Christ Stopped at Eboli stands as one of the more memorable works of a generation of writers who were born early in the twentieth century, lived under Mussolini’s authoritarian rule during their formative years, and dedicated much of their imaginative energy to opposing his regime. The movement, which became known as the Italian Resistance during World War II, had already spawned such novels as Ignazio Silone’s Brot und Wein (1936; Bread and Wine, 1936) and Elio Vittorini’s Conversazione in Sicilia (1937, serial; 1941, book; In Sicily, 1948) before the war; others by Vittorini, Italo Calvino, and Cesare Pavese appeared shortly thereafter. These men set forth views that were usually egalitarian and, in some instances, communistic. Levi himself became a Communist member of the Italian Senate in 1963. Twentieth century Italian intellectuals tend to fear Communism less than a resurgence of the conservative and reactionary forces upon which Mussolini drew.
Political as it was, Levi’s book caught and continues to hold the attention of readers because of its unforgettable verbal picture of a region rarely visited by tourists and little known even to many Italians. In this respect, Christ Stopped at Eboli belongs to an older tradition of fiction which presents the life of the Italian peasantry, a mode established by Giovanni Verga, especially in his masterpiece I Malavoglia (1881; The House by the Medlar Tree, partial translation, 1890, 1953; complete translation, 1964). As Verga revealed life in Sicily, so Levi unfolds life in Lucania. Although Levi is not primarily a novelist as Verga is, and although this book resists any neat classification, Christ Stopped at Eboli continues to transcend its specific concerns with the events of the 1930’s and with the intensification of the totalitarian threat during World War II. The book evokes brilliantly the harsh beauty of a forbidding landscape and the timeless struggle of those who call it home.