The museum is filled with spears and howitzers, along with twenty thousand books about war, wooden weapons of Zapotecs from the third century AD, bows and arrows of the Chamacoco, and St. Étienne machine guns. “The elegance of war,” the narrator exults, describing the design of the industrial-age rifle. Then there is the “universality” of soldiers’ caps, which are also part of the assemblage. The works of Sun Tzu, Clausewitz and so on: they are all within the museum walls. Just as the museum is a collection of objects, Magris is a collector of memories: of the Habsburg Empire, of Prague, of Trieste, of the Risiera of San Sabba—the rice-husking plant on the outskirts of Trieste that the Nazis converted into a concentration camp and crematorium, a small satellite of hell in their larger death apparatus.
WHEN I met Magris in Trieste, he handed me a book—a memoir written by his late wife, Marisa Madieri, about growing up in Fiume before it became Rijeka upon conquest by Tito’s Yugoslavs, and her life as an exile and refugee that followed. All these kinds of memories fit inside the museum, and inside the novel. Humanity kills, the narrator collects—providing order and, therefore, a temporary peace. To wit, there is Trieste before the Nazis, during the Nazis and after the Nazis. So this is also a book about landscapes and cityscapes, which themselves comprise so many disparate things—the human annihilation inflicted at the Risiera, and the illusions of Maximilian at Miramare, the seaside villa outside Trieste where the doomed Habsburg royal lived before founding a kingdom of Mexico (where he was later executed, after his vision of liberal imperialism turned out to be but a dream). Above all, Trieste is a “collaborationist” city, which after the war “washed its face and reapplied its makeup.” This is normal—it is human nature—the author appears to imply.
The author always circles back to the Nazi death machine. He writes, too, about the inhumanity of slavery in the New World tropics, but that part of the book reads more like a research job, whereas the parts about the Nazi occupation of Trieste and its environs feel lived. He identifies the sedulous opportunist Reinhard Heydrich as absolutely central to the Holocaust and its organization, maybe on account of Heydrich’s experience as a youth, when his schoolmates taunted him, calling him a Jew. “The pen is a spade,” Magris writes, and his spade works the Holocaust and its actors into both fiction here and in the travel writing of Danube. This is, at root, what animates his most important books. War—evil—is ultimately countered by the power of memory, for example, uncovering the names scrawled beneath the coat of lime on the walls of the Risiera. There is a sense in this disjointed, often discursive book that what Magris is really doing is recreating the process of memory itself, which, in turn, must lead to a dissection of human nature.
Just as memory floats in and out of focus, there are bland descriptions, periodically marred by clichés, as well as the most arresting insights. There is the führer, triumphantly entering Vienna in March 1938, “transforming Austria, with its overstated grandeur and its promiscuous cross-breeding, into a commonplace, boring Eastern March.” And Magris makes this comparison about the Germans and Russians: “There is Nazi sweat; frigid, different from the Bolshevik kind with its heavy human odor of long marches without a change of underwear.” The book is permeated with such essences, which in a lesser writer’s hands would be mere stereotypes.
This is far from a perfect book. It could have done with more editing. There is a sense of the run-on sentence in many of its passages. But more importantly, this is a serious book. Great novelists are even greater philosophers. They are always concerned with profound questions. In that regard, Blameless is like a long meditation on human reality, which is also political reality. Though Magris writes about blacks, Jews and so on, this is the opposite of a self-absorbed identity novel. This is all about the writer transcending quotidian reality and plunging into the marrow of history. Periodically Magris is mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize. He should get it.
Robert D. Kaplan is the author of many books on travel and foreign affairs. He is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a senior advisor at the Eurasia Group.