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