Intellectuals whom the Fascist government of Italy thought would undermine them, or had spoken against them, were sent into internal exile in distant mountain villages, mainly in Southern Italy. Once brought to the village by the police, the intellectual offender could not leave or communicate with the outside world, at least not formally.
The author, a Socialist, well educated, a physician by profession, had written against Italian fascism. From 1935 to 1936 he was exiled to a village so remote we probably couldn't find it now. (Although, of course, we could.) In real life, the village is 'Aliano' in the mountains of Southern Italy, although in the novel the village is called 'Gagliano.' And at that time it truly was isolated.
Those in positions of power, the priest, the mayor appointed by the fascists, the school master, and others, neglect their charges shamefully and there is nothing anyone can do. They are literally and figuratively too far away from civilization for relief from their misery including the ravages of malaria. That it had been established some decades before that mosquitoes transmitted malaria and hence cleaning up breeding grounds for mosquitoes would eliminate malaria, no one ordered this done. For the illiterate peasants, life is almost impossible. No one will save them. No one will help them. Injustice will continue as a way of life, their only link to the outside being an appointed official charged with furthering injustice.
In that time, there is (and continues to be) a town called Grassano which is engaged with the larger society of Italy though road and rail connections and presumably telegraph in those days and telephone now. In the book, 'Grassano' is named 'Eboli.' And it is truly at a great remove from the real village of 'Gagliano.' The villagers, most of whom are honorable people in their own way, explain their lack of everything by the simple statement: "Christ stopped at Eboli." Meaning that even the Deity Himself, and by association Western Civilization, never went further than Eboli. All they can possibly do is pray but the villagers hate the priest and he hates them and besides, praying won't help because Christ stopped at Eboli.
[Image courtesy of Corbis Images.]