19 June 2011
This is a memoir of a year spent in exile in the 1930s. Levi is, nominally, in his own country – Italy had been unified for over 60 years – but a big part of his project appears to be to reflect back to readers in the prosperous north the unimaginable backwardness of of the lives of some people within its borders. Aside from evidence of sporadic interest from the Fascist regime – there’s a moment of absurdity when Levi first discovers the ultra-modern concrete urinal, used only by pigs as a drinking-trough and children to sail paper boats, that seems to have dropped like a meteorite – the village of Gagliano might as well be on a different planet.
By coincidence, I’ve just finished reading John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It’s a gossipy, often bitchy account of life in Savannah, Georgia, and couldn’t be more different from Levi’s book – except that one of Berendt’s motives appears to be identical to this one of Levi’s: to show that you don’t need to cross any borders in order to experience life so different from your own that it’s worth writing a book about it. Both places, in their different ways, are so cut off from the outside that the sight of them on first arrival seems passingly strange. Both have people behaving in ways the writer has never seen before, the product of years of introspection. And both have their own rivalries, their pecking-order of citizens, and constant distrust that regularly mutates into the certainty that someone or other is trying to do you in.
Am I exaggerating the similarities? Probably – but each of these writers constantly seizes on what is different from any kind of norm that a reader would recognise, and this sheer otherness becomes the main point. Savannah is luxuriant, as exotic as a hot-house flower whereas Gagliano is desiccated and arid on its ridge. But each of them contains people whose only interest is in staying alive, and not losing their grip on whatever flimsy status they have in the inward-looking community the writer has fetched up in.
Ok. Gagliano, in the middle of nowhere, 1935. Peasants scratch an ever more meagre living from the unforgiving terrain. On the day of Levi’s arrival a man dies of malaria – and there’s nothing that our man can do: he’s forgotten almost all the medical training he ever had, because he never went into the profession. But the peasants don’t want to hear about that, because the exile – they know all about exiles as there are several others in the village – is bound to be an improvement on the two doctors who are no more than parasites. (Levi hears how the powders provided by one of them are random mixtures provided by, I think, his sisters, who are in charge of the pharmacy.) The doctors are appalled by his arrival.
And there are the gentry, performing a sad parody of behaviour in society. They dress differently from the peasants, make sure they are seen promenading at the right time in the evening in the village’s decaying squares, and – and what? – bitch about one another and the peasantry in exactly the way you’d expect. As Levi presents it – although he doesn’t actually make the analogy – Gagliano is an outpost of an asylum. Any logic to be discovered in the behaviour of these people is the logic of the insane, removed from any contact with reality.
As I’ve already suggested, the asylum is the whole of Italy. The preposterous urinal might have been costly but at least it’s harmless; however, Fascist innovations like the the 100% goat tax, designed to ensure that crops are not destroyed by these animals, simply mean that a vital source of income is taken away from the peasants of Gagliano, where no crops grow. This information comes after Levi has been forced to share his room with a tax-collector, as separated from any sense of reality as anyone else he’s met: he carries his clarinet wherever he is forced to wander, believing he is a skilled musician – he isn’t – and complaining about the recalcitrance of the peasants who don’t see what an important job he is doing.
Gagliano is not the first place our man has arrived at following his arrest. In a chapter designed to give us a (slightly) bigger picture, he describes the officer in charge at Grassano, the town that was a staging-post for him. This is the despairingly cynical Decunto – nice name the man has – who sees the whole region of Lucania as riven by insoluble tribal enmities going back centuries. He is as scornful of the unifying power of Fascism as he is of everything else, hangs on to the desperate promise of a new life in Abyssinia, volunteers for the campaign that he knows will bring Italy into conflict with Britain. But what’s a man to do?
Our man’s only been in Gagliano a day or two at the point I’ve reached, so what we get is impressionistic. His room at the widow’s house, the near-ruin someone offers as a more suitable lodging, the crowd of women he compares to cattle at one of the village’s two sources of water, the road through – but leading nowhere – that narrows to a path between two precipices, the two exiles he catches a glimpse of, forbidden to meet in case of some treason or other, the moments of depression he feels at the prospect of three years in this place that seems devoid of any good qualities…. I wonder if it’s all going to be like this, endless meanness with only tiny flashes of bitter comedy. We’ll see.
I forgot to mention something: the church is a ruin, having collapsed a few years before – so you can imagine how happy the priest is in the outhouse-like building he now has to use. It’s quite important to mention this, because a thick thread in these chapters is to do with what does and doesn’t pass for religious belief in the village. Early in the book, Levi explains about Christ never making it beyond Eboli, about how ‘Christian’ in this part of the world doesn’t mean what you and I think it means…. Sure, the village has the requisite Madonna – a paltry papier-mache copy of a famous nearby statue – but actual beliefs are, as you’d expect, a tissue of superstitions.
