Finding freedom in internal exile

Carlo Levi – Italian socialist, painter, doctor to the poor, politician, writer, editor – is remembered chiefly for Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945), a memoir of his time as a political prisoner under Mussolini, in 1935-6, in the remote village of “Gagliano” (Aliano) in the province of Lucania (now Basilicata), southern Italy.

Arrested as an anti-fascist in Turin in 1934, Levi was exiled to the south. This was considered a suitable degradation for an enemy of the state: here was a region cut off from the world, mired in poverty, its harvests poor, the unpaved roads, the air black with flies, the houses ramshackle and unstable, many with just one room and no windows; pigs in the streets, many children in rags and yellow with malaria. But in this backwater Levi deepened his sympathy for its peasant inhabitants, from whose hard lives he drew lifelong political inspiration.

Levi had only previously worked in a lab as a researcher, but in Aliano, besieged by those in need, he was soon accepted as the village doctor – the “Rofé” (he uses the Hebrew word) – and got used to seeing patients in homes with pigs indoors and chickens under the bed. Infant was a high mortality and the experience of Levi’s housekeeper, Julia, typical: just two of her children, from seventeen pregnancies, survived to adulthood. Levi’s contacts were monitored, but the peasants were free to seek his help “because they were not considered human beings”, and his combination of expertise and outsider status reassured them. He was lucky: free to move about and paint, lodged in “the only civilized house in the village”, with a toilet (but no running water).

Levi’s portrayal of Italian peasant life is one of the strangest works to come out of the Holocaust. He wrote it in hiding in Florence, across the street from the Pitti Palace, from December 1943 to July 1944 – the last months of Nazi occupation before the city was liberated in August 1944. In an introduction written in 1963, Levi recalled the months of and his awareness that each moment might be his last: “A house in Florence was my refuge then from the savage death roaming the streets of a city that had reverted to a primitive jungle of shadows and wild beasts…” But the memoir has nothing on the violence and terror around him, on Italian antisemitism, anti-Jewish racial laws or the 25,000 and more Italian Jews rounded up and sent to their deaths; no sign, even, that the author is a Jew, writing as fellow Jews are being sent to Auschwitz.

Perhaps it is sufficiently implied. In Christ Stopped at Eboli The author describes his exile in southern Italy as freedom compared with life under Nazi rule: “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, where the peasant lives out his motionless civilization on barren ground in remote poverty, and in the presence of death.”

To journey south – Eboli is halfway between Naples and the heart of Lucania – is to go back in time to a world bypassed by “history”. In so doing, Levi seeks to escape what his older contemporary, the Hebrew poet UZ Greenberg, described contemptuously as malchus fun tselem – the kingdom of the cross. The Italian peasants, treated worse than animals, have never accepted the “deification of the State”, and Levi prefers their paganism, poverty and isolation to the civilization that destroyed European Jewry. In a scene of pandemonium in church on Christmas Eve, a priest, apparently drunk, attacks the peasants from the pulpit, accusing them of sinful indifference to Christianity. But to Levi their resistance to organized religion is a sign of their humanity, and perhaps the harbinger of a future revolution. Julia is a treasure trove of superstition and spells (“whose mere pronouncement ravages a man in his vitals”), and the author wonders about their efficacy. Should he set down these exorcisms, fearful as they are, yet “so useful to my readers in the times in which we are living”?

Future echoes of the Holocaust overtake him. In the Second Italo-Abyssinian War (1935-6), the Italians used poison gas; and in parts of southern Italy peasant conditions foreshadowed those of the concentration camps. On a visit from Turin, Levi’s sister, Luisa, a paediatrician, encounters the full horrors of deprivation in a supposedly modern state. In the village of Matera she describes seeing people living with their animals in dark caves, as though stricken by plague. A crowd of children follow her about, begging for quinine. Levi quotes her: “I have never in all my life seen such a picture of poverty. My profession has brought me in daily contact with dozens of poor, sick, ill-kempt children, but I never dreamed of seeing a sight like this.” Many have trachoma, the flies swarming on their eyes; some have “the wizened bodies of old men, their bodies reduced … to skeletons, their heads crawling with lice and covered with scabs. Most of them [with] enormous, dilated stomachs, and faces … worn with malaria”.

Levi is similarly shocked, but at the same time identifies with the peasants – with their response to victimization. He admires their endurance. Abandoned by the state, they are free of the state, and of all political allegiance. As he sees it they have not compromised their humanity or “feeling for the common fate of mankind” – which includes, by implication, the fate of the Jews. Italians like them, Levi writes, have no tradition of obedience to a central government; the peasants regard it as “a strictly forbidden power”. Orders from Rome are ignored or subverted. Repulsed by the state, the peasants revere instead the memory of brigands who fought a government of all kinds with the tools of their work: scythes, axes, and knives.

As a former reserve officer, he notes, too, their lack of pride in army service, which they regard as a misfortune. They decline to commemorate their sacrifice in the Great War, believing that the money spent on armies and munitions would have been better spent on reforestation. He discerns no feeling for the Italian flag, and from the vantage point of 1944 cannot help but share both the peasants’ sense of being besieged by an civilization enemy, and their corresponding “elementary desire for justice”.

“You, too,” he writes, “are subject to fate. You, too, are here because of the power of ill will, because of an evil star; you are tossed hither and yon by the hostile workings of magic.” In his state of alienation, Levi feels a kinship with the alienated. In his southern confinementthe experiences liberation; The hilltop villages are miniature Jerusalems, the dry land beneath them “spread out and almost welcoming”. In particular, the peasants’ resignation to death becomes a source of strength. In one of the most powerful sequences in the book, Levi recalls a visit to a dying patient: he is beyond help, but Levi feels in his presence the reality of a bond “beyond the reach of man”. Such memories sustained him in hiding. To his experiences in Lucania he felt he owed much of his postwar career as a writer, painter, and socialist MP. When Carlo Levi died in 1975, his body was returned to Aliano in accordance with his wishes.

David Aberbach is Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Studies at McGill University, Montreal, and author of Literature and Poverty2019

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