on Blameless, a novel by Claudio Magris (Yale University Press)

The making of Claudio Magris’ seventh book, Blameless, was inspired by an obscure figure named Professor Diego de Henriquez, “a brilliant, uncompromising Triestine of vast culture and fierce passion, who dedicated his entire life (1909-1974) to collecting weapons and military materiel of all types to build an original, overflowing War Museum that might, by displaying those instruments of death, lead to peace.” In Blameless, the character is fictional, nameless, and driven by a mania to gather anything related to warfare -- from a sunken U-boat once deployed by the Austro-Hungarian navy in World War I, to cigarette butts flicked from the fingers of American GIs who liberated Italy.

Magris_Cover.jpegBut a fire in the building intended for the museum destroyed much of his collection – and took his life. His remains were discovered in a coffin where he had reclined to die. As the novel opens, a curator named Luisa Brooks, newly hired by civic leaders to design the revived museum, begins examining his notebooks, one of which is missing. She had met him briefly. One narrative strand in Blameless tracks Luisa’s deepening understanding of the man’s intentions:

“Don’t give too much weight or too much space to the author’s biographical profile, said the note in his own handwriting given to her personally by him at the time … Whoever helps to organize the Museum and these papers will have to rearrange them, rewrite them in part to make them clearer, I realize that, and therefore the papers that explain and celebrate my work will also be, or rather will especially be, his or hers. The art of war has authors, not a single author.”

Admirers of Magris’ contemporary classic Danube will recognize the headlong advance of his prose in Blameless – discursive, allusive, the tone flat or neutral, then the pitch – and the stakes -- suddenly raised. The text bristles with asides, anecdotes, and obsessive recurrences, a trail of switchbacks looping back to outsets. Tenses and voices shift, yet there is movement toward a looming clarity – but no progress toward resolution. Magris both trusts and tests the reader’s acceptance of a world erected with contradictions and littered with incriminating or exonerating evidence.

Risiera_di_San_Sabb.jpgThe main historical locus of the novel is the surrender of Trieste to the Allies in April, 1945. After the Italian armistice in September 1943, the Germans occupied the parts of Italy not yet taken by the Allies. This included the Adriatic port of Trieste, just outside of which the Germans operated the only concentration camp with a crematorium on Italian soil at the Risiera di San Sabba, a five-storey brick compound that had functioned as a rice husking factory. Before the anti-Jewish racial law was promulgated in 1938, Trieste’s Jewish community was the third largest among Europe’s cities. Trieste was a flashpoint for contention among Slovenes and Italians who in turn fell into various political camps – partisans, Communists, Black Shirts, republicans. Everyone hunted, imprisoned, and murdered everyone else. The unnamed collector had helped to negotiate the city’s surrender, preventing vengeance killings.

But the assassins, the heroes, the generals and privates, informers and underground rebels, the names of those erased at La Risiera – they melted away, into the cityscape or beyond memory. The war finished, the city’s leaders changed their clothes and celebrated. How many of them collaborated and profited through the war? Which of them signed the orders of now destroyed documents?

Magris.jpgIn a 2012 interview with Jessa Crispin, Magris said, “I hate the complacency with evil, but it is necessary to confront oneself with darkness.” The emphasis here is on the word oneself. “I believe in modern leaders and political leaders, but this belief must know all the ambiguities, all the contradictions, sometimes even the impossibilities. Which doesn’t cause us to give up.” Therefore in Blameless, the goals of the War Museum, based on desires for justice and peace, are questioned and scrutinized by Luisa. What exactly will she communicate through her design? What can she make out of these grim artifacts? Magris draws her character as the child of a Triestine Jewish mother and an African-American father, an Allied pilot. Daringly, Magris widens his lens to gather together slavery (and its persistence in new forms), the Jewish Holocaust, and the lingering griefs of Luisa’s life.

Again, Magris speaking to Crispin: “Sometimes emerges in us something we did not know we had, which says not what we are, but what we also are. Perhaps I could be now in a prison for having killed somebody instead of speaking with you … Whose is this horrible voice? Even when the writer would like his double to speak of different things, he must pass him the microphone … Once you go to the underworld, you discover two and two is maybe four, maybe seven. But when you once again are on the surface, you don’t abuse that knowledge to pay your bill at the restaurant.”

Milan Kundera, who reminds us that the enigma hides behind political certainty, writes, “A poet who serves any truth other than the truth to be discovered (which is a dazzlement) is a false poet.” Certainly, Magris’ mode, with its fearless embrace of disparities and emphasis on language itself, serves the truths glimpsed on the other side of life. In its vast in-gathering of persons which includes the reader, Blameless suggests that the oneness of humanity entails an inescapable, shared stain of blame.

Yet Blameless is also a novel of praise. What does he praise? Our willingness to admit to the uncertain nature of the self. The nameless man wrote in his notebook, “It’s that smoke I’m in search of, those names turned to ashes. I’m not fighting against oblivion, but against oblivion of oblivion, against the culpable unawareness of having forgotten, of having wanted to forget, of not wanting and not being able to know that there is an atrocity that one wanted – had to? – forget. In Trieste, on every street, I see smoke that no one wanted to see.”

[Published April 11, 2017. 368 pages, $26.00 hardcover]