I liked to climb to the highest point of the village, to the wind-beaten church, where the eye can sweep over an endless expanse in every direction, identical in character all the way around the circle.– Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli
When I was a boy, my grandfather, Domenico Preziosi, lived on Route 110, a double-barreled commercial strip in Huntington, New York, on Long Island, its cacophony a rousing anthem of people engaged in the business of living. Seemingly oblivious to the commotion, my grandfather tended his modest lot with a rustic’s stoic care that revealed his origins in one of southern Italy’s most remote regions. There was a small garden where he planted tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. There were pear trees, cherry trees, and apple trees, and where two had grown close together he had wedged planks between the trunks to serve as benches. Grapevines twisted through the piping of an iron trellis. He also made his own wine, which he bottled and stored in his cellar, its color closer to black than red.
According to family lore, my grandfather left southern Italy out of boredom. Having served in the First World War, he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life smoking cigarettes and staring at the mountains. In America, he lived first on Spring Street in lower Manhattan, moved with his young family to the Belmont section of the Bronx, finally settling in Huntington. The village he left is called Grumento Nova, and it is located in the region of Basilicata (known historically as Lucania), the setting of Carlo Levi’s memoiristic novel of 1945, Christ Stopped at Eboli.
Without looking for it, I found a used copy of Christ Stopped at Eboli in a Brooklyn bookstore a few months before my family and I traveled to Grumento Nova to mark my father’s eightieth birthday. Its fortuitous appearance that cold January day seemed significant: we had just finalized plans for the trip. I finished the book quickly, and promptly began it again, drawn by the language and imagery, by Levi’s artistry. But there was something more to my response. Somehow I knew the people Levi was depicting. I knew the landscape, though I’d never seen either. I carried the book with me, consulting it the way other eager travelers consult a Fodor’s or Lonely Planet, or maybe the way a pilgrim consults a spiritual guide. Late one night on the subway, I ran into acquaintances who’d just returned from Italy. When I told them where I was headed, they asked if I’d ever read Christ Stopped at Eboli. Before they could fully finish the question, I pulled it from by bag. Never before had I been so ready to produce a copy of any book. Naturally, it went along with me on the trip.
Christ Stopped at Eboli received general acclaim on its U.S. publication and a 1979 Italian film adaptation won a number of small prizes. The book, published after the war, depicted an aspect of Italy that the Fascist government didn’t want portrayed—the poverty of the south. Levi’s first-person narrative was based on his experience as a political exile in the 1930s. The government had banished him to the desolate, primitive, and malarial village of Aliano, some fifty miles south of Matera, the nearest city. In the book, he lives in Grassano and then another fictional village, Gagliano. Eboli is the larger town where the train left him, which—the title implies—Christ never went beyond. A painter and doctor, a man of learning and civilization, Levi’s narrator comes to find something like common cause with the impoverished peasants, alienated from Italian political, economic, and cultural life, if not civilization altogether:
“We’re not Christians,” [the villagers] say…. “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 thought of as men but simply as beasts… or even less than beasts, mere creatures of the wild.”
But even creatures of the wild can live as they want, Levi writes, while the peasants “have to submit to the world of Christians, beyond the horizon, to carry its weight and to stand comparison with it.” No one has come to this land, Levi explains, “except as an enemy, a conqueror, or a visitor devoid of understanding. The seasons pass today over the toil of the peasants, just as they did three thousand years before Christ; no message, human or divine, has reached this stubborn poverty.”
There’s some overstatement at work here. But the powerlessness of the villagers is real. Taxes are levied by the distant, faceless bureaucracy on everything from dwellings to goats; officious local appointees of the faraway government call mandatory assemblies to lead singalongs of “Little Black Face,” the Fascist march popular during the Abyssinian war.
Their isolation also breeds insularity: petty arguments and vendettas persist across generations, customs pagan and strange (to an outsider like Levi, anyway) endure. Superstitious belief in ghosts and gnomes is stronger than Catholic faith—the peasants openly ridicule their priests—yet the Black Madonna is revered. If there are heroes, they are the brigands of a century past—who resisted Italy’s nascent government and performed mythical, Robin Hood-like exploits against the landowning bourgeoisie.
