Internationally renowned Italian author Claudio Magris is headed to Chicago next week, but first he took time to discuss his much lauded new novel with Our Town.
Our Town What was your inspiration for Blindly?
Claudio Magris The gestation period of Blindly might seem long to the point of absurdity, given that I first thought of it in 1988. I was in Antwerp to launch a translation of the Danube. I had seen some ships’ figureheads. I was struck by their open, dilated gaze, directed at the beyond as if perceiving calamities invisible to others. At that moment, in that Flemish square, the idea came to me to write something about those figureheads, even though I was uncertain as to what I wanted from them. However, in drafting my book I did not long pursue this trial of the figureheads. Far more pervasive was my years-old interest in the incredible story of Goli Otok. Soon after the second World War, when the moment of revenge had arrived for what Fascist Italy had inflicted upon the Slav peoples, some three hundred thousand Italians, having lost everything, left Istria and Fiume, Rijeka- by then part of Yugoslavia- for Italy, the west. At the same time from Monfalcone, a small town near Trieste, two thousand Italian workers-militant communists, many of whom had experience the Fascist galls, the German lagers and the Spanish Civil War-voluntarily left Italy for Yugoslavia, there to contribute, inspired by their faith in it, to the construction of communism in the nearest communist country: two intersecting counter-exoduses. But in ’48 Tito broke with Stalin, whereby these revolutionaries became, in Tito’s eyes, potentially dangerous Stalinist agents, while they regarded him as a traitor. They were deported to the beautiful, terrible, islets of the Upper Adriatic, Goli Otok (Bald Island) and Sveti Grur (St. Gregory), where they were subjected, as in the gulags and the lagers, to every kind of persecution. This they heroically and foolishly resisted in the name of Stalin- that is to say, in the name of one who, had he been victor, would have turned the entire world into a gulag for the likes of them; when, years later, the survivors returned to Italy, they were harassed by the Italian police as dangerous communists arriving the East. The Italian Communist party also opposed them as embarrassing witness to the Stalinist politics it had embraced years earlier and now wished to forget.
I had more than once, in previous books, referred to this story. It moved me profoundly because its protagonists always found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. They fought for a cause- Stalin- that I myself consider mistaken, but did so with a magnificent capacity for sacrificing their own individual destiny for a universal cause, for the good of humanity.
However, the book is not simply the story of Salvatore Cippico, the protagonist, deported to Goli Otok. It is also the story of Jorgen Jorgensen, the king-convict, which whom Salvatore often identifies, indeed confuses himself, to the point where he raves (hopes, fears, denies) that he is the same person, his double, his clone. The life of Jorgensen coincided with the birth of Australia and Tasmania by way of the penitentiaries (those terrible prisons, which in my novel, merge with the lagers and gulags they so closely resemble). Jorgen undertakes the same odyssey as those convicts who, between the end of the 18th and the 19th century, were transported from England to Australia and Tasmania to become the first population, apart the Aboriginals. Jorgen is an incredible character: a Dane in the service of England, a sailor who had crossed the seven seas, the founder of the Capital of Tasmania, Hobart Town. Many years later he would there, in the same Hobart Town, be sentenced to hard labor for life, as if Romulus had ended up as a Roman slave.
OT You write that “history is a spyglass held up to a blindfolded eye.” How do you grapple with fictionalizing historical events? Or are they fiction to begin with?
CM The essential point in the writing of that book, concerns the relationship between the contemporary novel and History, between writing History and writing stories, between narrating reality and inventing it. The destruction of the linear concept of time, and the eclipse of a central meaning capable of bestowing unity and rationality upon events both individual and collective, have made a violent assault on the way story-telling relates to the meaning of History.
Writing Blindly, I was grappling, on the one hand, with that form of truth, which the novel (if it wishes) can search for only through distortion, and other forms of truth, which in the ethical-political context, for example, can be reached only by trusting that very reason upon which the surging brackets of the epic regime seem to have dissipated.
OT What is your writing process like?
CM Only when I have written a third of it, sometimes half, do I know what book I am writing, what the explicit theme is a metaphor for, and that is what its real theme is-just as a poem about a flower, for example, might be the only way, at that particular moment, to express one’s love for a person. There are three main moments to my process. In the first stage, I am groping in darkness, searching for something which is defined by the process of the research through taking note. I take notes, even in the strangest moments. Until, little by little the ideas formulate. Of course, sometimes ideas die along the way. If the ideas do not die, there is a moment in which, suddenly the story comes to me. I throw myself into a savage, chaotic writing which trashes me. If at the end of this savage phase of writing I feel that the story lives, I leave it and take a break until later when I return and correct and refinish and rewrite it, with painstaking attention. The writer, said Musil, is only a banker: he counts and weighs words, sounds of his sentences, instead of stocks and bonds. There is a rhythm that constitutes the text. This music merges together the research, the journeys, the preparations, which for books such as Danube or Blindly, can take years.
OT How do you deal with the lack of control associated with having your work translated?
CM I have never had the feeling of a lack of control. I work often with my translator, whom I consider a co-author. I urged my translators to be free, neither to explain nor simplify things. In having their questions I often understood whether they have truly grasped the meaning of the text, and this happens even in languages such as Chinese or Vietnamese. The most important thing is the music, the rhythm of the text. One instance, my translators Ljiljana Avirovic’, who had translated many books of mine into Croatian, a language which I do not know, publicly challenged me to recognize the text that I had written while it was being read aloud, saying that if the translation was good, I should be able to recognize it, and I did recognize it. I have been in general lucky with my translators. Particularly with the translation of Blindly by Anne Milano Appel; a splendid translation and recreation of a novel which is very difficult to recreate; a true and free translation that renders the wonderful, tragic and oceanic breath of my novel.
OT As you’ve garnered awards, recognition, respect, has relationship to work changed?
CM No, the many awards that I have received have not changed the significance of one or the other of my books in my life. It was above all the meetings with my readers in many countries (Danube has been translated into 28 languages, Blindly into 18 or 19, and so have the others) These meetings sometimes revealed to me aspects of my books that were also new to me. The readers, with their continuous letters to me, the essays and critical reviews in different countries of the world have enriched my understanding of what I have written. A writer does not always know exactly what he has written; the others explain it to him, it is because others can better understand a figure than one can when looking into a mirror at oneself. While awards and recognition are pleasing, they also reveal to us, like the letters and reviews, we have been integrated into the lives of many others.
Claudio Magris speaks at The Italian Cultural Center October 22nd at 6 p.m. The event is free.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) was called "poetic and heartrending" by ALA Booklist. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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