We’re back in John Berendt territory in Chapter 8. The local grave-digger, nearly 90, is a shamanistic figure, and has learnt from his close contact with forces beneath the earth a range of black arts from wolf-taming to the harnessing of elemental spirits. Later on we come to understand the alternative world this man seems to inhabit, with his regular encounters with devils and occasional meetings with dragons. We first meet him as Levi takes his usual siesta in a recently dug grave: it’s high summer, and, in his description, the village has reached a kind of heat-oppressed full stop – so where else would you go to cool off?
Some weeks have now passed, and Levi is able to dedicate separate chapters to different aspects of the weirdness he sees around him. Politics in Gagliano is as fraught with superstition as religion: Rome is a force of nature like the weather or the almost omnipresent malaria, something to be borne with fatalism. Like so much else in these chapters, attitudes seem, to 21st Century readers, like those we see in the remotest parts of Africa or the Indian subcontinent. (This goes for some of the malnutrition as well: children with distended stomachs are made listless by illness and hunger, and don’t flinch as flies crawl over their eyelids.)
Another chapter covers a short visit by Levi’s sister. She’s a practising doctor, so she can bring him books and a limited amount of equipment – although it’s a pity that nobody in the nearest town had heard of a stethoscope. She also gives us a wider picture: her description of a visit to Matera makes it a town of troglodytes who have burrowed into the hillside, with grotesquely out-of-place government buildings in the monumental style on the plateau above. It’s a visual metaphor of a phenomenon Levi has already told us about.
And life goes on for our man. He’s started to paint – that’s what he considers to be his real purpose in life – and he’s found somewhere to live. Which raises the inevitable problem there will be in having a housekeeper: how can any woman be in the house alone with him? It turns out that only one woman will do, as she has reached a point so far beyond the pale that the usual rules no longer apply. Not that she’s ostracised for her multiple pregnancies with multiple partners: in a culture in which religion is simply a matter of ritual and form, it’s perfectly possible for certain kinds of behaviour to be accepted with a shrug. Besides, she’s a witch, an aspect of her that is not merely accepted by the villagers, but welcomed: her philtres and cures are better regarded than anything the resident doctors can offer.
There’s other stuff. The village’s annual feast day, with its parade and fireworks. The ubiquity of bones – literally in the graveyard where the shamanistic old man digs, and in Levi’s descriptions of the skeleton-like landscape with, for instance, what looks like a giant human femur ‘which still had clinging to it shreds of desiccated flesh.’ Barone, Levi’s dog, a gift from some of the people at Grassano as he left. And, underlying everything, the primordial belief systems of these people. Dragons? Of course. Werewolves? Everywhere – so be sure not to answer the door on the night of the full moon until your man’s knocked three times.
And yet… every town has its ‘Americans’, men who left to make a living in New York and returned home for a visit that somehow became permanent: you buy a parcel of stony land, you marry – and before you know it, America is a dim memory with no more reality than anything else beyond the village borders. I can’t remember whether Levi uses the word ‘stuck’, or its Italian equivalent, but… the Americans are as concreted into this world as those who never moved.
The year turns. At the end of Chapter 20 Levi has just spent New Year’s Eve alone with a broken clock, and there are no bells to chime midnight ‘in this land where time did not pass.’ Ok, Carlo, we get it.
Before this, at least there had been a midnight mass for Christmas Eve. But it ends in a shambles: the priest’s pantomime of losing his notes and miraculously finding a letter from the village’s only conscript in Abyssinia is seen as proof of the old man’s drunken incompetence by Don Luigi, the increasingly absurd mayor. We already know about his fatness and near-falsetto voice; now we have his determination to rescue the occasion by having his pet fascists sing the only two patriotic songs they know in order to drown out the sermon. When the peasants seem not to notice, he has his men march around the church singing the same songs. (Next day, Christmas day, anonymous letters are sent to the government offices in Matera, and later the priest is moved to an even lowlier parish.)
I suppose memoirs like this one are bound to be episodic. There are actual episodes like the two-chapter visit to Grassano after the powers that be decide to act on a letter that Levi sent when he originally left that town requesting a return to finish some pictures: it’s one of the regime’s little absurdities to put with all the others. The interlude seems to serve no other purpose than to highlight that however appalling this one-horse town might be, it’s better than the no-horse Gagliano. It has a few hole-in-the-wall shops, a market stall or two and – gosh – a troupe of actors stops by. Their performance of a d’Annunzio play gives our man the opportunity to muse about why it seems so much better than his plays usually do: the actors, encouraged by their peasant audience, are able to cut through the high-flown rhetoric to reach the truths beneath. D’Annunzio was from peasant stock, speaks to these people if you know how to let him. Ok.
