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Microcosms
Claudio Magris (translated by Iain Halliday)
Harvill, $25 (cloth)

by Justin Coffin

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 and Croatia.

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.

Originally published in the February/March 2001 issue of Boston Review



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