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

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The Independent Culture
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.