Through an accumulation of devastating details, an Italian novel made up of stories within stories reveals truths about World War II and its aftermath that many (in the novel as well as in real life) would prefer to keep buried.
In his new novel, Magris (Blindly, 2012, etc.) examines war as a universal force that pervades history and the very specific horror that enveloped his home city of Trieste after WWII. The novel’s unnamed protagonist is an obsessive collector who was determined to curate a Museum of War, an establishment to promote peace, until he died in a fire in the process of fulfilling his ambition—likely an act of self-immolation. What remains of his legacy lies in his notebooks—at least the ones that haven't gone missing, perhaps burned in the fire. He took copious notes, and he named names: conspirators, collaborators, spies, casualties, even a rare hero (whose own story is open to dispute and revision). The pages that remain aren't in any order, at least as they're presented by Luisa, the archivist charged with fulfilling his mission by filling rooms with the artifacts that remain in the collection. Some of the chapters are descriptions of these rooms or of Luisa's plans for them. Some are taken from the protagonist’s notebooks, his “scribblings that so agitated his heirs—though they weren’t the only ones,” and which Luisa presents in pretty much random fashion. Interwoven as a separate narrative thread are chapters headed as “Luisa’s Story,” a recounting of her girlhood in Trieste, of her Jewish Italian mother and her black soldier father, of the horrors in Trieste which no one mentions and which she discovers as if through osmosis—“there is an atrocity that one wanted—had to?—forget. In Trieste, on every street, I see the smoke that no one wanted to see.”
Like war itself, this novel reveals its ineffable mysteries though it resists being understood too easily.