The truth is that there’s no family relationship between Primo and Carlo Levi, apart from the fairly likely descendance from the same biblical tribe.
Still, there’s some degree of resemblance in their excellent writing: dispassionate descriptions of a totally unfamiliar world, with even their own self examined through the eyes of an outsider, the "author". The small, strange worlds they describe are worlds apart: Auschwitz and its aftermath for Primo, the small village of Gagliano in Southern Italy for Carlo, where he was exiled by Mussolini’s government in the mid 1930’s for anti-fascist activity. Gagliano is lost in the middle of the remote and poverty stricken hills of Lucania, south of Naples. The people in the village are eternal outsiders, eking out an existence on inhospitable malaria-infested hills, adhering to a strict age-old division between nobility and peasants. The nobles are almost as poor as the peasants - the richer ones having long since left - and the remaining ones are all smouldering with hatred and envy for one another in a never-ending fight to grasp one of the few government-paid civil service posts. They despise the peasants, who in turn despise them. Among the nobles are two doctors with little or no medical know-how and even less desire to heal anybody, and the daughters of an apothecarist who continue to distribute their own mixtures of drugs and medicines with unknown proportions of whatever they can get their hands on. The peasants are all hungry and sick with malaria, working like slaves to grow a few meagre crops on their minuscule plots of land. They rightly expect nothing from Rome except for taxes and regulations that will crush them even further. Rome has never done anything for them since ancient times - they have always been and will always be the outsiders.
|Painting by Carlo Levi, probably representing the peasants of Gagliano|
This is the miserable world into which Carlo Levi is forced in 1935. He hopes to spend a quiet time there painting landscapes and peasants, but instead the rumor circulates even before his arrival that he is a trained doctor - a real one - and from his very first evening there the peasants throng at his doorstep to beg him to come and care for their sick. He doesn’t wish to be drawn into local politics, but cannot find it in himself to turn away the sick. And so, little by little, he gets to know the peasants and their hidden, timeless, introspective world, filled with magic and witchcraft, diseases and charms to ward them off, misery and strange tales of hidden treasures. The region was home to organised groups of bandits in the 1800’s, and these live on in the peasants’ imagination as heroes of sorts, members of their own cast who fought the desperate fight against the unjust order of the world, knowing from the outset they would lose. They would get caught and be publicly hung, and yet they kept on fighting because it was the only dignified reaction. And of course, they hid marvellous treasures in dark caves and forests.
|Painting by Carlo Levi, probably representing the barren landscapes surrounding Gagliano|
Carlo Levi believed the hidden, despised world of Gagliano would continue to exist in the same misery, regardless of political upheavals in Rome, from fascist to democratic and back again. He saw no hope for a change coming from above, and from below there would only be occasional violent outbreaks, crushed down with ruthless cruelty by whomever happened to be governing at the time. Was he right? Has Southern Italy remained unchanged since the 1930’s? Or have the remote villages all been abandoned, as so many of our villages have here in France, except as collections of holiday homes for rich city-dwellers? I’d be curious to know.
|Carlo Levi painting at his studio|