Christ stopped at Eboli, say the southern Italians, meaning that they are "not Christian," uncivilized, forgotten, and deprived. Physician, writer, and painter, Levi was arrested and 'exiled' from his home in Turin for opposing Fascism during the Abyssinian war (1935). This is the memoir of his life as a political prisoner under house arrest in a malaria-ridden village in Lucania (Basilicata).

The peasants immediately seek his advice for their ailments, but the two local doctors are jealous, as well as incompetent, and they have him stopped. Grinding poverty, illness, superstition, and despair work on each individual in different ways; but the peasants move with the cycle of seasons and religious festivals. The feast of the black Madonna (Chapter 12) and an unforgettable pig castration (Chapter 19) are vividly described. In the 'atmosphere permeated by divinities' (p. 151), the animal, human, and spiritual spheres combine (Chapters 8, 13, 15).

The closing chapters are a political meditation. Deprivation and isolation make the south an irrelevant and different country to the powerful middle class that runs the Fascist party. In return, Fascism finds no supporters here other than corrupt, petty officials. Levi contends that "the State" of any political stripe will never solve the problems of southern Italy until peasants are involved.


A beautifully written memoir of a forgotten part of the earth suspended at a moment in time.

In 25 captivating chapters, Levi describes his life in the village of Gagliano, which he grows to like despite his first impressions. The memoir concentrates on the stories of the people, the women, "witches," brigands, priests, police, "pig doctors," and pompous officials, and their strange lives. They respect this educated physician-prisoner as a "Baron" and offer him gifts and friendship; they also help him slide around the restrictions imposed on his freedom and the censorship of his letters.

Medical work is described throughout. With the lack of facilities and basic hygiene, several patients die miserably. Often left alone with their children, women bear heavy losses, engage in futile rivalries, age quickly, and seek indifferent diversion in casual sex. Levi's medical sister visits and is amazed to learn that stethoscopes are still unknown in the entire region, while the locals are intrigued by a woman doctor. Levi's attempts to improve public health and control the chronic problem of malaria come to little (Chapter 22, pp. 216-230).

Arrested several times in the war years, Levi eventually became a Senator within the Italian Communist party. Paintings done by Levi during this exile can currently be seen at:


Translated by Frances Frenaye. First published: 1947


Readers' Union Cassell

Place Published

Westminster (London)



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