The history of Trieste can be read as the record of ascendancy in
Middle Europe. The Romans founded the city as they expanded their empire
in the second century BC. When Rome collapsed in the fifth century AD,
Trieste was overrun by the Huns, and then fell under Byzantine rule.
Next in line were the Carolingians, followed by the Venetians. For one
year, 1381 to 1382, Trieste held a tenuous independence, which ended
when it submitted to Austria as a preferable alternative to Venetian
rule. The French, this time led by General Bonaparte, conquered it again
in 1797 and handed it over to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Finally—or
rather, for now—it has been a part of Italy, having been awarded
after World War I as a trophy for Italy's participation on the side
of the Allies. Recent decades have not been so calm in neighboring Istria,
which was part of Yugoslavia and now sits on the border between Slovenia
So goes the story of Claudio Magris's homeland. But not the whole story—for
the idea of a "homeland" carries with it a sense of attachment to the
permanence of a place, not the evanescence of its national identity.
And this other Trieste has defined itself not by change but by the constants
of the land—the Adriatic coastline, the Tyrolean mountains, the
forests—and the character of its inhabitants. Magris's latest
book, Microcosms (first published in the Italian in 1997, the
new English edition is an intelligent translation by Iain Halliday),
is an irenic tour of the region's roiling history and a loving tribute
to its beauty, its people, and its resilience. It is a search for what
the region is and how it has repeatedly defied acts of ownership.
Magris never mistakes "finally" for "presently." The book is the story
of how this odd place has foiled attempts to possess it, how it patiently
remains itself despite the forces exerted on it. Combining the genres
of history, memoir, travelogue, and belles lettres, Magris takes
the found objects of history—say, a discarded painting that he
discovered in an attic—and uses his intellect to play with them,
massage them, pry loose their secrets. He tells us that this old painting
is set in the Nevoso, a forest between Trieste and Fiume that has stood
on many borders—at one point between the Austrian Empire and Hungary,
then Italy and Yugoslavia, and now Slovenia and Croatia. It depicts
a hunting party comprised of Tito and some other party leaders at camp,
with a slain bear lying in the firelight. This odd scene becomes a stage
on which the myth of the hunter as the master of the forest is dismantled:
a bear chases a marksman up a tree, a prince weeps over a wounded stag,
a hunter tracks down a feared lone wolf, Actaeon's dogs tear him to
pieces after he becomes the quarry. Relics of conflict abound in the
Nevoso—for example, a German helmet with a bullet hole in it still
lies under a fir tree. For generations, this forest has been a wild
place, without boundary and often without marker—what the Romantics
sought as the sublime.
In its format, Microcosms resembles Magris's earlier book, Danube
(1986), which traces Central Europe's great river from its source to
the Black Sea. Both Danube and Microcosms take a telescopic
view of history, and both books consider their specific geographical
subjects in the simultaneity of their past and present—the only
difference between now and then being a small matter of tense. "Places
are bobbins," Magris writes in Microcosms, "where time is wound
up upon itself. To write is to unravel these bobbins, to undo, like
Penelope, the fabric of history. So it is perhaps not a complete waste
of time to try to write something down."
Danube covers all the creatures and regions of the river, great
and small, and is a tribute to its variety and grandeur. Martin Heidegger's
birthplace and the room where Kafka died end up side-by-side with the
work of Ferdinand Thrän, the nineteenth-century neo-Gothic architect,
guidebook writer, and author of the unpublished File of Rudenesses
Received. The trek through Middle Europe is sustained by a grand
question: Does the Danube acts as Germany's messenger, the proselytizing
wellspring of German Kultur, the river of Wagner, Goethe, or
the Third Reich? Or is it Austria's river, meandering, either trying
to elude pursuit or reluctant to reach its destination—the river
of Robert Musil and Anton Bruckner? Or is it neither, a protean effluence
that is never of any place, but merely moving through, its distinction
born of its stately motion?
Also in 1986, Magris published Inferences from a Sabre, a short
epistolary novel about the German occupation of Carnia in 1944. In it,
an old priest writes to a friend about the conflicting stories surrounding
the death of a white Russian general who commanded Cossack troops for
the Nazis. In one letter, the priest describes a plea for better treatment
of the occupied Carnians:
[T]he more I reread [the report] and completed it in my mind,
the more I felt the need to discover other details, to follow in the
tracks of unknown people or even just of names, as if that episode,
which touched my life for only nine days, somehow summed up my own truest
story, and was the mirror of my existence.
The passage marked a shift in Magris's attention, and denotes the primary
difference between his two major works of geographical history. In Microcosms,
Magris turns his attention to the unknown people, to the spearholders
and chorus members.
