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Friday, January 3, 2014

What I’m Reading: Christ Stopped at Eboli

The peasants in the southern part of Italy in the years before World War II often said, “Christ stopped at Eboli.”  That is, he never got as far as their village.  History, culture, civilization … human kindness, even, failed to reach their isolated rural villages.    Plagued with malaria and poor soil, taxed and oppressed by “Rome” – the government, whoever was in charge at the time (then the Fascists under Mussolini), they struggled on day after day, year after year, and nothing much ever changed.  Good things would maybe happen crai  and “crai meant tomorrow and forever; the day after tomorrow was prescrai and the day after that pescille; then came chio.  But these precise terms had an undertone of irony. They were used less often to indicate this or that day than they were said all together in a string, one after the other; their very sound was grotesque and they were like a reflection of the futility of trying to make anything clear out of the cloudiness of crai.” (Levi, 215)[i]

But into this moribund village came a reluctant savior, a political exile, Carlo Levi . Even if, as the peasants said, Christ stopped outside of their town, something of God’s appointed came to them.  Christ Stopped at Eboli  (Italian: Cristo si è fermato a Eboli)is Levi’s memoir of the year he spent in the village of Gagliano among the pagan peasants.  And they were “pagan” in the richest, fullest sense of the word.  They were both backward rustic country people (the original meaning of the word) and full of superstitious beliefs – in werewolves, dragons, and gnomes with hidden treasures, an eclectic blend of witchcraft, mysticism and Roman Catholicism.  Levi, a doctor and painter, was sentenced to live there as a political exile for there for his political, anti-fascist activity.

There he began to treat the people for their various illnesses – particularly malaria – because no one else would.  The fascist government in Rome cared nothing for them, made no provisions, sent no supplies but still collected burdensome taxes; the local gentry refused to deal with them, snubbed them, dismissed them.  Yet Levi learned to love them.

He writes of his experience and feelings as he treated one elderly man dying of a ruptured appendix, “Death was in the house: I loved these peasants and I was sad and humiliated by my powerless against it. Why then, at the same time did a great feeling of peace pervade me?  I felt detached from every earthly thing and place, lost in a no man’s land far from time and reality. I was hidden, like a shoot under the bark of a tree, beyond the reach of man.  I listened to the silence of the night and I felt as if I had all of a sudden penetrated the very heart of the universe.  An immense happiness, such as I had never known, swept over me with a flow of fulfillment.” (Levi, 231)

The book is a vivid account of the hardscrabble life of these Italian peasants –rich in vivid detail. It is by turns amusing and heart-rending.  And though Levi, a Jew, makes little mention of his own faith, I cannot help but to read it as an incarnational book.  Perhaps it’s that I’m still in Christmas mode – but this coming to live among them, as one of them, strikes me as very Gospel. 

Toward the end of the book, after his release had been issued via telegraph, one of the peasants said to him, “You’re a Christian, a real human being.  Stay here with us.”  I hope only to have people say that of me.

[i] Levi, Carlo Christ Stopped at Eboli, Farrar, Straus and Company, Inc. 1947.  

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