A trip to the south of Italy

A coincidence while reading The Gorge, Umberto Eco’s coming-of-an-age story of a boy in the second world war: the same desolate but painterly landscape that haunted Carlo Levi’s intriguingly titled Christ Stopped at Eboli. The latter is a book I’m reading chapter by chapter, savoring each and every morning, its beauty growing more potent at each read, a lot like tea left to steep for a long time. Initially a bland account of a political dissident from Milan, who was exiled by the fascist government to the south of Italy, it becomes a rich, nuanced narrative – of Southern Italy, with its gorges, ravines, hills; of its people’s traditions and culture; of its being a vassal of Rome and the north. It’s an incisive account, immersive and – coming from an outsider’s perspective – humble. It’s a good historical account that gives one a more honest picture of an Italy that was not yet “whole”, its prosperous north have yet to be integrated with the impoverished south, the region so destitute that one of its cities earned the nickname “Shame of Italy”, and moreover bereft of a single national identity having been conquered by neighboring kingdoms.

Levi was able to unspool anthropological truths about the town of Gagliano in elaborate, romantic paragraphs. He was able to describe the society’s beliefs, its attitude towards art, its hostility towards Rome, the state and the government, and its intriguing superstitions. Take for instance how the locals stare at his dog:

"In these parts names have a meaning and a magic power; they are not merely empty, conventional syllables, but have a reality all their own... My dog was to the peasants a real 'baron', a gentleman, a personage worthy of respect... They thought of Barone as an heraldic animal, the rampant lion on a nobleman's coat of arms... To the peasants everything has a double meaning... People, trees, animals, even objects and words have a double life. Only reason, religion, and history have clear-cut meanings. But the feeling for life itself, for art, language, and love is complex, infinitely so."

There are passages that are vivid and palpable, such as a scene where Levi offers to help a local priest, Don Trajella, whose living conditions were dire, with a wine glass that looked like it was never washed, judging by its “black, greasy crust around the rim”, and the house, “having the suffocating smell of a chicken-house”. In the priest’s bedroom are seventeenth-century tomes on theology, casuistry, lives of the saints and fathers of the Church, and the Latin poets, all covered with dust and chicken dirt, and which has now become a roost for the chickens he was raising. At one point the chickens fluttered, frightened by the priest’s old mother shouting and waving her arms:

Don Trajella tried to chase them off the sheets, railing the while at "this Godforsaken country!" The chickens cackled louder than ever in stupid terror, raising clouds of dust which shone in the beam of sunlight coming in through the narrow aperture of the half-raised window."

Perhaps the most striking description was Levi’s dissection of a typical peasant house in Gagliano, with a single room that triples as a kitchen, bedroom, and a quarters for farm animals. At the middle of the room is an enormous bed for the whole family; children that haven’t been weaned were kept in little reed cradles or baskets suspended from the ceiling just above the bed, so the mother could reach out, pull the baby down to her breast, and put it back quickly; under the bed slept the animals…

"...and so the room was divided into three layers: animals on the floor, people in the bed, and infants in the air. When I bent over a bed to listen to a patient's heart or to give an injection to a woman whose teeth were chattering with fever or who was burning up with malaria, my head touched the hanging cradles, while frightened pigs and chickens darted between my legs."

Curiously, hung in all the houses he’s been in as the town’s unofficial doctor, were two portraits: “the black, scowling face” of the Madonna of Viggiano, and “the hearty grin” of President Roosevelt. (Apparently the towns at the south of Italy have a large expat community in New York.) Together, these two resemble the faces of power – not the King of Italy nor the Duce, nor any famous Italian. A comic note at the end:

"Sometimes a third image formed, along with these two, a trinity: a dollar bill, the last of those brought back from across the sea, or one that had come in the letter of a husband or relative, was tacked up under the Madonna or the President, or else between them, like the holy Ghost or an ambassador from heaven to the world of the dead."

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