Grumento Nova, I found, runs precariously along a high, narrow rise of limestone. Seen from the floor of the surrounding valley, it fits Levi’s description of such settlements as “a streak of white at the summit of a bare hill, a sort of miniature imaginary Jerusalem in the solitude of the desert.” Its roots are in the ancient settlement of Grumentum a few miles away, a strategic position in Rome’s battle against Hannibal. Saracens destroyed Grumentum in the mid-ninth century, and a century later, during the pontificate of Leo VIII, its remaining inhabitants relocated to the top of the hill. Rarely in recently recorded history has Grumento Nova been home to more than two thousand people. As of 2014, there were 1,730 inhabitants.
On our visit, we encountered no more than two dozen. One was a small, white-haired woman wrapped in sweaters, never mind the heat. She accosted us with proprietary concern and demanded to know what we were doing there, gathered in the otherwise empty stone street at eleven o’clock on a Thursday morning. My father explained in Italian that his father—whose name he now mentioned—had once lived here. Si, the woman said, nodding in apparent recognition. A torrent of what sounded like explanation, anecdote, and instruction followed. With the help of our driver, Giuseppe, who understood the local dialect, we learned that not only was the name still known, but there was a garden nearby named in tribute to the family. We had only to go back down the stone street to the cafe and pass through to the rear door to see it.
This seemed too good to be true; was it really possible, after all of this time? Would there still be something bearing our name, almost a century later? We were a little dubious, and the woman—who for all of her insistence and assurances still didn’t seem entirely believable—had now melted away as mysteriously as she had materialized. A battered blue Fiat tore into the street, scattering us before skidding around a sharp turn and disappearing down a twisting, narrow alley never meant for cars. We had come this far; we would find it.
There isn’t much of a plot to Christ Stopped at Eboli. The writer/painter/doctor meets countrymen whose life is completely alien as he wonders when he will be freed from exile. It reads more like memoir than a novel, though there are novelistic elements.
Alfred Kazin hailed Levi’s style and the “detachment by which he avoids sentimentalizing the peasants and at the same time renders their undestroyed feelings for human values.” The peasants care for one another, never mind the ongoing squabbles. Their empathy—which Levi shares—flows directly from the essential condition of their existence: the shared setting, without which they would cease to be. They are the village, the village is them, its past ever at one with its present. As if to make the point, the earth continually gives up the remains of the dead—and not only in the village’s old cemetery, its “ground littered with calcified bleached bones.”
The bones that emerge from beneath a collapsed church were of more recent vintage. Some of them still had vestiges of parchment-like skin attached to them, and the dogs fought over them whenever they dug them up; they ran up the village street barking madly in the pursuit of one of their number with a tibia in his mouth. Here where time has come to a stop, it seemed quite natural that bones of all ages, recent, less recent, and very ancient, should turn up altogether at the traveler’s feet.
Among the book’s more memorable characters is one Levi refers to only as “the old man,” who speaks a hard-to-understand compound of regional dialects and whose apparent role in the village is that of grave-digger and town crier. The narrator tells of an encounter with him in the cemetery:
As he leaned on his shovel—for he was always digging new graves—he bent over to pick up a human shoulder blade, which he held for a while in his hand while he talked and then tossed aside. … “The village is built of the bones of the dead,” he said to me in his thick jargon, gurgling like a subterranean rivulet suddenly emerging from among the stones, and twisting the toothless hole that served him for a mouth into what might have been a smile.
That vision has remained stubbornly with me as some others have receded—back into the ground, as it were. I think it’s because it calls to mind my own grandfather, who late in his life reverted to speaking mainly Italian, which, even if he’d still had all of his teeth, I would have had difficulty understanding.
It’s also that holding the shoulder blade and the easy, unconsidered tossing aside, suggesting a simple but deep familiarity that admits the ordinariness of things without denying their significance. I think of similar casual-seeming gestures on my grandfather’s part: the matter-of-fact removal of a hornets’ nest, the easy swish of his cane as he swept dry leaves from his path, the single sharp syllable with which he could silence his dogs. This was not the affected nonchalance the Italians know assprezzatura—my grandfather would never have used the word, if he would have even entertained the concept. But what was it? An instinctive acceptance of what the world presents and how to move through it? Va bene was a phrase we heard often on the trip, and started using ourselves: “All’s good.” A way to wrap up the conversation, a way to get to the next thing: All’s good, even if maybe it’s not; toss aside the bone, water may suddenly spring from the rocks, and either way life goes on.
