Books: Nostalgia for a lost Europe

Thursday Book: MICROCOSMS BY CLAUDIO MAGRIS, TRANSLATED BY IAIN HALLIDAY, HARVILL, pounds 13

CLAUDIO MAGRIS became widely known outside Italy with Danube, his 1986 literary travelogue about central Europe's great river, from the Black Forest to the Black Sea. By spinning vivid webs of association among names illustrious and unknown, evoking cultural panoramas that had existed before only in the minds of specialists, and implying the triumph of life's inherent pluralism over ideology, Magris did as much as anyone to invigorate the fashionable concept of "the other Europe" - indeed, of Europe as such.

Although the words "Cold War" do not (if I recall) occur in the text, Danube shared and inspired the optimism that brought down the Berlin Wall three years later, thus reuniting the continent. It seemed to have been composed, like Elgar's first symphony, with massive hope in the future.

Hopes are proleptic; it is in their nature. Pointless, then, to lament their betrayal. Yet the bigotry and hatred that flourished in the Nineties have hit Magris hard - too hard, perhaps, as several sombre passages in his new book show.

In effect, Microcosms is a sequel to Danube, with the author's familiar discursive, learned approach now being applied to an arc of Italian, Germanic and Slavic cultures between Piedmont and the northern Adriatic. As before, Magris counterpoints generalities and particulars, history and geography, world events and village details. Readers are again invited to enjoy insights into authors they have never heard of: Marin, Voghera, Slataper, etc, are second-string names even in Italy, and unlikely to be translated.

Starting and ending in Trieste, Magris digresses through half a dozen picturesque backwaters: the hills of Friuli, Piedmont and Slovenia, South Tyrol, the lagoons of Grado, a smattering of Adriatic islands. He takes nature's elements - sunlight, sea, snow, forest - and hatches serial metaphors from them, in hazy paragraphs that float like helium balloons. He is especially fine on the Adriatic. The becalmed atmosphere of Grado, amid its lagoons, is caught as never before.

Over the years, Magris has written a great deal about Trieste, his birthplace and vantage-point. In the past, critics have seen him as propagating nostalgia for the Habsburg past. There is none of that here: "The frontier city is threaded and scored with frontiers that sunder it, scars that do not heal, invisible, ineluctable borders between one paving stone and the next, violence that calls forth violence." Magris is grieved by the persistent misunderstandings between cultures. "In all Europe," he writes, "the fever of local nationalisms is raging, the cult of diversities that are no longer loved as so many concrete expressions of human universality, but rather are idolised now as absolute values."

He is overdoing the point, such is his disillusionment. The conflict in Croatia and Bosnia, so close to Trieste, must be largely responsible; although it happens off stage, its bloody shadow and reek are pervasive. He sums it up as "the stupidest of fratricidal wars, the tragic failure of Tito's great attempt at founding a state".

For that matter, his stint as an Italian member of parliament during the heyday of Umberto Bossi and the Lega Nord can hardly have restored faith in political reason. Upon these anvils, he shapes his insights: "Ethnic purity, like all purities, is the result of a subtraction and it is as rigorous as subtraction is radical - true purity would be nothing." And: "Each identity is an aggregate, and there is little sense in dismantling it so as to reach the supposed indivisible atom." Briefest and best is the following: "Identity is the product of a will." Amen to that.

As a connoisseur of nature, Magris also knows what is not natural. There is more politics in the chapter about the sun-struck limestone islands of Quarnero, where Italian vestiges jostle with Croatian authorities. Yet, as usual, for Magris nature's consolation is not far away: "the wounds and the scars of History never become infected," he writes, "they dry and heal like scratches on the sole of a bare foot that lands on the island, stepping on those sharp stones."

Despite this redemptive upward curl that closes many episodes in the book, Microcosms is overcast with a pathos that is more affecting because not really confessed or explored. Politics is only part of the reason. Magris's writing has never been more intimate than in the beautiful last chapter.

Suffering lurks in the margins of Microcosms, whose places are theatres of memory, chosen for their power to provoke personal recollection. This power sustains the narrative through a few longueurs. Below the carapace of allusions lies an oblique memoir of family life, celebrating its cycles of repetition, renewal and loss. English readers unfamiliar with the terrain may need stamina, which will be rewarded.

Mark Thompson

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