The other weekend when visiting a small used bookstore appropriately named the BookBarn in rural Columbia County in upstate New York, several miles from where we have a weekend home, I spotted on a shelf in this low ceiling cluttered store a copy of Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped At Eboli. It is a book that I haven’t seen in some forty plus years, in fact since I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia.
This book was one of appropriately 75 paperbacks that Sarge Shriver and the first administration of the Peace Corps put together in a portable ‘booklocker’ for Volunteers. The books were to be read and left in country, to become seeds for new libraries in the developing world where we were serving.
The used copy I found in the Bookbarn was a later edition, a TIME Reading Program Special Edition, first published in 1964 with a new Editors’ Preface. The body of the book remains the same, however, and what a body of prose it is.
First some background on Carlo Levi and the book for those of you who missed reading it while you were in college or in the Peace Corps.
Carlo Levi was an Italian doctor and painter who had written polemics against Italy’s Fascist regime and was exiled in 1935 to Gagliano–a backward, malaria-ridden southern Italian village– after having been in prison for several years for opposing Mussolini dictatorship. Levi would spend a year in this village before returning to northern Italy in 1936, after with he was freed in a political amnesty.
The title comes from an expression by the people of Gagliano who would say, “Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli” which means, in effect, that they have been bypassed by Christianity, by morality, by history itself, that they have somehow been excluded from the human experience.
Levi wrote Christ Stopped at Eboli eight years after the events he described in his book, in 1943-1944. He was then living in Florence as a hunted member of the Underground. Some month later, in 1944-1945, he served as editor of a Resistance newspaper, La Nazione del Popolo. Early in 1945 he went to Rome and edited another Resistance newspaper. Christ Stopped at Eboli was published that year.
I [and a lot of other PCVs] read it in 1962-1963.
In many ways, this memoir of Gagliano is the first Peace Corps book. Here is this educated man thrust into a backwater, malaria-ridden southern Italian village. As a doctor, he could help, but he would also learn. What RPCV wouldn’t say the same.
When the word came that prisoners were to be released and he could leave Gagliano, he could not leave. “Everyone else left the next morning,” he wrote, “but I could not bring myself to hurry. I was sorry to leave and I found a dozen pretexts for lingering on.” How many PCVs have felt the same way when reaching the end of their tours?
The peasants, he writes, came to him. “Don’t go away. Stay here. Marry Concetta. They’ll make you the mayor. You must stay with us.”
“I’ll come back.” Carlo told them.
They shook their heads.
“They wanted me to make a solemn promise to return and I made it in all sincerity, but I have not yet been able to keep it.”
I am not sure if Carlo Levi ever returned to the village. I am not sure it is such a bad thing not to go home again. The past is another country as Thomas Hardy wrote years ago, and which is still true. Tom Wolfe knew he couldn’t go home again, even to Ashville, North Carolina.
Most memories should be left unchanged. Carlo Levi was smart enough to leave those memories unchanged and then to capture them forever in this memoir, true and touching, and unblemished by time.
Should he have married Concetta and stayed in Gagliano, this backward, malaria-ridden southern Italian village? Who is to say. Perhaps if he had, he would have written another book, but not this one.
That’s the choice Carlo Levi had to make, and he did, going from southern Italian onto Florence and the war and his work with the Resistance. But he didn’t forget Gagliano. He made his little godforsaken village important by writing a masterpiece with the village and its citizens at its heroes and heroines. What more can a writer hope to do?