BOOK REVIEW / Telling tales in Greek and other larks: 'A Different Sea' - Claudio Magris Tr. M S Spurr: Harvill, 12.99 pounds

IN NOVEMBER 1909 Enrico Mreule sails from Trieste for Argentina. 'Whether this voyage of escape marks the beginning or end of his life is uncertain,' observes the dry and subtle authorial voice of Claudio Magris. Enrico's former schoolfriends Nino and Carlo are deeply impressed: Carlo is writing a 'masterpiece' on the meaninglessness of life and regards Enrico's departure for the empty wilds of Patagonia as a magnificently authentic act. 'You know how to exist entirely in the present, Rico, they had said to him as he left . . . You belong, Rico, on the raging sea.'

Magris touches in their past times. 'They derived enormous pleasure and wonderment from their shared view of the world. Up in Nino's attic in Gorizia they would read Homer, the tragedians, the Pre-Socratics, Plato, and the New Testament in the original Greek, and Schopenhauer - also, of course, in the original . . . They used to exchange their thoughts and describe the day's events, like the story of Carlo and the dog, in ancient Greek, and then translate them into Latin for fun.' Ah, what larks.

Enrico fully intends to 'continue their dialogue' with letters giving his thoughts and impressions, but all he ever manages to send Carlo is a couple of uncannily banal postcards. There is a slight problem. 'Perhaps he did not explain himself properly, even though they talked all night before he left. For a start, he left Gorizia to avoid military service . . . not least because he would have had to shave his head', but mainly because he was afraid the boots would hurt.

Carlo writes, though, to say, 'We have been inevitably drawn to you in our grey lives . . . you, Rico, are a being of superior strength, like a saint . . .' The letter finds Enrico, now a horse trader, in his cabin on the pampas and he is embarrassed because he always thought Carlo was the saint. These feelings become more fixed a year later when Carlo shoots himself with Enrico's old pistol on completion of his masterwork and his followers acclaim Enrico as his 'natural successor'.

Bothered by scurvy because he never got around to growing any vegetables, Enrico eventually returns to Europe after the Great War, does some teaching, buys a bit of land on the Istrian coast where 'everything had happened', that is, where he and the boys once spent three days sailing with some nice girls, and lives the rest of his life according to Carlo's high, renunciatory, Buddhist principles, which means doing next to nothing.

A Different Sea is a quietly devastating and, if you are in the mood, a bitterly funny study of the dangers of philosophy. Magris never openly comments or owns up to the degree of irony he is using, he merely gives us Enrico's eloquent, educated but perpetually callow thoughts, and keeps his distance. (Enrico despises all novels except Tolstoy's as frivolous, for example). He never tells us, either, that Carlo Michelstaedter was a genuine minor philosopher (1887-1910) who owes his reputation, such as it is, to his 'poetic' suicide and to the later existentialists who found him useful as a bourgeois case history; instead he gives us Enrico's letters to Carlo's sister, praising Carlo as the perfect sage, the Buddha of the West, and lets us hear their sad, sad ring.

The novel itself takes a philosophical view in some senses; it sums up a man's life in just 100 coolly worded pages, and that's philosophical all right; its larger, looser theme is the way we fail, or some of us fail, to outgrow our youth, which is philosophical enough too; the coming of the Duce, the Nazis and then the Titoists is treated with a certain resignation; and the ideas about stripping life to its essentials and cutting free of troublesome desires are given their due by a writer who is, after all, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Trieste; but beyond all that there is pure fictive genius at work.

'He re-reads Buddha, the discourses of the last days in which the sublime passes beyond the ultimate limits of perception to the dissolution of the perceptible. He also reads the Regulations Concerning Share-Cropping in the Province of Istria, and highlights the clauses that concern him most. Clause 7: 'The tenant must abstain from carrying out work for third parties.' ' Enrico gives his tenants a hard time, not that Magris puts it so crudely. 'Let them realise there is never anything to lose, not even those extra hens he has forced them to get rid of according to the rules. Only when one has understood that, one is free.' Lord Gautama was probably an awkward landlord too.

The title may indicate that Enrico's Atlantic crossing is symbolic, that even the most serious abstract concepts, like those kicked around by Socrates and friends on the shores of the civilised Med, cannot be carried far into the endless, unmanageable world of actuality. There is a wonderful moment when Enrico confronts an ancient, profusely branching Patagonian tree and considers it untidy: 'Shape comes from reduction.' But the measured prose, whose fineness in M S Spurr's English version hints at virtual perfection in the original Italian, always leaves us with a vestige of respect for Enrico and his Carlo as characters. They are only human, and this is a very human book.

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
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.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?