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Claudio Magris: Alla cieca (Blindly)

Our narrator/hero is called Salvatore Cippico. Or maybe he isn’t. Indeed, he has a large number of names in this book but I shall stick to Salvatore Cippico, except when I don’t. His narration is an account of his lives to a psychiatrist. Lives? Yes, because Salvatore Cippico is also the very real Jørgen Jørgensen, who lived more than hundred years before Salvatore Cippico. We are confused and so is the doctor but, don’t worry, Salvatore/Jørgen has no problem with it.

Salvatore (but not Jørgen) was born in Hobart in 1910. His father was Italian, his mother half Tasmanian (i.e. native Tasmanian). His mother seemed to prefer his brother, which has had an effect on him,. His family briefly returned to Italy but then came back to Australia. As an adult he became involved in Communist activities and, eventually, he was deported to Italy, not least because the Australians were trying to clamp down on darker-skinned people. He worked in the Monfalcone shipyard but was again in trouble for his Communist activities and was fired and spent time in a Fascist prison. He fought in the Spanish Civil War and then in Yugoslavia during World War II. He was captured and sent to Dachau. After the war, the Communists sent him to Yugoslavia to help build socialism. However, after the fall-out between Tito and Stalin, he and the others from Monfalcone were considered Stalinist spies and sent to the Gulag of Goli Otok where they were brutally treated. On release, he returned to Australia. He was later repatriated to Italy, living in Trieste, where he is receiving treatment for his mental problems (delirious disorders and pronounced delusions of persecution), not surprisingly caused by his hard life.

Salvatore pours out his life story and his views in a torrent, often mixing up the two lives. (The translator describes it well – the intentionally repeated language, the deliberately long sentences, a sustained ambiguity, a tendency to paraphrase and an alternation of voices..). He is seems to be an unreliable narrator (Why this conspiracy of never wanting to believe me, of calling me a liar, a deviationist, a traitor? I know that too many things happened to me to seem real, but it’s not my fault but later says I lied as well. Well, lied — my autobiographer embellished things a little, as almost always happens when you write).

This is not helped by the fact that he mixes up his two lives. We know that Jørgen Jørgensen was born in 1780. He was probably born in Copenhagen and claims to have been raised in the Royal Palace there. He may have been partially responsible for its destruction by fire. He was King of Iceland for three weeks, though he stresses that that story is hogwash. The real story is explained later in the book. He became a sailor, was press-ganged in England, while running from a woman, fought against the French and Spanish for the English and against the English for Denmark, founded (he claimed) Hobart (to stop the French from doing so), spent time in Newgate prison, was, apparently at the Battle of Waterloo (of course, he has an interesting and original explanation for Wellington’s victory; indeed he told Louis XVIII of Wellington’s defeat) He later returned to Hobart some twenty-five years later (having been sentenced to hang for theft but having his sentence commuted by Robert Peel), this time as a convict, albeit not in chains, as he had worked as an assistant surgeon and then surgeon, when the surgeon died, on the ship. While there, he was, allegedly, the first person to harpoon a whale. He also became Collector of Port Dues and Customs.

He has had several biographies written of him, presumably about Jørgen Jørgensen rather than Salvatore and he has also written an autobiography as well as two (unpublished) novels, a book explaining Christianity from a Polynesian point of view (which naturally did not go down too well), a pamphlet on the English national debt, a brief biography of Captain Flinders, an essay on Madagascar, and a history of the origins and expansion of the company — without a signature, just to be prudent — and some biographies and autobiographies of convicts. Which ones were written by Jørgen Jørgensen and which ones by Salvatore is not always clear.

Despite various criticisms of women, both had romantic/sexual relationships, Jørgen Jørgensen with Marie and Salvatore with Maria, Marica, Máarja and Norah, who may have been Maria. None of them worked out well.

He is not always sure which is the right side and which the wrong one. Indeed, one of the key themes is clearly that what is the right side and what the wrong one is entirely subjective and dependent on circumstances. While he (both of them) has a strong predilection for helping the downtrodden, he is not averse to fighting against them, even admitting this himself, as he slaughters a large amount of aborigines or is unsure which are the good Communists and which the bad ones. In Serbia after the war, for example, it seems everybody is fighting everybody else.

Salvatore seems a forgiving sort of person. He does not hold his ill-treatment against his tormentors, indeed occasionally pities them. Revolution must be magnanimous; otherwise it’s no longer a revolution he states and is definitely in favour of not killing those the revolution was against.

Though using various historical facts, often exaggerated and distorted, history is not what this book is about. Indeed, if there is main guiding spirit – and there are several contenders – it is perhaps the legend of Jason and the Argonauts, with his various women channelling Medea. With its lies, distortions, exaggerations and inventions, this book is a fable, a legend and not a history or a biography. Yes, it is, very confusing, particularly initially, but once you are prepared to accept that it is a legend, a double legend, of course, it works very well and is another first-class original novel from Magris.

Publishing history

First published 2005 by Garzanti
First English translation in 2010 by Hamish Hamilton