My grandfather was the only one of the fourteen children in his family to come to the U.S. When he returned to visit a war friend in Matera, he married the man’s sister and brought her back to New York with him—the only one in her family to leave Italy. It is said she never entirely warmed to America. Within twenty-five years, she died of cancer. Her nephew met us in Matera, where we visited two days before going to Grumento Nova. Luciano, a fit, well-dressed man, now seventy-six, arranged for us to tour the Sassi, the sprawling, honeycombed pile of ancient cave dwellings (now a UNESCO World Heritage site) at the city center, then hosted lunch in a nearby restaurant. Present were his wife and his son, a doctor who had taken the afternoon off work. Looking at them down at the end of the table, I was suddenly struck by their resemblance to my aunt and my handful of cousins in the United States—indeed to my brothers, myself. Facial expressions and gestures were spookily familiar. One hears of this happening to others who encounter distant relatives in the old country, yet until it happened to me I could not have imagined what a jolt the uncanny resemblance would produce.
A different kind of uncanny resemblance jolted me when passing through the industrial port city of Taranto on our way to Grumento Nova two days later. Here long stretches of the landscape were dominated by refineries and power plants. It was as dispiriting a view as any along the northern part of the New Jersey Turnpike, made worse by the odors and the obvious decrepitude of the facilities.
The smell of petrochemicals lingered until we exited the highway some miles on, headed for Basilicata’s interior and the Agri Valley. Here, the twisting two-lane roads were nearly empty. The landscape transformed itself into the brown-and-gold expanse Levi describes, wide sun-baked plains sprouting craggy rock formations and ringed by mountains. Atop the nearest hill was the tell-tale streak of white signifying a village—an image I recalled in that moment. And as if on cue, a sign for the Carlo Levi Museum materialized, with an arrow pointing down a long, narrow road. A few miles later, a large pipeline raised on heavy stanchions appeared, running along the road the way a stream might, following us for a long while before it veered off and up into the hills. Water? we wondered. Oil, Giuseppe responded. A few years earlier, deposits had been discovered beneath the fertile stretches of the valley. The pipeline ran all the way back to the polluted port city of Taranto.
“From where?” my father asked, in Italian. The answer could not have been any more surprising. “Grumento Nova,” Giuseppe said. All of us were dubious, my father most of all; he’d been to his father’s village less than twenty years earlier, and described it as still untouched by time, impoverished, mostly agrarian. He had always described it that way. I remember from when my brothers and I were children. That this faraway, nearly imaginary place might now be linked to the rest of the world by so literal an emblem of industrialization as an oil pipeline was hard to accept. From the silence that met Giuseppe’s response, it was obvious we all hoped he was mistaken.
The road up the hillside to Grumento Nova seemed newly paved, with solid-looking guardrails separating it from the precipitous drops alongside. At one switchback was a shrine to the Virgin looking as if it dated back a century; fresh flowers lay at its base. Grumento Nova’s main church is St. Anthony the Martyr, and, like the church of the settlement to which Levi was exiled, sits at the highest point of the village. It is painted bright yellow, a hue somewhere between that of a caution sign and a canary. A large white-faced clock is at the center of its peaked bell-tower. The church was silent and locked. Parked alongside was a vintage, mint-condition Volkswagen Beetle of the same yellow. The local priest’s car? We would never know.
The narrator of Christ Stopped at Eboli describes looking out over the spreading plains from the vantage of the village church, at “the endless expanse in every direction, identical in character all the way around the circle.” The 360-degree view of green and gold plains and distant mountains from the top of Grumento Nova brought this passage to mind. The only sound was that of roosters, which drifted up from the valley floor, their midday crowing punctuating the silence—also as Levi described. What had changed in the eighty years since?
Not much, but enough. On closer look, things were not identical in character all the way around; things were not as they had been eighty, or fifty, or even twenty years earlier. Visible from the terrace behind St. Anthony was a tight gray cluster of steel sheds, squat cylindrical holding tanks, snaking pipes, and ventilation towers tipped with thin white tendrils resembling the smoke of snuffed candles—the Viggiano refinery. Industry, something barely imaginable to Levi’s peasants, had at last come to this eternally pre-industrial region. It lay nearly eight miles off, simultaneously distant and close-by, a collection point for the score of wells scattered across the region. Giuseppe, to our dismay, had been correct.
