Thursday, March 08, 2007

Reading. Levi. (Carlo).

I randomly stumbled (as it so often happens) across Christ Stopped at Eboli in a tiny used bookstore crammed with books (as used bookstores often are), tucked away at the back of the Pike Place Market. It was the title that caught my eye; I had never heard of it or of its writer, Carlo Levi, and I couldn't tell whether it was fiction or nonfiction. Yet I bought it anyway, knowing that somehow I would lose myself in the story. The title, as the preface tells us, comes from a saying of the people of Eboli, that "Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli," and therefore they had been "bypassed by Christianity, by morality, by history itself - that they have somehow been excluded from the human experience."

Levi had been sent to the village of Gagliano (actually Aliano) because of his opposition to Mussolini; he had been imprisoned and then exiled for a year before being freed. His Christ Stopped at Eboli is a chronicle of that year, of his life in that distant town where it seemed that "Christ never came this far, nor did time, nor the individual soul, nor hope...Christ never came, just as the Romans never came, content to garrison the highways without penetrating the mountains and forests, nor the Greeks, who flourished beside the Gulf of Taranto...No one has come to this land except as an enemy, a conqueror, or a visitor devoid of understanding." (It's strange, but no one goes into exile in a bustling metropolis; they find themselves in remote islands or towns that seem untouched by time or civilization or indeed even human existence).

Writing about a certain period of time in your life from across the distance of time or another shore is different from writing as your life is happening around you; that era has passed, and there is nothing left from that time except your memory of it. Many years have gone by, begins Levi, years of war and of what men call History. Buffeted here and there at random I have not been able to return to my peasants as I promised when I left them, and I do not know when, if ever, I can keep my promise. But closed in one room, in a world apart, I am glad to travel in my memory to that other world, hedged in by custom and sorrow, cut off from History and the State, eternally patient, to that land without comfort or solace, where the peasant lives out his motionless civilization on barren ground in remote poverty, and in the presence of death.

Written in the Pitti Palace, in Florence, after eight years abroad and then again in prison, Levi goes back to his peasants, to that remote town that seemed completely cut off from the rest of the world, untouched by time or what we call civilization. He remembers how he came to this town where the earth was of white clay, so that it seemed like "a landscape on the moon," where black banners hung from every doorway, some new, some faded. The town has heard that a doctor (Levi had trained as a doctor) would be arriving, and upon arrival he is called to the home of a man ill with malaria, and in this far place where Christ never came he is unable to do anything except watch the man die, and so his year of exile begins.

Levi, Carlo. Christ Stopped at Eboli. Time Inc., 1964. pp viii, 2, 1, 6.

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