October 19, 2017

Remembering War

Claudio Magris, Blameless, trans. Anne Milano Appel (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 368 pp., $26.00.

CLAUDIO MAGRIS is an academic from Trieste, the quintessential Central European city, though located on the Adriatic Sea. Every spot along the Danube—every hillside baroque dome he sees—provides an opportunity for Magris, born in 1939, to unleash a lifetime of learning about Germanic Europe on the page. After buying Magris’s book Danube: A Journey Through the Landscape, History, and Culture of Central Europe, which first appeared in Italian in 1986, in a bookstore in Geneva in the mid-1990s, I became infatuated with it. Years later, I traveled to Trieste to meet Magris at his favorite cafe, the San Marco, where Italian intellectuals once plotted against the Habsburg Empire.

The San Marco is a place where time is savored and nobody looks at their watches, amid fleshy marble tables and theatrical mask paintings hung inside gold medallions. Magris has a worn, sculpted face and his eyes flare as he talks, replacing the need for gestures. “There was always nationalism,” he explained to me, which could be liberal, like in the nineteenth century, “but it was only after nationalism was forced inside formal and bureaucratic national states” that it became illiberal. We talked about central Europe, which he says was originally sustained by a “borderless fusion of German and Jewish culture.” Thus, Hitler’s destruction of the Jews effectively finished off Mitteleuropa. Magris went on to discuss the plethora of upheavals in Trieste and in the nearby Istrian Peninsula, where Italian, Slovene and Croat populations once intermingled peacefully until the creation of modern states with their straitjackets of ethnic identity. World War II and the decade following saw ethnic cleansing, mass deportations and population movements as fascist Italy and an emerging, communist Yugoslavia jostled for territory. All are an integral part of Magris’s world, one of beautiful landscapes and wrenching human suffering. And because the travel genre cannot contain all of what he knows, he also writes novels.

Read the full book review in The National Interest.