ἀρετή τιμὴν φέρει, (excellence brings honor), are the first words spoken by Magris’s protagonist in A Different Sea. Enrico has graduated from the Royal Imperial Staatsgymnasium of Gorizia and has decided to set sail for Patagonia in an attempt to live an authentic life, free from material items, worry, and The Great War which is about to break out in Europe. His mind has been shaped by the Ancient Greek texts that he and his friends Nino and Carlo are so fond of reading in Nino’s attic room:
Up in Nino’s attic in Gorizia they would read Homer, the tragedians, the Pre-Socratics, Plato, and the New Testament in the original Greek, and Schopenhauer—also, of course, in the original; the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Sermon of Benares and the other teachings of Buddha; Ibsen, Leopardi, and Tolstoy. They used to exchange their thoughts and describe the day’s events, like that story of Carlo and the dog, in ancient Greek, and then translate them into Latin for fun.
Enrico has an existential crisis in his youth as he is trying to decide what, for him, constitutes excellence in his life. To the Homeric heroes he is so fond of studying, excellence comes in the form of success on the battlefield which, in turn, brings them honor. Enrico’s search for purpose in life seems to have more elements of Epicurean philosophy than Homeric values. He feels the most content when he is with his friends, in the attic, discussing life and Greek philosophy. Epicurus himself achieved ἀταραξία (a lack of disturbance) sitting in his garden and contemplating human existence with his friends.
The Epicurean elements of Magris’s text continue as Enrico traverses the ocean in order to reach South America. Enrico craves simplicity, has no interest in politics, avoids pain and has no fear of death. On board the ship, when he is told the story of a famous captain who dies at sea Enrico remarks: “Nil de nilo fit et nil in nilum abit” (nothing happens from nothing and nothing will go into nothing). Once he reaches Argentina he spends weeks and months alone herding his flocks and living in a modest hut with only a bed and a few Greek books.
When Enrico finally returns home he settles in Salvore and also lives a modest life in a small house and rents his land out to tenants. But he still remains unhappy and unfulfilled since his friends have all died and he fails to make connections with anyone else in his life. Every time he has the chance to get close to someone, especially a woman, he ends up driving them away. His poor relationship with women begins early in his life with his mother whom he feels favors his younger brother. He finds comfort in having a woman with him who can also fulfill his sexual needs but he treats each woman he lives with very badly. Even his niece, for whom he at first develops a fondness, is treated poorly and verbally abused by Enrico. In the end Enrico’s loneliness and his failure to achieve ἀταραξία are due to his inability to make emotional connections with other people in his life. He never finds his excellence, his reason for living, something that can bring him honor and self-satisfaction.
I found Magris’s writing in A Different Sea as enjoyable as his longer novel Blameless which I recently reviewed. He is fond of weaving images of the sea into his stories, imbedding stories within stories in his texts, and portraying flawed characters who are searching for meaning in this random, crazy life.
Here is a link to a recent interview with Claudio Magris whose English translation of Blameless has just been published by Yale University Press: http://blog.yupnet.org/2017/04/13/writing-as-witness-a-conversation-with-claudio-magris/
For a more detailed discussion of excellence and honor in Homer see my thoughts on Logue’s War Music: https://thebookbindersdaughter.com/2017/03/23/excellence-and-honor-in-logues-war-music/