Book Of A Lifetime: Danube, By Claudio Magris

The Balkans shaped the opening and close of our last century, but for poorly prepared Westerners they remain, even now, a distant cauldron into which we like to toss our prejudices, ignorance and jokes; an indeterminate, Ruritanian region, full of people with names like Zog and nowhere better evoked than in the novels of John Buchan and Dornford Yates. Asked in 1921 to consider an invitation to become king of Albania, Lord Inchape is supposed to have stared at the motorcyclist who brought him the urgent message, and replied: "Where is it?" (He declined on the grounds "It's not in my line."). Nor does prejudice vanish on the ground. "Who ever saw a green horse or an intelligent Serb?" is a Romanian proverb of lengthy stock.

In 'Danube', the Trieste writer Claudio Magris steers us through the region created and enclosed by the river and known as Mitteleuropa. His impeccable narrative, which took more than 20 years to write, mingles travel, history, anecdote and literature, and in the end, for me, steals the laurel from three other candidates whose influence it shows: Fernando Pessoa ('The Book of Disquietude'), Jorge Luis Borges ('Labyrinths') and Gabriel García Márquez ('Love in the Time of Cholera'). Magris, a guide of enormous modesty, has not only read everything: he has been everywhere, met everybody – from the sniper employed to shoot rabbits in a Viennese cemetery, to the prostitute who comes each year to sit in the Cemetery of the Nameless and mourn her still-born child.

River of melody, Hölderlin called it. But the Danube has many names. Born in a pipe sticking upright in a marshy field and flowing to its outlet 2,888 kilometres away in the Black Sea, the river links Europe and Asia, Germany and Greece, and glitters in the sunlight "like the river of life itself". As Magris writes: "the river is an old Taoist master, and along its bank it gives lessons on the great Wheel and the gaps between its spokes."

Magris with his humane, panoramic gaze presents in the same glittering light the ruts and rivalries which have overturned us. "Everyone trembles before everyone else, the Turks before the imperial troops who capture Belgrade, and the imperial troops before the Turks who capture it back... the boiling pot does not cease to boil, to fuse and amalgamate its contents, to burn, to consume." He flings his net wide, yet no fish is too small which comes to it.

He takes the same pleasure in visiting the room where Kafka died as in speaking to the elderly concierge who now looks after the place, or in gazing down at the garden beneath and envisaging his Roman forebears amble through it. He understands the lesson hinted at in Borges' story "The Immortals": that each of us in our lifetime will play an army of roles in which we will know, if maybe only for a flicker, what it is to be cowardly and brave, stupid and wise, ugly and beautiful.



Nicholas Shakespeare's new novel, 'Inheritance', is published by Harvill Secker

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
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.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor