The Heath could not have been more beautiful yesterday, washed in the spring sunshine, all the green fresh and bright on the trees. Best of all, everyone in the walking book club loved the book! And while I had been a little anxious about how easy it would be to discuss, given that it doesn’t have the plot or characters of a novel, my fears proved happily misplaced as everyone was keener than ever to chat away about their many favourite moments in this wonderful book.
Christ Stopped at Eboli was written by Carlo Levi in 1944 as an account of three years spent as a political exile in the deep south of Italy from 1935. The curious title is explained immediately:
‘We’re not Christians,’ they say. ‘Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli.’ ‘Christian’, in their way of speaking, means ‘human being’, and this almost proverbial phrase that I have so often heard them repeat may be no more than the expression of a hopeless feeling of inferiority. We’re not Christians, we’re not human beings; we’re not thought of as men but simply as beasts, beasts of burden, or even less than beasts, mere creatures of the wild.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this could be a depressing book about these peasants, who think of themselves as sub-human ‘beasts of burden’, but while Levi’s tone remains quite cool and detached, he is clearly fascinated by their way of life. Indeed, when he is at last allowed to return home, Levi finds he ‘was sorry to leave and I found a dozen pretexts for lingering on’. We felt the same yesterday, and the discussion of this special place in Italy came to an end rather reluctantly.
The village, Gagliano, is a strange place, entirely of itself. It is so cut off from the rest of Italy, that it has more ties with America than with Rome. Various villagers have emigrated there, and pictures of Roosevelt adorn the walls. There is just one rarely used car, little medicine, and not much food. I was surprised by the minimal presence of religion – the Church is usually empty and baptisms occur only at the point of death. In part this is due to a useless priest, but surely, in the face of such deprivation, people need some system of belief?
Well there is belief, just not in Catholicism. (What would the Marchmains think!?) There is a great belief in magic, which pervades every aspect of village life. As soon as Levi arrives, he is warned of the love potions:
Don’t take anything from a woman. Neither wine nor coffee; nothing to eat or drink. They would be sure to put a philtre or love potion in it.
Levi takes little notice:
Every day I braved the peasants’ coffee and their wine, even if a woman made them ready for me. If there were philtres in it they must have counteracted each other.
These philtres are shown to be potent, however, as in the case of the poor widow with whom Levi stays when he first arrives:
Her husband had come to a bad end three years before. A peasant witch-woman had drawn him into her toils by means of love potions, and he had become her lover. A child was born to them, and because at that point he wished to break off their sinful relationship, she’d given him poison. His illness was long and mysterious; the doctors found no name for it. Gradually his strength melted away; his face grew dark until the skin was the colour of bronze and finally quite black; then, at last, he died. His widow was left with a ten-year-old son and very little money, and so she rented a room to strangers.
A bleak and terrifying tale indeed.
Levi trained as a doctor, and although he is no longer practising when he comes to Gagliano, he is prevailed upon to take it up again in order to help the villagers. He does so, doing what he can to tackle the malaria and other illnesses that are rife, with little medicine or equipment. During his time there he develops an understanding of the village magic to the extent that his cook and cleaner Giulia, who he fondly refers to as a ‘witch’, tells him he should be a sorcerer. Rather than dismissing the villagers’ belief, he respects it:
Magic can cure almost any ill, and usually by the mere pronouncement of a spell or incantation … The most common of all was the abracadabra. When I went to visit the sick I often found hung around their necks a tiny roll of paper or a metal plate bearing the triangular inscription. At first the peasants tried to hide their amulets or apologised for wearing them, because they knew that doctors despise such superstitions and deplore them in the name of reason and science. This is all very well where reason and science can take over the role of magic, but in this remote region they are not yet, and perhaps never may be, deities which enjoy popular worship and adoration. I respected the amulets, paying tribute to their ancient origin and mysterious simplicity, and preferring to be their ally rather than their enemy.
He also makes the point:
The custom of prescribing some medicine for every illness, even when it is not necessary, is equivalent to magic, anyhow, especially when the prescription is written, as it once was, in Latin or in indecipherable handwriting. Most prescriptions would be just as effective if they were to taken to the druggist, but were simply hung on a string around the patient’s neck like an abracadabra.
Magic serves instead of medicine, and isn’t always less effective. The belief in magic is so strong because medicine, or ‘reason and science’, is scarcely available, and, one feels never will be.
At one point, Levi makes various suggestions for preventing against malaria – ‘simple precautions and, according to law, they were compulsory’. He mentions them ‘over and over again’ to the mayor, who does nothing. Then he writes a detailed twenty-page memorandum, which he gives to the mayor. The mayor says he’ll show it to the prefect. The prefect is enthusiastic, but then just a few days later a telegram came from the police saying that Levi is forbidden to practice medicine in Gagliano, under penalty of prison. He notes, ‘as the peasants would have it’:
‘We’re saddled with our malaria and if you try to do anything about it they’ll drive you away.’
So Gagliano is completely resistant to change. It is cursed to have malaria forever, just as the land will always be barren, the peasants poor, food scarce. Levi attempts to bring some reason and science but is halted. Medicine can only go so far, and so it is magic that must prevail. It is much the same with religion.
Perhaps this belief in magic is felt in the magic of the place, the strange hold that it has over the people who live there. Some leave for America, but most return. One young man who has grown up abroad writes to his mother, instructing her to find him a woman who he can return to marry. Levi himself struggles to depart at the end, is tempted by the villagers’ suggestions of marrying one of them and remaining. While it is a poor place, it is a good one, and, evidently, its inhabitants have fallen under its spell.
As you might remember, Emilybooks is off to Italy in just over a week for a two-month sojourn. Perhaps I’ll make a trip to the deep deep south and search out Gagliano. I am curious to see if it remains much as it was nearly a hundred years ago. Who knows … but I will be sure to keep the husband away from any love potions.