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Down the Danube with Magris: Ruse

Blue Danube - flickr-drp
Blue Danube. Photo: flickr/drp

Claudio Magris's book "Danube" has become something of a classic. The Italian writer from Trieste embarked on a journey from the source of river to its delta on the Black Sea in the early 1980s. From Bavaria he followed the river through Austria, Hungary, the then Yugoslavia and then Bulgaria and Romania. This is a literary travelogue and all the more fascinating because of the period in which it was written. For example he notes that Tito, who had only recently died had "ended by resembling Francis Joseph (sic) more and more and certainly not because he had fought beneath his banners in the First World War, but rather because of his awareness of inheriting a supra-national, Danubian legacy and leadership from him, and his desire to accept this legacy." It is important that Yugoslavia stay united notes Magris because: "Its solidarity is necessary to the equilibrium of Europe, and its disintegration would be ruinous for this balance, as that of the double monarchy was for the world of yesterday." Magris is often at his most evocative when describing the past, for example, this is his take on Ruse, (also Rousse or Russe) the little Bulgarian Danube port town:

Until the years between the two world wars Ruse, known as "Little Bucharest", was the richest city in Bulgaria, and had witnessed the foundation of the first bank in the country. Midhat Pasha, the Turkish governor, had restored and modernized it, built hotels, brought in the railway, and broadened its streets and avenues according to the principles employed in Paris by Baron Haussmann, whom he had met in person. Two Italian sisters by the name of Elias (their father was representative of Lazar & Co., hatmakers), born in Ruse shortly before 1920, remember the winter snow as high as the houses and summer bathing in the Danube, the "Teteven" Turkish pastry-cook's shop, the French school run by Monsieur and Madame Astruc, the peasants bringing sacks of yoghurt and river-fish every morning, and the photographic studio of Carl Curtius, "Photographie Parisienne", where they went for their school photograph. They also remember the tendency to be cagey about one's wealth.

The city, however, was less restrained in the later nineteenth century. Consuls representing all sorts of European countries and merchants of divers nations animated its evenings. On one such night a famous Greek corn merchant gambled away his fortune, his red neo-classical palace near the Danube, and his wife. At the corner of the Square of September 9th the District Savings Bank has a symbolic façade depicting this world – voracious and chaotic but at the same time bogged down in decorum. Around the doors of the old bank are reliefs of leering masks, the head of a satyr, a Moloch of money, who flaunts a great moustache that stretches out and dissolves into Art nouveau flourishes. He glances sideways with lascivious Mongol eyes. Much higher up emerges a very different kind of head, a dignified inexpressive head circled with laurel: perhaps the founder of the bank, the father of the demons of finance who are now under the patronage of the archangels of the state.

Danube. Claudio Magris. Translated by Patrick Creagh. 2001.
[p. 353-354 / The Harvill Press. First published in Italian in 1986 and this extract taken from the 2001 translated edition]

January 2009
Tim Judah

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