“Where are you, I do not see you.” I was standing on the corner waiting to be picked up by the great Claudio Magris. I was nervous. I scanned the street and finally saw his car, parked on the far end of the block. “Hang on a second,” and I quickly hoofed it down the street.
Magris, with his face made of weathered, eroded stone, and his growl of a voice, greeted me with a huge smile and a cheek kiss. “We will go to my home, you can look at my books. I have grapefruit juice.” I nervously assented.
Magris’ book Danube was one of those books for me. One of those books that bypasses the eyes and the brain and sings directly to the heart. A love for Central Europe, a love for midcentury literature, a love for restlessness and travel and complicated lives. And now I was in his apartment, sitting with a glass of grapefruit juice, and we were about to speak of grim things. Specifically the Yugoslavian prison island Goli otok. After the war, many socialists and communists had relocated to Yugoslavia to help Tito build a different, less Stalinist communist state. But after the final split with Stalin, the famous “no,” all foreigners were suspected as spies, and many ended up on this island.
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The island became a slaughterhouse. And the tortured became the torturers of their fellow man in order to please the prison keepers and avoid violence against themselves. From this nightmare came Magris’ Blindly, a gauzy swirl of a novel, narrated by a man who is sometimes an inhabitant of Goli otok and sometimes he is the adventurer Jørgen Jørgensen, and Jørgensen is sometimes ruling Iceland and sometimes sentenced to his own prison camp. It is devastating and beautiful.
Magris and I spoke for ages. But in this short excerpt, we spoke of the line between fiction and nonfiction, and how history speaks to a novelist.
Seeing how you have written both fiction and nonfiction, and in your nonfiction you have imagined the fictional versions of true stories you have encountered, how do you decide, when you come across a tale you want to tell, whether to tell it straight or not?
When I start writing a book, I never know exactly what I want to really write about. For example, concerning the first essays I wrote, it was very interesting to me this contradiction in Austrian literature, why this world which was a world of nostalgia, a world of order and harmony had created on the contrary a literature of the vacuum, of nothing, of nihilism.
When I was a child, sometimes I would copy out of the encyclopedia some articles about animals, but I inserted some invented stories into the copies, escapades of fighting with the polar bear, you know. I was always fascinated by reality. People who really lived stories that really happened are so fantastic, so unbelievable. When I write I have the impression, it is as if I made a mosaic in which each tesserae corresponds to a piece of reality, but the assembly is totally imaginary.
Obviously you know the history behind the story of Blindly very well. It’s an age and a place in the world you’ve written about extensively. So what specifically about the story of Blindly made you decide to tell it as fiction?
I don’t know if you know this Cossack tale. It is the real answer to your question. In the last winter of the [Second World] war, I was in Udine because my father was hospitalized there and Udine was occupied by the Nazis. And these Cossacks were among the white exiles who had left Russia after the Revolution. And they, the Germans, had promised to these people a Cossackia, their own land, and they originally promised them their own territory in what was now the Soviet Union. But as the war, thank god, went for the Allies, this Cossack camp was displaced on the map until it was created for three, four months in Fiume, between Trieste and Udine. Two or three villages were renamed with Cossack names.
The Nazis had fished out from oblivion the old Ottoman [Pyotr] Krasnov who had already fought during World War I and who lived in exile [to lead the Cossacks]. At the end of the war, the Cossacks surrendered to the English army, the English had promised not to deliver them to the Soviets, but they did. A lot of them committed suicide in this river. And for a long time people believed that Krasnov had been killed in the last fighting against the partisans, wearing this old, colorful Cossack uniform. When the archives were opened [at the fall of the Soviet Union] we knew that Krasnov was delivered and hanged in Moscow in 1947, but even when the historical truth was established without a doubt, people wanted to believe that Krasnov died fighting.
I wrote an article about these historical events, but when I had reread my article I noticed a lot of conditional, a lot of “perhaps,” as if I had the necessity to suggest to the reader I was not certain. Why myself, too? I would have been happy if Krasnov had another death, which had an existential poetic truth, I also have the desire to believe in this historical falsehood.
I spent two days with Borges in Venice many years ago, and I told him this story. I told him, I want to give you the gift of this plot. You can write a masterpiece. At the end of the story he had this quizzical look on his face, he patted my hand and said no, it’s the story of your life, you write it down. So world literature lost a masterpiece, but I started to write fiction.
How did the character in Blindly, who keeps changing names and identities and the century he lives in, how did he originally appear to you?
It’s a terrible story, which had fascinated and obsessed me. I have now met three men who had really experienced this fate. I was fascinated, and I mentioned this story in a different novel. Also in Microcosms. I had also written a chapter in another book. But I couldn’t find the rhythm of this story.
I had started in the beginning, my first idea of writing the novel was 1988 in Antwerp. I was in Antwerp for a Dutch translation of Danube. I had been fascinated by some ships’ figureheads, their dilated gaze, from seeing calamities invisible to others. And female figures, put at the prow of the ship, as to be the first who became the buffets of life in the story of men’s violence against life. I had also started writing a book about figureheads. It didn’t work, but it remains a quarry of material. I had started to write a linear novel, but it didn’t work. It is impossible because in a novel the how, which is to say the style, the rhythm, must be the same as the what. It is not possible to tell in harmonious order the story of unbelievable breaking.
I had the idea about someone who was the divided self, and a person for whom life and experience had been too heavy for him. Like poor Atlas, who had on his shoulder the world’s delirium. At the same time, he is also the voice of all fugitives and all revolutionaries. This funny, generous story of Jørgen Jørgensen in Iceland was like this distorting but also revealing mirror which allowed me to represent the great revolution with its crimes, its hope, its utopia. That’s the reason why the protagonist has on one hand the anxiety of losing himself and on the other the envy of losing himself. His life is too much.
When now you try not to discuss the political problem but to tell the story of how a man had lived in his or her experience of this problem, you must plunge in this abyss of disorder where the rational thread is already lost. Trying to find it without any coquetry with the disorder but remain with the disorder of the life. This great Italian writer La Capria has written the greatest novels of the 20th century are failed novels. He doesn’t mean that as a negative, but novels that must assume within themselves the necessity of shipwreck, the impossibility of representing a harmonious relationship between the individual and the disaster of the disorder of the world.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.