When Christ Stopped At Eboli

by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64)

(First published in Dec 13 2009)

 

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 the 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 . . . 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 many 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 as its heroes and heroines. What more can a writer hope to do?

9 Comments

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  • Thank you John for reminding us. Eboli was still in the bootlicker in my small village in southeastern Turkey in 1965. And you have spun out its Peace Corps message very well. As I read your piece, I could not stop thinking about the villagers who came to the train station in the city, Diyarbakir, 25 kilometers from our village, to see us off. I have a dark photo of them carrying our suitcases, waiting at the station.
    thank you!
    rich

  • Marvelous essay! Also, a reminder of what an extraordinary gift the book locker was, filled with the nourishment of erudite, comforting, and cutting-edge literature for us to turn to in good times and bad, during our service in-country.

  • John, I don’t remember this being in my book locker, but it is a classic, cross-cultural tale reminding us of what its like to work and live in some of the most isolated, often forgotten parts of a country.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • John, you whet my appetite for a second, and much later, reading of this book. Thank you.
    Patricia Edmisten
    Peru, 1962-64

  • I remember it well, as well as many other books I never would have gotten to reading had I not been “at the end of the world” in a small town in northeast Thailand. The book locker was a treasure indeed.

  • I would never had known about this enticing and interesting book if it had not been in the foot locker of books I received as a PCV in Nueva Ocotepeque, Honduras in 1967. Thanks for a wonder essay John.

  • Wonderful essay. I’m not sure when I read the book but we visited Sassi in 2006 and read it for sure at that time. They were still struggling with the forced moves to new housing leaving their livestock behind. It reminded me a bit of the forced moves in Lalibela when it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The road to hell is paved with the best…

  • Nice, thoughtful essay. It is in our book locker in Somalia as well and added immensely to our cultural understanding of the divisions between the northern and southern Italians in Somalia. My goal was to get good enough in Italian to be able to read “Il Cristo Si e Fermata a Eboli,”in the original. Never accomplished it.

  • Another great story, John. I’ve heard of this book–perhaps through you in an earlier piece–but haven’t read. Will seek it out. Sadly, the famous PC book locker was discontinued by the time I was a volunteer (1977-80); fortunately, the PC office in Bangkok had a good library, stocked and replenished by volunteers. I read Darkness at Noon, The Quiet American, Yukio Mishima’s tetralogy (Spring Snow, The Temple of Dawn, Runaway Horses, The Decay of the Angel) and many others during those years. Thanks for this essay and for reminding me to read Christ Stopped at Eboli.

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