Germany will be forever associated with Nazism and the Holocaust, at least as long as the state of Israel exists. It could be the year 2300 and the word Germany will bring up images of gas chambers. Fascist Italy has gotten off easy – Italy is not synonymous with totalitarianism, and most people don’t think of Mussolini very often, if at all. They forget the Italy’s pointless invasion of Ethiopia, the equally pointless invasion and occupation of Greece, and the brutal suppression of dissidents (who weren’t members of a specific ethnic group, so they don’t count). The world has also forgotten the fact that technically Italy was the world’s first Fascist state. This displaced memory is aided by the fact that Mussolini was essentially a buffoon, with one of the worst armies at his command. It also helps that Mussolini was despised by a significant portion of the population he governed, as evidenced by the fiesta that followed his death during the forties.
But the thirties were different. If you publicly condemned Mussolini, you could look forward to death or imprisonment. Carlos Levi was one of those unfortunates. He was a doctor, well-respected by the community. While he wasn’t a communist, he knew nonsense when he saw it, and Levi publicly condemned Fascist Italy. Due to the fact that Levi was essentially upper bourgeois, the authorities opted not to kill him outright, and instead internally deported him to the worst part of Italy they could find. This was south central Italy, sort of the instep of the boot. Christ Stopped at Eboli is a fantastic (in every sense of the word) semi-autobiographical account of Levi’s experience as a deportee in this harsh landscape.
The region is so hot that the heat hovers over the ground, creating an illusion of wavering space. The land is arid and inhospitable – it’s mostly clay ground without proper soil, so there’s zero agriculture. There is also zero population for the most part, with the exception of a handful of villages that against all logic still exist. Christ indeed stopped here – this is one area of Italy where Catholicism never took root, and old pagan traditions still exist, at least in the folklore of the people.
This is where Levi spent a year of his life, where he drew from his experiences and the native folklore of the very poor people who were cursed to be born in such a hellish place. Malaria was incredibly common here, due to the mosquito population that dwelled in the clay, and the only medicine on hand was quinine – Levi’s background as a doctor was put to good use here, and he was regarded as something of a saint by the peasants.
The entire work is hallucinatory, dream-like – the result of living in such a hot area that common images take on an almost mythical stature. Levi’s kaleidoscope of experiences and the overall witchy tone of this sweaty area (to say nothing of the quasi-pagan beliefs held by the populace) combine to create a dream-like account of exile, in a place as far removed from Rome as Ethiopia.
One more noteworthy aspect of this work: the population is utterly apathetic to politics. The state i.e. Rome) exists to screw the populace over, regardless of whether or not that state is Fascist or not. The local fascists in town are portrayed as clownish, and no one takes them particularly seriously. Levi’s status as a political prisoner is chalked up to the fact that “someone in Rome must have it in for you” – he’s just another good man, victimized and pilloried by the authorities in Rome, a time honoured tradition that’s been going since the unification of Italy in the 1800s.
Levi’s haunting, elegiac paean to the worst place in Italy should be read by everyone, regardless of political background. With all due respect to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, this is literature, not mere agitprop. It has just as much to say about the contours of the landscape as it does about the niceties of living in (and surviving) Fascism.