Tuesday 8 September 2015

Christ stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi

Late back from a wedding I read the chapter about Matera—squalor and malaria after prosecco and canapés and cake. Matera could not have seemed more naked. It wasn't Christ who stopped at Eboli, it was humanity.

This was the first book I ever reviewed, at the age of sixteen, as a school exercise. I asked my mother's friend Gertie which book I should write about, and read her choice with respect, gratitude and a degree of incomprehension. Learning how to enjoy not understanding is one of the major lessons of adolescence. Communism had a surge after WW2, and Gertie was a fellow traveller. I wasn't sure of the implications of that, either.

In 1935 Carlo Levi was exiled to Gagliano in Basilicata for being anti-Fascist. Romeo was banished from Padua for killing Tybalt. Carlo Levi was banished for having an opinion. Gagliano was worlds away from his native Turin, a peasant community where death was hardly distinguishable from life. When Italy invaded Abyssinia (now Ethiopia/Eritrea) in the random way of conquest, the peasants thought dying in Abyssinia hardly distinguishable from living in Gagliano. They were not interested in the war, waged from Rome. One conqueror, one invader, is very like another. An eclipse of the sun presaged endless sorrow. They had 7 dialect words for tomorrow, part of a timeless incantation conferring no hope at all.
They have led exactly the same life since the beginning of time, and History has swept over them without effect.
Carlo Levi was measured and warm on the subjects of the peasants he came to know.
They have gentle hearts and patient souls; centuries of resignation weigh on their shoulders, together with a feeling of the vanity of all things and of the overbearing power of fate. But when after infinite endurance, they are shaken to the depths of their beings and are driven by an instinct of self-defence or justice, their revolt knows no bounds and no measure.
At what remove do you need to be to know this?

I have been to the region where Carlo Levi wrote this book. After a trip up Monte Pollino in Calabria our friend Pino took us over the mountain and down the other side, into Basilicata. On the way down we saw a VW Beetle loaded with sticks for the winter, battling over rocks that would give a goat pause. We stopped in a café and listened to local men talk and drink intently. What are they talking about? I asked Pino. Work, he said. And when they work they talk about drink.

You can have a garden if you have brains, said Andrea, who had made one in 1990s Calabria, over the mountains. You can get rid of malaria, said Carlo Levi, with a few precautions, and trees planted along the river. He sympathised with the peasants' mistrust of the rest of Italy. The faraway place with which they engaged was not Rome but New York.

I rarely read books as slowly as I read this one. I wanted to continue to go there before I went to sleep, to feel the world I live in articulated, clarified, by the world to which Carlo Levi was exiled in 1935.

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