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Old Man Danube Stirs in His Sleep : THE DANUBE <i> by Claudio Magris; translated by Patrick Creagh (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $22.95; 416 pp.) </i>

The river begins as a river of argument; it ends as river of vagueness. Born in the armed loquacity of European disputation, and dying in a torpidly blurred Asian vista, the Danube is the thread that binds the once--and maybe future--geographical and historical entity known as Mittel Europa, or Central Europe.

Claudio Magris, who, as a native of Trieste, manages to be both Italian and Central European, has drawn upon not only his whole life, but that of his parents and grandparents as well, to write a floating dream book. His dreams have an uncanny punctuality.

Exploring the Danube from its arguable sources to its alternative mouths, he uses geography, landscape, literature and history to evoke the empire that didn’t prevail. It was a conglomerate empire of multifarious peoples and cultures and infinite compromise--its national anthem was sung in 11 languages--gathered under the dual crown of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.

Its precarious balance fell to the hard-edged Manichean dynamics of World War I and much that followed. That it was a rich balance as well as a precarious one is a long-running theme that until recently has seemed mainly a kind of golden nostalgia.

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But Magris is not simply a nostalgic; his nostalgia is for the future. The indeterminate empire, the imperfect accommodation, the blur of certainty have suddenly become exciting ideas. I say suddenly, though for 20 years, that once-righteous national-communist ideologue, Milovan Djilas, has been preaching “the imperfect society.”

Djilas is a precursor of the revived notion of Central Europe. In its old form, it was Austria’s retort to Prussian certainties, a German alternative to German nationalism. Nowadays, it comes from the dissolution of another long chain of certainties. Nazi certitude was defeated, to be followed by the competing certitudes of the Cold War. There was a frontier between either and or; an iron curtain between two opposite paradises.

And now the frontier is crumbling; faster, perhaps, east of the line than west of it. Something very large--it is called Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia and undoubtedly it will again be called Czechoslovakia and, who knows, even Romania and Bulgaria, some day--has inserted itself between the certainties. Central Europe tugs on the two Germanies, recalling that German civilization, before Prussia eclipsed Austria in the 19th Century, had an ecumenical as well as a national character.

And it is this ecumenical note that Magris takes with him as he tramps and floats his very punctual dream of a book down the Danube River. German civilization is his raft, its ecumenical rather than its nationalist aspect, but as he goes, he explores the connection between the two.

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A vessel is not a journey. Austria and the Danube he uses to symbolize the openness, irony and ambiguity that he prizes. He sets against it the Rhine and Prussian-inspired order, but as he goes, the two are continually interwoven.

A theme is not a book, either. But Magris’ writing is as multifarious, as digressive, as whimsical, as ironic and as lyrical as his vision of Mittel Europa.

He begins his trip with a party of disputatious friends and the first dispute they take up, naturally, is over where the Danube begins. Donaueschingen, at the junction of the Breg and Brigach rivers in the Black Forest, is the traditional spot. But in the 19th Century, Furtwangen, at the source of the Breg, made its claim. And we are immediately into social history: Magris sees the Furtwangen claim symbolizing the post-Napoleonic middle class rebelling against the feudal aristocracy.

But this is the late 20th Century, and a touch of Central European absurdity comes in. The Magris party climbs the sodden meadows above the stream that feeds the spring that feeds the Breg. A gutter drips over the meadow; a leaky tap in an adjacent house feeds the gutter. And if the tap were to be fixed? No more Danube?

Magris dismisses the notion. There is no leaky tap he reports, upon investigating; simply a standpipe that feeds the meadow that feeds the spring that feeds the Breg that feeds the Danube. On the other hand--the pipe that feeds the meadow is fed by the meadow.

“So we find ourselves,” he writes with satisfaction, “in the very midst of Danubian Culture.” The river, he writes later, is “a sensuous master of irony, of that irony which created the greatness of Central European culture, the art of outflanking one’s own barrenness and checkmating our own weakness; the sense of the duplicity of things and at the same time the truth of them.”

Connections, disconnections; throughout the length of the book, Magris continually makes and unmakes them. Town by town he goes, each providing him with a local, particular detail and a more general reflection. Messkirch offers the house of Heidegger; Magris has a run-in with the landlady, and reflects on the significance for German culture of the contradiction between the philosopher’s emphasis on blood and rootedness, and his vision of Man as Wanderer.

In Sigmaringen he recalls the weird last days of the Vichy government, taken there by the Germans after it had to leave France. One of those present was the writer Celine; Magris muses--again with a wider purpose--on his exaltation of the degraded.

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The most absolute degradation is recalled at Gunzberg, home of Mengele, the murderous concentration camp doctor. With a rending Central European irony he thinks of Mengele hiding in a monastery “where he did not kill because he couldn’t . . . and he resigned himself to his sacrifice without making a fuss, accepting the limitations placed on his aspiration by real circumstances, just as one learns to live without being able to become a millionaire or go to bed with a Hollywood star.”

We haven’t even reached Regensburg, home of the parliament of the Holy Roman Empire, or Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Belgrade and the river’s Balkan reaches through Bulgaria and Romania. Magris takes up Haydn, Wittgenstein, Freud, the writings of the German ecumenicists, Goethe and Herder, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Sarajevo, and the cream cakes the Archduchess would order for their family dinner.

He writes of the Marxist philosopher Lukacs in Budapest; in Bratislava, of the Slovak resentment of the Czechs. Through Transylvania and the Yugoslav Voivodina, he traces--now in the company of Anka, a Serbian grandmother who despises Serbs--the descendants of German settlers. Towards the end, near the outlets to the Black Sea, history fades out; the river loses its evocative energy.

There are sluggish spells in Magris’ book. But there is a richness of detail that any brief account can barely suggest. And, as a recurring theme or current, there is Magris’ evocation of the Danubian--or Central European--spirit. Comparing, for example, the Austrian writer Grillparzer with the German writer Hebbel, he writes:

“Universal history for the Austrian . . . is not the same as universal judgment, as it is for the German . . . facts do not coincide with values, or what is with what ought to be. Against Hegel’s identification of reality with rationality, Austrian culture proposes a deviation, things that might always take a different line, history conjugated in the subjunctive, an ironic absence.”

The imperfect society of the past; perhaps of the future. History is not dead, pace the current neo-conservative lament; it may simply be taking a subjunctive turn.


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