Translated from the Italian by M. S. Spurr.
Reviewed by Hayley Anderton
This is a book that really needs an introduction, or even an afterword, unfortunately it doesn’t have one. A dig around on the Internet has revealed that the protagonist, Enrico Mreule, was a real person, as was Carlo Michelstaedter, the friend and philosopher he idolises, and knowing this has changed my view of the book somewhat.
A Different Sea gives only the bare bones of a story, it opens with Enrico leaving the city of Gorizia and his circle of friends for Patagonia, partly to avoid national service. It’s 1910 and he spends the next 13 years herding cattle in the pampas, effectively a recluse, until attacks of scurvy make him physically unfit for a life in the saddle. Meanwhile his great friend Carlo has written his thesis and then committed suicide, and Enrico has missed the war.
He drifts back to Italy, and then onto the Istrian coast where he lives out a life of wilful disengagement with the world around him, despite the political and border upheavals caused by the Second World War, the fall of the iron curtain, and the Cold War respectively.
Is it a failed life where the academic and intellectual promise shown by the young Enrico have been utterly squandered, or a life of self sufficient contentment well lived? Has Enrico followed Carlo’s philosophy through to its logical conclusion, or has he been too afraid, or lazy, to get on with the normal business of living? Is he even searching for an unattainable authentic life as the back blurb suggests, and in the process deliberately destroying his chance of that normal existence? And does any of that matter?
Magris certainly isn’t saying anything either way, it’s very much for the reader to decide what they think of Enrico, of Carlo, of their friends, and of Magris’ intentions. He’s slyly funny at times, and the book is beautifully written – cool in tone, spare on details, and yet still with enough human compassion for the difficult man that is Enrico to keep the reader engaged.
Looking back I’m wondering why I cared about Enrico, and yet I did, and do, to the point that I’m unwilling to think of him as a failure (despite his many failings). It’s a short but surprisingly powerful book. It probably needs to be read a number of times – even if just to get all the names and details straight – but it’s well worth the effort.
Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.
Claudio Magris, A Different Sea, (Vintage 2016). 978-1784871321, 104pp., paperback
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