The evil that men do

5 August 2017

9:00 AM

5 August 2017

9:00 AM

The first thing to say about Claudio Magris’s new novel is that it is, in an important sense, unreadable. There is no possibility of turning page after page engaged in finding out what comes next, of being lost in the characters’ stories. The usual pleasures of fiction are so thoroughly absent that the reader emerges at the other end blinking into the light, struggling to remember what all the fuss about books is anyway.

This is apt, perhaps, for a novel about historic suffering and man’s inhumanity to man. The conceit is that an unnamed collector has amassed a hangar-sized museum of war, full of weaponry and the historical accoutrements of conflict. It has become an obsession for him: scrap metals are ‘the milestones of his existence’ and he sleeps in a coffin wearing a German iron helmet and a samurai mask — but now he has been killed in a fire that destroyed much of the museum too. The museum’s curator, Luisa, has to make sense of what is left, to order the exhibits and use them to tell the story of the collector but also to ‘document the horrors of war and the need for peace’.

Central to the book is the history of the Italian city of Trieste during the second world war and people’s desire to forget its worst horrors, such as the use by the Nazis of an old rice factory, the Risiera di San Sabba, as a makeshift concentration camp. The collector will not permit forgetting. ‘I’m not fighting against oblivion, but against oblivion of oblivion, against the culpable unawareness of having forgotten.’

The book consists of stories: some from the collector’s notes, some from Luisa’s own family history. Others describe objects in the museum and then launch from these to the people who used the weapons or were on the receiving end. But all the stories are told in the same manner — dense, digressive, opaque — so the voices of the collector, of Luisa and of the omniscient narrator become indistinguishable.

This single style of Magris’s has recurring themes. There are baffling apothegms like ‘Man is a karstic doline’ or ‘History’s cancerous menstrual’. There are metaphors stacked end to end like cars in a motorway pile-up. And above all there are references, languages and analogies so plentiful that the reader must approach the book with the intellectual equivalent of several browser tabs open. (One typical page refers to Eros, the Amazons, ‘the armed virgin Camilla, Tamiri Queen of Scythia’, Joan of Arc, the Chamacoco of Paraguay, Kafka, Prague’s Malá Strana, Gorizia and Balzac’s Colonel Chabert.) So densely layered is it, so occluded with thickets to cut through, that it’s impossible to read more than a few paragraphs without losing the thread.

The shame of this is that there is powerful imagery here; but it’s viewed in half-light and through stained glass. Occasionally clarity breaks out and we read about people living in sewers, or the failed production of an 18th-century play, or the racist murder of Luisa’s aunt, but then the clouds darken once more. Often the obscurity masks banality, as when the narrator wonders: ‘What do the flies know about their victims, whether they are dead or alive, white or Mestizo or Indian?’ — a sentiment more succinctly expressed by Bette Midler in ‘From a Distance’.

It’s not all bad. There is at least one good joke in Blameless. It’s on the copyright page: the original Italian title was Non luogo a procedere, which roughly translates as ‘Do not proceed’. You can’t say you weren’t warned.

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