There were no tourists aside from us the day we visited Grumento Nova. No buses, no hotels springing up—the Agri Valley has failed to draw even a micro-fraction of the crowds that descend upon Florence or the Amalfi Coast. Yet even aside from the Viggiano refinery, there was a sense of what the late British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor called “the contracting wilderness.” Posted at various points along the village’s spotless main street were signs advertising free Wi-Fi hotspots. There is a broad, well-maintained public parking lot hidden away on a lower terrace that offers some of the best views of the surrounding valley. There are a modern municipal building and a new public library, and some of the old, closely packed limestone dwellings have been restored, topped with Spanish tile roofs of vibrant red. Anyone in the world with an Internet connection can learn what’s happening in Grumento Nova via its Facebook page or the 24-hour web cam.
How much oil has had to do with any of this is of some dispute. Locals protest that not nearly enough jobs or money have come of it. My father, who visited in the 1990s, seemed taken aback by the modernization of what so recently had seemed ancient. Though we didn’t detect it, residents complain that fumes—you might say for the first time since Hannibal—drift up from the valley floor. I wondered what my grandfather would have made of it.
As instructed by the elderly woman in her sweaters, we went back to the cafe to look for the garden named after our family. A few teenage boys clustered at the counter, buying chocolate. At the rear was a separate room with a wall of windows; it seemed to hang out in space, suspended like the gondola of a ski lift. The view of the wide valley from here was almost too much to take in. Directly below, on one of the older terraces upon which the newer layers of the village had been built, was a small space ringed by crumbling stone walls, where wild grass and weeds grew untended. Was that the garden? It seemed inaccessible by any means. Clearly, there was no plaque down there, much less one bearing my family’s name.
In the introduction to the reissue of Christ Stopped at Eboli fifteen years after its original publication, Levi wrote of the moment when he first sat down and “began to unwind the thread of memory, discovering not only events of the past but the infinite, poetic contemporaneity of all time and every destiny.” What’s taken from the earth, what it keeps, and what it chooses to give up are all part of that infinite, poetic contemporaneity. One hundred and fifty-five years ago, an earthquake destroyed most of Grumento Nova and killed many of its inhabitants. Today, energy companies deftly incorporate local legend into their marketing materials: the ghostly lights and elusive gnomes that Levi’s village neighbors believed in were caused by natural gas seeping out of the ground. Look, they say, fossil deposits have always been here, and if Italy wants to maintain even its lagging pace with the rest of the world, it’s time to take what the earth is offering. “Inside the Texas of Italy,” one pro-industry promotional piece is titled, the Black Madonna figuring prominently in the content alongside barrel-yield estimates. It was impossible for me not to hear an echo of what the peasants in Levi’s book and their ancestors—my own ancestors—endured at the hands of the fellows in Rome: “These are inescapable evils,” as the peasants say, “such as there always have been and there always will be.” And yet, if there had been such an industry, would my grandfather have felt compelled to leave? My hunch is he would have. He wasn’t in as dire straits as the people Levi describes. I think he left because he was an independent person seeking release from the strictures of family and provincialism.
We soon departed Grumento Nova, down its steep hill and, some miles west, up another, into the village of Moleterna. It was larger and bustling. At the village’s summit, a church was visible—too high to climb to, given the heat. We rested in the shade of the central square. Elderly men gossiped on the benches; adolescent girls in jean shorts and high tops strolled back and forth, arms linked, cell phones tucked in hip pockets. These were not the children of Levi’s Gagliano, whom he described as half-naked, ragged, and chasing goats.
On the narrow street lining the square, a white delivery van came to a stop, its side emblazoned with a bright commercial photo of tastefully scattered pretzels and potato chips. We ran to take pictures of the phrase that accompanied the image in large black lettering: Salati Preziosi.
Salati Preziosi—a major snack food brand.Salati means salty or savory foods, and Preziosi means precious. Their pairing suggested an essential resource—salt. Preziosi also happened to be the surname my grandfather, who came out of this earth, carried with him beyond “the endless expanse” to America.
Dominic Preziosi has published fiction, articles, and essays in many journals such as the Beloit Fiction Journal, Brooklyn Review and Nautilus. He has taught at CUNY and the Gotham Writers Workshop and is currently the digital editor at Commonweal.
Photo by Flickr Creative Commons user Andrea Guernaccini.