Analysis of Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli

The Italian author and painter Carlo Levi (1902–75) wrote Christ Stopped at Eboli while hiding in a room looking onto Florence’s Palazzo Pitti during the final years of World War II. An Italian Jew, a painter with a degree in medicine, and a committed antifascist who had been arrested and sent to southern Italy (in Lucania, now called Basilicata), Levi wrote this famous book about his forced internal exile in 1935 and 1936.

Though called a novel, Christ Stopped at Eboli is really nonfiction. Levi changed the name of his town, Aliano, to Gagliano, but other than such minimal changes, most of the accounts in the “novel” are true. What is surprising, first of all, is Levi’s clear literary vocation. Previously he had written essays about the relationship between man, the state, and the sacred; however, Christ Stopped at Eboli is filled with gorgeously detailed descriptions of nature, faces of people, and movements of animals.

Levi titled his book Cristo si è fermato a Eboli because, as he explains, “Christ never arrived here, nor time, nor the individual soul, nor hope, nor the tie between cause and effect, reason and history.” In other words, Christ never proceeded more south than Eboli (a city in the region of Campania, which is northwest of the region of Basilicata). In Gagliano/Aliano, the populace is pagan, according to Levi. There is no sense of time or redemption or heaven. There is only earthly sorrow, the whispers of spirits, the workings of witches with their magic, popular festivals, and fear and loathing of the church.

As an anthropologist and sociologist, Levi describes the rituals of the people and their customs and battles, almost always lost, with the local government. From the beginning of his arrival, the protagonist is asked by the townspeople to heal their families, but the young doctor runs into trouble, because there are two other local doctors, both incompetent, and Levi is a political prisoner under restraint. Generally he is allowed to go only a certain distance, and he is followed continually. He likes to walk to the cemetery on the heights of the town when it is extremely hot and lie down inside the cool graves. (Carlo Levi actually did lie down inside the graves, and he describes the narrow rectangular view of the sky from six feet under.)

Levi inimitably recounts the castrating of pigs and the skinning of goats, in which, at the end, the goat becomes “naked and peeled like a saint.” Levi’s gaze is never condescending or patronizing; he always maintains a sober yet fascinated tone. He becomes part of the story, more and more, as peasants gather around him and trust his medical skills (rusty since he had not practiced for many years). He speaks of the sorcery (believed to exist) among women, the potions they slip their men when they eat, the magic spells to kill enemies. Levi narrates as well his emigration to America and inevitable return to the inevitable misery in Gagliano.

There is no hope here, among the peasants: They are squeezed by both their local lords and the state. Levi introduces the reader to particular characters such as the town priest. Drunk and broken in his old age, once a promising theological student, continually berating the unbelieving peasants, he lives with his deaf mother in a ramshackle hovel with chickens that deface his collection of books. At the end of the novel, after he gives a stirring sermon against the colonial war in Libya, he is thrown out of Gagliano by the podestà (magistrate).

At one point Carlo Levi’s sister, a practicing doctor, comes to visit Levi; she wants to introduce projects to change the peasants’ lives and combat the raging malaria. Her optimism is not shared by Levi, and the book closes with his departure from the town.

In 1936 an amnesty was declared after a victorious Italian advance in Ethiopia, and Levi was one of many political prisoners released. Nevertheless, he did not abandon his passion for the “southern question” (la questione meridionale) in later life. In 1963 he was elected as a senator representing Basilicata in the Italian parliament (as an independent running on the Communist ticket); he served until 1972. He died on January 4, 1975, and was buried in Aliano.

Brand, Peter, and Lino Pertile, eds. Cambridge History of Italian Literature. Rev. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Ward, David. Antifascisms: Cultural Politics in Italy, 1943– 1946: Benedetto Croce and the Liberals, Carlo Levi and the “Actionists.” Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996.

Categories: Italian Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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