cover image Blameless


Claudio Magris, trans. from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel. Yale Univ., $26 (368p) ISBN 978-0-300-21848-0

Magris’s ambitious novel, a fragmentary, densely detailed account of one man’s obsession with building a “Museum of War for the Advent of Peace,” is a collection of anecdotes about the evil that humans do and the banal ways in which that evil survives us. Magris’s narrator, inspired by a real-life collector of war memorabilia, grows up in the multicultural and cosmopolitan city of Trieste, Italy, where his early childhood games with toy soldiers impress upon him “the need to eliminate war.” He works as a translator for several parties during World War II and eventually amasses a hoard that includes spears, howitzers, submarines, ancient Zapotec weapons, “loads of uniforms, miles of movie film, reams of military documents, and... 2.8 tons of war posters and flyers.” But when the collector meets with tragedy—along with notebooks in which he may have recorded the names of wartime collaborators who were active in sending people to Italy’s only crematorium—the task of organizing the museum falls to Luisa Brooks, a local museum curator. Luisa’s notes on the collection are interspersed with reflections on history and passages from the collector’s writings. Unfortunately, Luisa, the daughter of a black American father and an Italian Jewish mother, never amounts to more than an excuse for Magris to dwell on the suffering of her ancestors. The scope of historical and literary detail that Magris piles up in defense of his theses is impressive, but the prose is ponderous and dwells on clichés. (Apr.)