Sunday Short Story: Mischievous Gnomes in the Mezzogiorno, Italy, 1935

In a ‘shadowy land, that knows neither sin or redemption from sin’:

At Grassano there was a young workman, about twenty years old, Carmelo Coiro, a husky fellow with a square sun-burned face, who came often in the evening to drink a glass of wine at Frisco’s inn.  He was a day labourer in the fields or on the roads, but his dream was to be a bicycle racer…at this time Carmelo was one of a group of road-menders who were repairing the road to Irsina along the Bilioso, a malaria-ridden stream that flows past Grottole into the Basento River. During the hottest hours of the day, when work was impossible, the road-menders used to go to sleep in a natural cave, one of many dotting the whole of the valley, and formerly a brigand hideout.

In the cave there was a gnome, which began to play tricks on Carmelo and his companions. As soon as they fell asleep, half-dead with weariness and heat, he tweaked their noses, tickled them with straws, threw pebbles at them, sprinkled them with cold water, hid their coats and shoes, whistled, stamped about and would not leave them in peace. They could see him dart from one part of the cave to another under his red hood and they tried their best to catch him, but he was quicker than a cat and cleverer than a fox and they soon decided that there was no chance of snatching the hood. In order that they might escape his teasing and enjoy their rest, one after another took his turn at mounting guard, hoping to stave off the gnome even if he could not capture him. This, too, was useless. The sly gnome played the same tricks as before, with a mocking laugh at their impotence. In despair they took counsel with the engineer who was supervising the repairs; he was an educated man and perhaps he could succeed better than they in taming the rampant gnome. The engineer came, with his assistant, the foreman, both of them armed with double-barreled shotguns. When they arrived the gnome began to make faces, laugh, and leap about like a goat at the far end of the cave where they could all see him. The engineer raised his loaded gun and fired a shot. The bullet struck the gnome and bounced back at the engineer, grazing his head with a terrifying whistle, while the gnome leaped higher and higher, in mad joy. The engineer did not fire again; he dropped his gun and, together with the foreman, Carmelo, and the rest of the workers, he fled in terror from the cave. After that the road-menders lay down in the open air with their hats over their faces. The other caves in the neighborhood, where the brigands had taken refuge, were also full of gnomes, and they never set foot in any of them again.

From Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi.  Levi was an Italian doctor and painter who was exiled by the Fascists in 1935 for a year to a extremely poor, malaria-ridden  Italian village in Lucania (now Basilicata) in southern Italy.  Levi explain that ‘the title of the book comes from an expression by the people of ‘Gagliano’ who say of themselves, ‘Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli’ which means, in effect, that they feel they have been bypassed by Christianity, by morality, by history itself—that they have somehow been excluded from the full human experience’. Cover Photo from the 1979 film version of the book.


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