Microcosms is an intimate work. The narrative moves from place
to place—and often hearth to hearth—within Trieste and its
surrounding region. Magris starts at his favorite cafe, then wanders
out (in the chapters "Lagoons," "Antholz," and "Apsyrtides") to, respectively,
the tidal basin of the Adriatic, the Tyrolean mountains, and the archipelago
of islands off the coast—though he never seems away from home.
He visits with old friends, meditates on how each area seems to thwart
the machinations of history, and never pays too much attention to the
names attached to anything. "Borders: a need, a fever, a curse," he
writes. "Without them there is neither identity nor form, there is no
existence; they create existence and arm it with its all-pervading talons,
like the hawk that in order to exist and to love its nest must take
a dive at the blackbird."
Trieste withstood centuries as history's football field through a combination
of guile and patience. In one brilliant aside, Magris reminds us of
Medea, the princess of Colchis who in Greek mythology conspires with
Jason when he comes to capture the Golden Fleece. She ends up helping
Jason kill her brother and ruin her homeland. Yet her betrayal does
not lead to a happier life in Greece. Left without family or country,
and realizing the ruthlessness of her husband, she turns on the only
bond she has left and murders her children. In Magris's retelling, Medea's
story becomes a cautionary tale for Triestines—what happens when
you flee your home, or confuse a conqueror for a lover, or don't know
what to keep and what to give away.
The story of Leon Sauta serves as an example of the opposite behavior.
As Magris explains, the Nevoso Castle, owned by Prince Schönburg-Waldenburg,
stands today thanks to the wiles of Sauta, its bursar:
Whenever the victors of the moment arrived—those who had taken
possession and wanted to raze the castle to the ground—Sauta explained
that they were now the new owners … hence it was absurd and against
their own interests to destroy it. He said this to the Italians, the
Germans and the Partisans and time and time again that simple, impeccable
reasoning convinced occupiers and liberators.
What Sauta knew that Medea did not was what allowed the castle to remain,
while the Golden Fleece was stolen. Sauta's allegiance to a building
in a forest allowed him to give the whole thing over in name. The new
boss got the deed, but nothing really changed.
It is not hard to see what Triestines feel the need to resist. Today
it seems as if the eventualities of history, the slow shifts of power
from one great empire to the next, have accelerated. Behemoth states
crumble and fractious groups grab at ever-smaller bits of power. But
what's old is what's new. In the 1990s, neighboring Yugoslavia exploded,
showcasing the flip side of history—memory as the "all-pervading
talons" of a fierce beast. And that crisis is never far from Magris's
mind. Survival in a region that has come to resemble a meat grinder
can be a gruesome business, and the secret, according to Magris, is
to take what is meted out, wait, and remember. Triestines, unlike Medea,
have not confused conquerors for lovers.
And so we read the stories of Trieste's spinster aunts, priests, old
soldiers, and quirky government functionaries—many of them Magris's
neighbors and relations. He goes to see Paolo, an old man on the tiny
Adriatic island of Canidole, who is more than happy to tell the story
of how he became a local hero. After being conscripted to fight for
Italy in World War II, Paolo returned home to take care of his mother.
Now a citizen of a Yugoslav island, Paolo was again called up, this
time for service in Tito's army. Feeling he had done enough, Paolo demurred.
When the police came, he hid in the surf. When the army came, he hid
again. When they reported he wasn't there, he sent word that he was.
The alluvial marshes in "Lagoons" are eternally flooded and restored
in the confluence of the seawater trapped behind the dunes and the rivers
coming down from the Alps. The brackish water is itself in a constantly
fluctuating state of imbalance—land is submerged, ships run aground
and rust, a shrine becomes a temple and then a German bunker. Ovid's
ghost haunts the marshland as time, space, and identity are blurred
and bent, turned and twisted. Skimming along "that water-green that
is the colour of life," Magris steps out of the boat into the shallows
and writes of the ultimate metamorphosis of earth and water :
[O]ne's foot gladly sinks into the sludgy marsh. The turbid
colour that clouds the gold of the sand with a dense brown is warm and
good, a primordial silt; the silt of life, which is neither dirty nor
clean, out of which men are made as are the faces that they love and
desire and with which men make sandcastles and the images of their gods.
In a region known for shifting national identity, Magris mines a deeper
vein running through the countryside, and through the long memory of
its inhabitants. •
Justin Coffin's reviews have appeared in the Philadelphia
Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, and San Jose Mercury News, among
other publications. He lives in Philadelphia.