Trieste and the
Meaning of Nowhere
(Simon & Schuster)Great writers have the ability to echo our own experience. Many years ago, we fell in love with James Morris --- Jan Morris in another incarnation. When he published The Presence of Spain in 1964, we had just spend two years of exile in that sad country. It was around the time of the decline of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Morris touched us deeply: we found in his words so many echoes out of our own experience.
Morris went through a sex-change operation in 1972 (of which she wonderfully has no shame --- it's proclaimed early on in this book) and continued to write on other countries, putting out almost fifty titles. This one on Trieste, Morris says, will be her last.
As a city, Trieste has the virtue, she tells us, of having escaped so many of the vices of the 20th Century --- violence, rampant anti-Semitism, rampant Nationalism (which she calls "patriotism gone feral.") She mourns the old days, when the city was part of the Austrian Empire, because empires assisted "ordinary people who wanted to live in secure contentment."
Its pomposity could be endearingly comical, and it had a gift for Fortwursteln, what the English called muddling through...it did not work badly.
"I love the old place and wish it well," she says. Trieste was, probably still is, the home of expatriates --- countless royalty, political refugees, writers such as James Joyce, writers and lovers like Sir Richard Burton, lovers and miscreants like Jacques Casanova de Siengalt. And Johann Wincklemann, "the Father of Neo-Classicism." Who?
By now his name is unknown to all but the most erudite visitors, but every tourist is directed to his monument. The great scholar is depicted in a toga, leading towards two ancient sculpted heads the adoring female figures of Architecture, Criticism, History, Philosophy and Sculpture, who are prettily holding hands.
Lest we get too worshipful towards this hero to Goethe and Rossetti, she concludes,
Such is Trieste's remorseful tribute to --- who was it again? Winkler? Vogelmann? That guy who got murdered? Wincklemann, that's it, Winckelmann, whoever he was.
She finds a melancholy there, calls Trieste "the Capital of Nowhere." Her description of it may make it sound stuffy and bourgeoisie, but her art is that she turns that around, makes it captivating for those very reasons. The reader may entertain an ambivalence about a city which most of us would have a difficult time finding in our inner atlas (it lies along the Adriatic, the last outpost of Italy before the Balkans). However,
I have reached the conclusion that a peculiar history and a precarious geographical situation have made Trieste as near to a decent city as you can find, at the start of the 21st century.
§ § §
Style is the jewel in the crown of Morris' narrative. Often, it's her asides that make her books such a fine study for the reader. Take the strange lines drawn between countries, commonly known as borders. She has an affection for them, which this reader shares : those arbitrary limits drawn willy-nilly across the countryside (which, after all, is the same on one side as on the other):
I have always loved the moments of travel when, brought to a halt by a striped barrier, approached by unfamiliar uniforms, you feel yourself on the brink of somewhere unknown and possibly perilous. How expressionlessly that policeman waits, as you fumble for your passport! How uncomfortable is the silence, as he looks at its picture, then at you, then at the picture again!....Will they find those uncomplimentary things you have written about their republic, in the manuscript in the boot? Is your visa out of order? Are you on a blacklist?
Morris builds kinship with readers with these meditations: on borders, on the past, on Imperialism, on what she calls the Fourth World. Members of the Fourth World, she says,
...come in all colors. They can be Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or pagans or atheists. They can be young or old, men or women, soldiers or pacifists, rich or poor. They may be patriots, but they are never chauvinists. They share with each other, across all nations, common values of humor and understanding.
I'm reading this, and I am thinking, hunh? The Fourth World? And then: why --- it's you and me. We are the "diaspora" of our own making.
Among them you know you will not be mocked or resented, because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality, and they suffer fools if not gladly, at least sympathetically. They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean. They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion or political correctness.
That's us, right? We are strangers, our own class of foreigners, "exiles in our own communities..."
....always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it.
And what does this have to do with Trieste, that decent city that no one can ever find on the map? Those of us in the Fourth World, she says, need a capital, our own nation. What would it be called?
It is the nation of nowhere, and I have come to think that its natural capital is Trieste.
§ § §
Trieste is a valedictory. She's getting old, feels herself "an exile from normality...an exile from time. The past is a foreign country," she says. And I breathe in and wonder: can there be any better way to describe what is happening to us and our bodies and our sense of time.
The past is a foreign country, but so is old age, and as you enter it you feel you are treading unknown territory, leaving your own land behind.
Old age, the foreign country of foreign countries. Where are we? Old. How did we get here? Damn if I know? Do you know your way around? No --- it's a mystery to me. Because, you see, we are all strangers here.
You've never been here before. The clothes people wear, the idioms they use, their pronunciation, their assumptions, tastes, humors, loyalties all become the more alien the older you get.
This has to be the strangest place I've ever been. I don't recognize the streets, I don't recognize the buildings, I don't recognize the sky, nor the sea, and certainly not the people. But despite being scary, it can also be freeing. Here we might be learning a new language, a new language of a new land
Most things don't matter as they used to. The way I look doesn't matter. The opinions I cherish are my business. The books I have written are no more than smudged graffiti on a wall, and I shall write no more of them.
Old age is freedom, then? All our lives all this time have been pointing to this home in this strange new country. I am old, and I am thus free. There is nothing that matters here, then, in the land of Geeze. O, yes --- there is one thing:
Kindness is what matters, all along, at any age --- kindness, the ruling principle of nowhere!
§ § §
Morris says she is going to write no more books. I don't believe it. A crowd of her fans is rising up. You can't do that, Jan. It's not right. You can't abandon us on this far shore, here in Trieste. There are so many other places to explore, so many other kindnesses to experience. We will not let you stop. It's against the rules. We won't let you go. We will be waiting for the next book, the one you don't even know you are going to be writing. A book from beyond --- direct from the Land of Nowhere.--- Carlos Amantea