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Claudio Magris: Non luogo a procedere (Blameless)

If you read Magris’Alla cieca (Blindly), you would have been only too well aware that one of Magris’ key themes is man’s inhumanity towards his fellow man or, to put it more simply, war is bad. This novel takes up this theme.

We learn a lot about our hero or, more appropriately, the protagonist, but we never learn his name. We know that he was born in Gradisca in a rundown, though still noble, late fifteenth-century building acquired by his grandfather Egon, the admiral. More particularly we know that, as a child and like many other children, he played war games. Unlike many other children, these games showed him that war was wrong. The joy of destroying, must be severed at the root.

He determined that the most effective way of doing this was to play at war. He learned this from Sior Popel. Sior Popel had a shop which sold everything , including toys. Our hero learned from Sior Popel that playing with toy soldiers was much better than real soldiers.

At the start of the novel, our hero had died, burned to death in a fire. He had spent his life amassing a huge amount of material for a museum on war, specifically A Comprehensive Museum of War for the Advent of Peace and the Deactivation of History. He has been assisted by Dr Luisa Brooks which immediately made me think of the actress Louise Brooks, which may or may not be relevant. She has now taken over and is endeavouring to sort not only the material he has collected but his copious notes and diaries, which are, in some cases, controversial in that they name names of Italians who assisted the Nazis in the only death camp on Italian soil, the Risiera. Some of the inmates left graffiti naming their captors and torturers on the walls which our hero collected but which was subsequently whitewashed over. Some of these notes seem to have gone missing.

The municipality has finally decided to fund the museum – the material had been stored in two large aircraft hangars – and Dr Brooks goes through the material and we get detailed descriptions of what is there and why. His famous slogan was Used submarines. Bought and sold and, indeed, he does have submarines in the collection.

Our hero passed through the various lines at the end of the war – Germans, Yugoslavs, Fascists, Italian Democratic partisans, communists, national guards who were somewhat Fascist, somewhat resistant – and picked up books and other material there but also material from all over the world, including from the Chamacoco Indians of Paraguay/Bolivia.

We also follow the story of Dr Brooks, descended from a Jewish family who managed to hide out during the war. Her mother was Jewish and managed to escape the Nazis, while her father was an African-American soldier in the US army. Inevitably, the family had its problems. We even find out that she was related to a long-deceased Luisa, Luisa de Navarrete who, like many other of the odd characters that appear in this book, did exist. She was kidnapped by the Carib Indians and, after she escaped, tangled with the Spanish Inquisition. As Luisa Brooks is part Jewish and part black, she is well aware of racism and Magris makes a lot of the racism and cruelty both groups have experienced, including from one another.

Her aunt (her father’s sister) had been a nurse during the war and had been subject to a racial attack while in London during the war. Indeed, Magris shows that not all violent deaths in London during World War II were caused by he Germans. As well as Luisa Kasika Brooks, Luisa’s aunt, we learn that there were murders which the perpetrators tried to conceal by putting the bodies in buildings destroyed in air raids, hoping it would be assumed that it was the air raid that killed them. There was also serial killer on the loose in London at this time. Both cases – Magris gives us the names – actually happened.

As the main theme of this book is man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, we get a lot of descriptions of wars including those we know a lot about, such as World War II and the Spanish Civil War, as well as those we know little about such as the Chaco War, in which the Chamacoco Indians get caught up.

However, we also follow other cruelties. There is a lot about slavery, of which, not surprisingly, Magris is very critical. We follow in some detail the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, including, in particular, the Lidice Massacre. But we also learn of Otto Schimek, another historical person, executed by the Germans for refusing to shoot Polish hostages.

However, we also follow the life of our narrator, such as his role in the war, when he engaged in acts of sabotage against the Germans and the pro-German Trieste government. But he has other interests, such as a fine collection of cacti, compilation of the Definitive Universal Dictionary and the history of Trieste.

This is a strange novel, in that it consists of several intermingled pieces. We get the story of Luisa and her family. We get the story of the unnamed narrator, particularly his collecting and his activities in World War II and its immediate aftermath. We get descriptions of the various museum exhibits. These are not all weapons of war (though many are). For example, one of the exhibits is of money, the most powerful weapons in the world. Victory goes to those who possess the last escudo, according to Cherwuish Pioshad Mendoza, the Chamacoco Indian who came to Prague in 1908.

The history of Trieste, a favourite theme of Magris, is key and, once again, particularly Trieste at the end of World War II, when several forces are trying to take it. The Germans are still there, reluctant to surrender. They are being helped by Italian Fascists. They are being attacked by anti-Mussolini Italian partisans, Slovenian partisans, Tito’s forces, other communists and even a brigade of New Zealand soldiers. It gets very messy.

Finally, if there is one running plot theme, it is the missing documents that the narrator had left behind. He had compiled detailed notes of the graffiti on the walls of Risiera and, as mentioned, the graffiti had been later concealed. Magris goes into some detail, in some cases naming names of both Italians and Germans who committed war crimes but managed to get away with impunity and have since done very well for themselves.

Magris makes no bones about what his theme is. While there are a few (very few) redeeming characters, most of them are not. Humans, Magris is saying, are all too often evil and many of those that are not are all too willing to compromise with evil in order to have an easy life. Whether you agree with this idea or not, there is no doubt that Magris illustrates it very well, not least because, as I have said, many of his examples come from real life.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Garzanti
First English translation in 2017 by Yale University Press