I received a review copy of this title from Yale University Press. This book was published in the original Italian in 2015 and this English edition has been translated by Anne Milano Appel
The unnamed protagonist in Blameless has been obsessively collecting items associated with fighting and warfare for decades in order to establish a war museum in his native home of Triste. His collecting began shortly after World War II, during which time he helped negotiate the liberation of Triste. He gathered so many items throughout the course of these post-World War II years that they could only be stored in a hangar. His entire life was consumed with establishing his museum to the point that he even slept among his objects and papers. When he dies in a fire that consumes him and some of his precious objects in the hangar, it is a woman named Luisa that is tasked with curating the museum and organizing his notes, objects and stories.
The novel is not easy to read and both its images and its disjointed structure make it disconcerting, but also appropriate for a story that deals with the violence and atrocities of war. While he was collecting items for his war museum, the narrator also kept copious and detailed notes in a series of journals, some of which were presumed lost in the fire that killed him. The narrative alternates between pages from the narrator’s journal, descriptions of items that are to be displayed in the museum, and Luisa, the curator’s, own story as a child of a Jewish woman and a black man. The most difficult parts of the narrative to read and grasp are the narrator’s thoughts in his journal. There are layers of stories within stories, personal reflections, and names of spies, informants, victims and those involved with perpetrating war crimes.
Magris does not shy away from describing atrocities of war. Scenes of torture, for example, and descriptions of the last moments of victims who are sent to the gas chambers at the Risiera are described. The unnamed narrator’s collection culminated with his copying into his journals the words written on the walls of the Risiera by victims who were about to be murdered by the Nazis. But the notebooks in which he transcribed these horrors go missing and Luisa is left to speculate what mysteries they contain about the horrific evens that occurred in Triste during the war.
There is a constant tension in the book between images of love and death. Items of war—guns, tanks, axes and bullets are meticulously described as Luisa plans how they will be displayed in the war museum. The final, violent days of the liberation of Triste are related by the narrator in great detail. And the violent death of Lusia’s aunt, a nurse serving in the war, who is kicked to death by a band of racist thugs is found within the pages of this war novel. But there are also glimmers of love and even hope. Luisa’s mother Sara, orphaned when her own Jewish mother is killed during the war, comes out of her deep depression when she meets her husband, a black American who comes to Europe for the liberation. Together they bond over the persecution that their ancestors have suffered through the course of many generations. They find a deep level of comfort in one another’s company that sometimes not even their daughter cannot penetrate. Magris eloquently relates their first night together in his lyrical prose:
Every sunset is different, in all the thousands of millennia no two evening’s glowing embers have been identical; the switch instead wastes no time with lighting effects, its’ not a huckster trying to lure mothers with glittering trinkets for their children, but always turns on the same light and turns it off to the same darkness, like someone who takes his job seriously. But one night, that night, when the dark hand—dark on the back, the palm was lighter—which had gently touched her arm helping her up the poorly lit stairs had reached to turn the handle and open the door, Sara, looking at the strong, powerful brown hand, had felt that even a small mundane gesture can reveal a man and that something can change, suddenly, in your heart.
One image that struck me which is ubiquitous in Magris’s narrative is that of the sea. The sea is presented as both a source of comfort but also something that can consume, overwhelm and suffocate. The book opens with a description of the narrator’s acquisition of a submarine and his of his fear of the sea. By contrast, Luisa’s mother has fond memories of Salvore, a town by the sea on the other side of the Gulf of Triste where her mother safely hides her during the war. In these scenes Magris writes about a sea that is calming and beautiful: “The sea is blue, a dazzling light; when it reverberates in the fierce noonday heat its brilliance is blinding, a darkness in which you cannot see anything, like at night.” Luisa’s mother uses the blinding, white light of the sea as a shelter from the war that is being waged around her.
In the very last scene in the book. however, Magris returns to the image of the all-consuming sea and the submarine. As the narrator is suffocating in the conflagration of his hangar and hallucinating, he conflates his own death scene with the deaths of those who were suffocated and burned at the Risiera. As he is dying he has the chilling and horrific sensation that he is sinking in one of those submarines along with the other victims in the war. As the sea is swallowing him he sees the remnants of his war museum:
I must have entered the submarine that I had the Navy give me. Yes, I’m going under; through the porthole I can see the white pages with those numbers and names sinking to the bottom. They dumped the waste into the sea, into the gorge, they dumped us here, between the Patoc and the sea, the water can’t be very deep, but we’re going down, down, throwing garbage into the sea is a crime and so is throwing men in, but the judge declares there is no cause to indict.
I was impressed with the high level of Magris’s erudition mixed with his poetic language and intriguing plot. Much like Compass which I recently finished, is not an easy read, but for those who enjoy a literary challenge then I highly recommend Blameless. Has anyone else read any other Magris books? I also have Danube sitting on my “to read” pile.
About the Author and Translator:
Claudio Magris has been a professor of Germanic studies at the University of Trieste since 1978. He is the author of Danube, a best-selling novel now translated into more than twenty languages, and in 2001 he was awarded the Erasmus Prize. He has translated into Italian the works of such authors as Ibsen, Kleist, Schnitzler, Buchner, and Grillparzer.
Anne Milano Appel is a professional translator. Her translation of Stefano Bortolussi’s novel Head Above Water was the winner of the 2004 Northern California Book Award for Translation.