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Claudio Magris: Un altro mare (A Different Sea)

Emigration from Italy to Argentina was extensive in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Indeed, there is an English novel on this site showing the result of this emigration. This book opens with three young Italian men in Gorizia, about twenty-six miles from Trieste. At that time (beginning of the twentieth century), that part of Italy was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The three young men are Enrico (who turns out to be Enrico Mreule – link in Italian), Carlo (who turns out to be the Carlo Michelstaedter) and Nino (who turns out to be Nino Paternolli – link in Italian). They are studious, hard-working and very well-read. 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 also discussed philosophy and other learned matters. As well as study, they did have other forms of relaxation, going to the beach and swimming, sometimes with a group of three young women: Paula, Argia and Fulvia.

At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Enrico has decided to emigrate. He is not particularly happy at home. His father is dead and his mother is not very affectionate and clearly prefers Enrico’s younger brother. Another reason is that he does not want to join the army. This is not because he is against the Dual Monarchy but does not want his head shaved. However, it seems that he will feel somewhat lost without his two friends. Whether this voyage of escape marks the beginning or end of his life is uncertain.

He had planned to keep up their discussions by mail but, when it comes to it, he sends only very short, uninformative postcards. The other two cannot understand and write to him to tell him how much they looked up to him. His model is his old teacher Schubert-Soldern. He turned down the chair of philosophy at the University of Leipzig to become a supply teacher. Enrico thinks he understands him. The only knowable reality is the knowledge of the knower.

In Patagonia he has a solitary existence, which is all he wants. He has good relations with the Indians (including casual sexual relations). No idle chit-chat. Ban poets from the philosopher’s Ideal State, and even from the tent pitched for the night or, as his sixteen-year old self put it Die Freiheit ist im Nichts: freedom exists in nothingness.

However, he receives a letter from Nino telling him that Carlo has killed himself and, essentially, has passed on his mantle to Enrico. For Carlo, Enrico represents the truly free man, of whom it is said “you are”, who enjoys life simply because he exists, demanding and fearing nothing, neither life nor death, fully and always alive – in every instant, including the last.

He decides to return home. This is, in part, because he has scurvy, as it is difficult to obtain fresh fruit and vegetables in Patagonia. It is now 1922 and the world and, particularly, his part of the world, has changed dramatically since he was there. Trieste, for example, is now in Italy and no longer part of Austria. His mother died in 1917. Nino will die in an accident in 1923.

We follow the rest of his life back home, though he soon moves out to the coast, to a place which is in Yugoslavia. This is not a problem prior to World War II but becomes a problem later. He even marries but it does not last long. He lives the life of an ascete, preferring to sleep on the floor, grow or catch his own food and never to travel, even to the next village.

Enrico is fascinating character, made more so by the fact that he was a real person even if relatively little is known about him. He is a man that does not live in the world that most of us live in, finding far more pleasure in the classics and philosophy than in the company of others, unless those others are discussing philosophy and the classics with him. He does clearly have sexual desires but, apart from meeting those particular needs, he is happy to be a total ascetic, living a life devoid of most material pleasures. He hates modern technology, such as cars and planes. He clearly enjoys his own company and the company of the great works of philosophy far more than the company of others. Indeed, the only fiction writer he enjoys is Tolstoy. He even has a letter from Tolstoy to whom he wrote when young. Other fiction writers and poets are rejected. Magris is clearly fascinated with him and has created an interesting novel based on the life of a man few outside Gorizia would otherwise have heard of.

Publishing history

First published 1991 by Garzanti
First English translation in 1993 by Collins Harvill