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A Beautiful Ending...
on 11 March 2002
Trieste is a city I knew nothing about, but always had a vague impression of. That impression, of faded grandeur, old-Europe cosmopolitanism gone to seed, and melancholy, is largely confirmed in this, the first of Morris' books I've read. The fishing village at the top of the Adriatic was a sleepy burg until the Austro-Hungarian empire transformed it into it's only seaport and HQ for its imperial navy in the early 1700s. It rapidly became one of the leading seaports of the world, and an international center of commerce. Following the defeat and dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Trieste was handed over to Italy, which already had plenty of ports, and thus it quickly reverted to sleepy backwater. Over the last century it was occupied by the Nazis, Allied forces, was a UN free territory, and eventually reverted to Italian rule. Nowadays, as Morris writes, "It offers no unforgettable landmark, no universally familiar melody, no unmistakable cuisine, hardly a single native name that anyone knows."
And while Morris ably rambles through the city's history (which she first visited in 1946), the book is a bit of a metaphor for human aging and memory. She has vowed this is her final book in a prolific career, and the melancholy tone echoes the melancholy of a city whose glory days lie a century in the past. She writes, "Trieste makes one ask sad questions of oneself. What am I here for? Where am I going?" That's not to say the book is depressing or sad, because her love for the city is evident throughout, as she grapples with its place in her own psyche. While she clearly enjoys recreating in her mind's eye the hustle and bustle of the imperial era, she also finds, "For me, Trieste is an allegory of limbo, in the secular sense of an indefinable hiatus." So while the narrative is studded snippets of history, amusing and telling anecdotes from her own visits, and evocations of past residents such as Richard Burton and James Joyce, it's also rich in introspection. Above all, Morris' meandering prose is beautiful and has inspired me to delve into her past work. I do wish the publishers had included a few historical maps, some photos, and a bibliography of other works on Trieste.