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Diego Marani: La città celeste (The Celestial City)

No, it is not about Rome but about Trieste. It is a (semi-)autobiographical novel set primarily in Trieste, a city which the author is clearly enchanted with. Indeed, he he has already written a Triestine book, A Trieste con Svevo [In Trieste with Svevo], not available in English. The title of this book shows that, for him, one of the charms of the city is its literature and, early on, he mentions Italo Svevo, Umberto Saba and, less obviously Gabriele D’Annunzio, who had a tangential relationship with Trrieste but there is a statue of him there.

Slightly relevant aside: he does not mention the obvious Triestine connection: James Joyce, who lived and wrote there and helped promote Svevo. Nor does he mention my favourite Triesine writer: Fausta Cialente, who is barely remembered in Trieste, as I discovered when I visited the city a few years ago, let alone the rest of Italy but who has been translated into English.

So, literature apart, what attracted our unnamed narrator to Trieste? Firstly he is, he says he is from a city in the plain. Marani is from Ferrara, in the Po valley so this is presumably the city in question. Trieste has a different landscape – hills and coast. Trieste is multicultural. It is one of the many places in the world that has belonged to more than one country and was at the time this novel is set adjacent to Yugoslavia (now Slovenia) and had been a free port. The Slav connection and, indeed the Hapsburg connection (it was part of the Hapsburg Empire and the narrator comments on the incongruous Hapsburg palaces) are both mentioned.

However our narrator’s main reason for fleeing Ferrara was his father. His father was a domineering man. Father and son did not get on. Father bought worthy books for his son to read, which he did not read. As soon as he could the, son moved out. His excuse is that he wanted to become an interpreter and the best institute for that was in Trieste. Father reluctantly accepted.

The narrator’s first visit to Trieste was not promising. The city seemed to be inhabited exclusively by old people. behaving badly. They hated us, they never missed an opportunity to annoy us, to bully us, as if we were a scourge which had fallen on them and against which they had to defend themselves with all their strength. Moreover Trieste seemed to worship the past. Is that a bad thing? He clearly shares Trieste’s interest in its past.

As we will discover, his first journey is not his first journey but his real first journey is with his father who wants to make sure that he is not in shared accommodation but somewhere where he can concentrate and study, so he is in a rooming house where he finds the other residents…unusual? colourful?

Very quickly he moves out to a palazzo which he shares primarily with other students (and a grumpy non-student) and this is more to his taste – parties and the like. He will remain friendly with them for most of the book. They yoo are colourful but in a good way, not a weird way. There is Chris, the Englishman with no arms who enjoys playing football (they all play together in a team which never wins), Ciro the smuggler and Benni who keeps a bunch of Abruzzi sausages hanging on the wall and who knew everyone and is the consummate organiser. Indeed, we are told what they will become in the future.

Trieste was the city of a thousand different inflections of the soul and which needed all of them to be itself and we see this through his eyes as he sees different Triestes, depending on his companion and the circumstances. For example he has a Slovenian girlfriend so he sees Slovenian Trieste and, yes, there very much is one. In fact he tries to learn Slovene but does not succeed. (Slovene seem to me to be the language of happiness. It was obvious, all my melancholy derives from the fact that I was born in the wrong language He goes smuggling so he sees what happens around the Italy-Yugoslavia border. He blags his way into a journalist job though not quite what you might expect, and sees that side. And he also sees the. political situation e.g. when Tito dies.

The book takes us up to graduation when he and his friends consider running a translation agency in London, primarily to avoid military service, but he is reluctant to leave Trieste and gets a job there though we know he will leave, not least because we know that he returns forty years later.

One of the key themes in this book is boundaries/frontiers. I discovered that in the frontier is a place not a crossing, that it can extend over several kilometres and becomes embedded in the very flesh and bones of a country. The frontier is also way of being, a desire to feel provisional and reject the injunction to belong. This is in reference to Trieste being a border city and we see the issue of the Italy-Yugoslavia border. Our narrator and his smuggling friends seem to cross it with relative ease and only occasional problems. Others are not so lucky. Being a frontier outpost invigorates Trieste he comments and we can see this with the Italy-Yugoslav/Slovenia issue, with the language learning , the Hapsburg influence, the old-young issue and the native Triestines/incomers issue. Life is borders, he seems to be saying and, for him at least, borders enrich.

This book is a joy to read. It is lively, colourful, full of stories, with a rich cast of characters, a good introduction to the fine city of Trieste and its Yugoslav border area, lots of humour, a good deal of irresponsibility and a good account of growing up and not always getting it right.

Publishing history

First published in Italian 2021 by La nave di Teseo
First English translation 2010 by Dedalus
Translated by Graham Anderson