But, mostly, Levi is adding layers to what we already know. In the long Chapter 14 he has a go at clarifying why the peasants feel so alienated by what the translator has them refer to as the ‘fellows in Rome’: they have never had any part in the governance of their own country, sided with the brigands in the long-standing conflicts between them and the landed gentry throughout the 19th Century. Their mythologising of the brigands and their stories morph into folk-tales, and get mixed up with ever more outlandish legends about the spirits in the woods. If you can only catch the red hood of one of the gnomes, you’ll be rich forever – and peasants tell him, straight-faced, of how close they have been, exactly where the right caves are for finding them. In a later chapter we get the story of the woman he stays with in Grassano, whose child is lost in the woods. Frantic, the woman searches, and the local black-faced Madonna tells her that she’s been looking after the infant with the help of some nearby wolves. (Later, unfortunately, a fortune teller lets them know that at the age of six he’ll fall from a ladder. Which he does. So it goes, in this universe.)
How much do I like this book? It’s of its time, written in Florence from 1943-4, and must have seemed like a damning indictment of the crumbling Fascist regime. But, of course, it’s more than that. In the long Chapter 14, Levi describes how the peasant stock is somehow a part of the land itself, has never taken any interest in the millennia of comings and goings of invaders and rulers. Life is as it is, and as it always has been: when you ask a peasant what he has or what he’s eaten, the answer is always ‘Niente’ – nothing – and if you ask when things will improve he’ll say ‘Crai’ from the Latin craz, tomorrow. But ‘crai’ in these parts means never.
Chapters 21-25 – to the end
It becomes even clearer in these final chapters not only that this is a book of its time, but that Levi has a definite political purpose – to go, I suppose, with the socio-anthropological and artistic purposes. The penultimate chapter reminded me of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, based on the same period in the mid-1930s. Both writers – liberal but essentially rather privileged men – extrapolate from their fairly limited experiences of living with an underclass in order to make recommendations about how things need to change politically. Levi puts his faith in the idea of autonomy: it’s the only possible way the dyed-in-the-wool individualism of the peasants can be accommodated, as no manifestation of the ‘state’, of whatever complexion, will ever mean anything to them. Ok. Levi is writing as WW2 is still happening, and he holds out no particular hope for any future administration….
It isn’t all politics. A surprising amount is to do with art and other cultural forms that a man of Levi’s class is going to be interested in. (If that sounds a bit sarcastic, well, it’s not accidental. Levi is a scion of the Italian upper-middle class, and his generation, with its attendant attitudes, is not that of a 21st Century reader. He is happy to shoot a passing bird when his guard offers him a gun, he is willing to give his witch-housekeeper a little slap – because that’s the only way she’ll be comfortable with him, don’t y’know – and he is perfectly comfortable to be regarded as the best thing that has happened to the village in approximately a century. But he can’t help his upbringing so I’ll shut up about it.)
We see him going out painting, attended by up to 20 of the village boys who squabble amongst themselves to decide who will carry his easel, or paints, or brushes…. He tells us about the replacement for the ousted old priest, who wants him to play the new harmonium to bring in the crowds. He describes the way the village’s annual drama performance, an improvised, ramshackle affair, takes the form this year of an allegorical piece about the monster of Rome taking away the only decent doctor around. (There has been one of those arbitrary decisions from above, stating that he mustn’t practise medicine any more.)
And… what? We’ve had the memorable stuff before these chapters – which is why we get more of Levi himself. He is allowed to go home to Turin for a week to attend a funeral, but he is deeply uncomfortable, can’t forget his peasants. He attends a dying peasant in another village, but only after he and the man’s brother have moved mountains to persuade the unspeakable mayor to ignore the prohibition this once. And, to celebrate the so-called victory in Abyssinia, he is the beneficiary of an amnesty for political prisoners. His three-year exile turns out to be – what? – nine or ten months. He procrastinates over the preparations for leaving, promises he’ll return one day….
It’s fairly thin stuff, but this book’s reputation isn’t based on this section. It’s the extraordinary lives of people living only a few hundred miles from one of the great centres of European civilisation that remain in the memory. For the intellectual classes, the 1930s in northern Italy were at the very hub of modernity – and not very far from here, Levi is telling them, are lives of biblical simplicity and hardship, and belief systems that seem from some prehistoric past. Reading it in the 1940s must have been an extraordinary experience.