence in this book. One learns something about him, but more about the people he steadily observes.
The villagers are impoverished, often sickened by malaria, sometimes riven by ancient hatreds. Insofar as the state exists, it is a source of absurdities, like the "goat tax" that claims the only valuable possession the peasants possess. More real to them is America, a place to which some of the villagers have been, only to have been drawn back into poverty. The people are poor, and often unlucky, and certainly superstitious, but they are also hardworking and kind. The only figure Levi mocks is the mayor, an agent of the Fascist state, who lords it over the others.
What makes this memoir so appealing is the way that Levi quietly takes the measure of his own life in a place in which he is deprived of everything he considered important. He is not always happy in Gagliano, but when the time comes for him to leave, he lingers for an extra ten days. He also tells us that he never returned. He doesn't say this, but it's clear that he didn't need to. When he left, he carried the village with him.
Levi, a doctor and painter and intellectual, spent a year in the mid-1930's in Gagliano, Lucania, a peasant town in southern Italy, exiled there by the Fascist government for unspecified political offenses. CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI is his sensitive and loving portrait of life in Gagliano. In many ways the peasants were still pagans ("everything participates in divinity"); Christianity as a religion had not yet penetrated that far south in Italy; in other words, "Christ stopped at Eboli" (a city somewhat north of Gagliano). Levi recounts in detail the lives and world-view of these Twentieth-Century European peasants, which is summarized in the following passage: "This suffering together, this fatalistic, comradely, age-old patience, is the deepest feeling the peasants have in common, a bond made by nature rather than by religion."
Interesting as it is, the book moves slowly -- probably much like the pace of life in Gagliano, but too slowly for me. Levi is not a particularly rigorous or logical thinker; his mentality is more that of a poet. Yet the writing, while not quite pedestrian, is at times ponderous and never really outstanding (perhaps that is in part the fault of the translation). Hence, after reading the book, I was mildly surprised by the mostly glowing reviews on Amazon, and I initially refrained from posting my own review, thinking that perhaps I was being overly critical. But I just finished reading VOICES OF THE OLD SEA by Norman Lewis, which is a portrait of peasant life in two remote villages in Spain in the late 1940s. Despite the different countries and a 15-year gap in time, there are many similarities between the communal lives portrayed by Lewis and by Levi. Yet Lewis's is a much superior book, in large part because the pace is quicker and the prose far better. By no means do I wish to discourage anyone from reading CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI, but if you enjoyed it, or think you might enjoy it, I do encourage you to read VOICES OF THE OLD SEA as well.
on August 14, 2012
Call it what you will - a memoir, autobiographical fiction, a diary of sorts - Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli is an original. The facets of it that intrigued me most were the following:
1. Levi's empathetic understanding of the power of witches and witchcraft. In short, far from dismissing their power, he came to accept and even honor it.
2. Levi's entirely honorable portrayal of the priests who with all their faults and limitations were sent to serve this southernmost section of Italy.
3. Levi's insightful perceptions relative to how this part of Italy in the mid-1930's experienced its government and the state. Bottom-line, it was a situation that combined passivity, resignation, utter indifference, and hostility - all in full and equal measure.
4. Levi's perceptions of how sex, marriage and the family operated at this time in this part of Italy, and how powerfully all this was effected by emigration to America. This was/is totally captivating.
5. Above all, I admired Levi's non-judgmental empathy, understanding, caring and love for the people of Gagliano and Grassano with whom he lived.
This book is a treasure. Enjoy it.