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

Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
'Africa' will be Angelina Jolie's fifth film as a director

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

    Immigration: Obama's final frontier

    The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

    Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

    You know that headache you’ve got?

    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

    Scoot commute

    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
    Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

    The Paul Robeson story

    How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
    10 best satellite navigation systems

    Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

    Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
    Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

    Paul Scholes column

    England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

    Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
    Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

    Frank Warren column

    Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines