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Not Stopping at Eboli

by Michael McDonald

Le mille patrie
by Carlo Levi; Gigliola De Donato, ed.
Donzelli, 2000, 259 pp., Euro 18.08

Carlo Levi grew up in the cultured and engagé circles of Turin in the first two decades of the last century. As a doctor, painter, writer and poet, he experienced at first-hand historic moments in the transformation of Italian society. He made his name as a writer with Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli), the remarkable account of his confinement in a desolate southern province following his arrest for anti-Fascist activities in 1935.

Post-war Italy teemed with neo-realist depictions of life under Fascism. The genius of Levi's book was its ability to communicate what Sartre termed the "singular universality" of his experiences. Levi was not content to describe the scabrous surface details of his exile. His gaze settled lovingly wherever it was directed. He depicted people and places concretely, and yet in such a way that the larger social forces conditioning their existence became manifest.

Part autobiography, part sociology, part mythology, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli defies classification. Published in 1946, the book attracted an international readership and catapulted Levi to the forefront of European writers. But success came at a price.

Over the next three decades, Levi produced a variegated body of work, ranging from travel writing, journalism and political commentary, to influential essays on art and literature. But none of these labours was able to duplicate the triumph of Eboli. Well before his death in 1975 the epithet vir libri unius had attached itself unfairly, but firmly, to Levi's name.

Happily, in the run-up to the centenary of his birth this year, the Roman publishers Donzelli have been reprinting a vast selection of Levi's prose in its handsome and inexpensive "Arti e lettere" series. Le mille patrie is the first of seven projected volumes; its contents are the fruit of Levi's passionate attempt to come to grips with the multifarious, discordant beauty of his native land. To Levi, Italy was "un paese misterioso" upon which radically differing strata of customs had been deposited owing to the diversity of its geography, the workings of time and the waves of occupying invaders, producing what Levi termed a "compresenza dei tempi", in which the ancient and the modern co-exist and combine in unexpected, extraordinary ways.

Several of the essays, such as "Il mito dell'America", which explores how Italy's emigration transformed America into "un elemento essenziale della vita quotidiana" in southern towns, restate themes first broached in Cristo si è fermato a Eboli.

Others, in which Levi examines how episodes from the Second World War either rent or reawakened latent cultural traits, strike a completely new and insightful note. Perhaps the most affecting pieces are those recounting childhood memories; pre-eminent among these is "Torino 1911", which possesses a poetic lyricism rivalling the best of Proust.

Levi died in the same year as another great critic who was similarly fixated on Italy's premodern heritage: Pier Paolo Pasolini. But whereas Pasolini believed that the economic boom of the 1950s had amputated Italy from her past, and thundered against the resulting "cultural genocide", Levi remained calm.

Indeed, in "La storia è presente", an essay written at the height of Italy's economic transformation in 1955, Levi confidently asserts that Italy can never escape the past: "La civiltà degli Etruschi è ancor viva nel tempo, e nel profilo delle donne maremmane, nell'incanto inconsapevole dei loro gesti." Regular visitors to Italy may, alas, tend to believe that Pasolini has had the better of the argument. But these stylish and haunting pieces carry a poetic conviction that is not easily dismissed.
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