Death in Trieste

Blameless

by Claudio Magris, translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel
Yale University Press, 349 pp., $26.00
Danilo De Marco
Claudio Magris at Caffè San Marco, Trieste, 2000

In a museum of war, a fire breaks out—or just possibly is ignited by someone—and kills the museum’s creator. This is not surprising. He sleeps among his exhibits in a wooden coffin, wearing a samurai mask and a Prussian spiked helmet, and he smokes abundantly, flicking the butts out of the coffin as he grows drowsy.

Although he appears and reappears throughout Blameless, this figure is not exactly a protagonist. He is certainly heroic, a human bundle of generous actions and outbursts to which most episodes in this novel refer. Claudio Magris doesn’t give him a name. But in an author’s note at the end, he lets it be known that he had a real person in mind:

Professor Diego de Henriquez, a brilliant, uncompromising Triestine of vast culture and fierce passion, who dedicated his entire life (1909–1974) to collecting weapons and military materiel of all types to build an original, overflowing War Museum that might, by displaying those instruments of death, lead to peace.

Not because the weapons were ugly. On the contrary, de Henriquez wanted to show their awful beauty and superb technical ingenuity, alongside the astronomical sums of money that went into their construction rather than into making people healthier or wiser. He did indeed die in a fire, “in circumstances never wholly clarified,” after he had spent all his own money on acquisitions and faced impossible debts. But today, after a generation of neglect, the city of Trieste has taken over his scattered collection and housed part of it—death engines of the Great War, which began for Italy in 1915—in a spacious new museum on the Via Cumano.

The museum tries to be faithful to its founder, its “coltissimo e bizarro ricercatore.” This most cultured and bizarre researcher must have been impossible to work with, but he was also impossible to resist. Blameless tells anecdotes about him so extravagant that I was sure Magris had made them up, but on a visit to the museum in Trieste I found that almost all of them were true. De Henriquez did beg weaponry from armies on the battlefield, even before World War II was over. He cajoled them from the Germans, from Italian arms factories, from the Yugoslav partisan armies that briefly occupied Trieste in 1945, from the Allied military government that succeeded them, from local councils anxious to be rid of the smoking scrap metal blocking their streets. It’s not fiction but historical truth that, on his own, de Henriquez negotiated the final surrender of Trieste’s German garrison to a New Zealand tank brigade. And General Hermann Linkenbach, the German commander, really did give him his own braided and beribboned tunic in gratitude (de Henriquez used to wear it on proud occasions). It’s also true that the Germans allowed him to choose…


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