The first thing to say about Claudio Magris’s new novel is that it is, in an important sense, unreadable. There is no possibility of turning page after page engaged in finding out what comes next, of being lost in the characters’ stories. The usual pleasures of fiction are so thoroughly absent that the reader emerges at the other end blinking into the light, struggling to remember what all the fuss about books is anyway.
This is apt, perhaps, for a novel about historic suffering and man’s inhumanity to man. The conceit is that an unnamed collector has amassed a hangar-sized museum of war, full of weaponry and the historical accoutrements of conflict. It has become an obsession for him: scrap metals are ‘the milestones of his existence’ and he sleeps in a coffin wearing a German iron helmet and a samurai mask — but now he has been killed in a fire that destroyed much of the museum too. The museum’s curator, Luisa, has to make sense of what is left, to order the exhibits and use them to tell the story of the collector but also to ‘document the horrors of war and the need for peace’.
Central to the book is the history of the Italian city of Trieste during the second world war and people’s desire to forget its worst horrors, such as the use by the Nazis of an old rice factory, the Risiera di San Sabba, as a makeshift concentration camp. The collector will not permit forgetting. ‘I’m not fighting against oblivion, but against oblivion of oblivion, against the culpable unawareness of having forgotten.’
The book consists of stories: some from the collector’s notes, some from Luisa’s own family history. Others describe objects in the museum and then launch from these to the people who used the weapons or were on the receiving end.