Book Review: Danube by Claudio Magris

Danube by Claudio Magris, Vintage paperback.

Claudio Magris is little known in Britain, but on the Continent, and especially in his native Italy, he is a celebrated writer, critic and academic, and winner of many literary awards. Danube, first published in Italian in 1986 and in English translation three years later, is his magnum opus, and a complete delight. John Banville is quoted as saying “This book is full of wonder and delights………..on almost every page there are passages that make the heart lift………..Danube is a masterpiece.”

It is a difficult book to pigeon-hole; a record of a walk along the banks of the Danube, but, as Richard Flanagan says in his introduction to this edition, “an oddity: not history nor politics, obeying neither chronology nor theme, and only roughly observing geography…………happily mixing high literature with stories of friendship, families, and the ironies of everyday life………….and yet speaking powerfully to both the old world that was dying and the new being born.”

Danube is certainly digressive and rambling. It is also a powerful elegy for the lost world of multilingual, multinational, Mitteleuropa, and a prescient warning. At one point Magris writes “It may be that the moment is approaching when the historical, social and cultural differences will reveal, and violently, the difficulties of mutual incompatibility. Our future will depend in part on our ability to prevent the priming of this time-bomb of hatred, and the possibility that new Battles of Vienna will transform brothers into foreigners and enemies.” Topical indeed.

Alan Bellamy