Down the Danube

Published : Jun 05, 2009 00:00 IST

The Danube in Budapest. The book by Claudio Magris is structured as a journey, beginning with the rivers origins and meandering along its course through central and south-eastern Europe to the Black Sea.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The Danube in Budapest. The book by Claudio Magris is structured as a journey, beginning with the rivers origins and meandering along its course through central and south-eastern Europe to the Black Sea.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

RIVERS are all about life. Not only because they provide life-giving water to people and plants and animals but because they become the flowing repositories of history and culture for the humanity that settles on their banks, the streams of their chan ging consciousness, the constant yet varying locations of their anxiety, grief, hope and joy.

This is what makes books about rivers so attractive, because the good ones can never be just about the river, which is the ostensible subject: they have to deal with the society and culture of the settlements around it. But Claudio Magris wonderful book on Europes most famous river goes far beyond that. Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea (Collins Harvill, 1990) is more than a magisterial treatise or even a valiant attempt to capture the social history of human habitations in all their richness and complexity. It is a cornucopia of gems that derive some inspiration or relevance from that great river: literary, biographical, historical, political and philosophical.

Maybe it was the dry and dusty heat of a Delhi summer that made me turn to this book again after many years. Or maybe it was just the need to seek relief from the increasingly mindless and apparently endless media speculation about post-election political configurations in India. Whatever it was, there is no doubt that Magris acute perception and profound scholarship have created a masterpiece that transcends the particular focus on the river itself to act as a spiritual balm and an invitation to introspection.

The book is structured as a journey, beginning with the Danubes origins and meandering or moving forcefully along its course through central and south-eastern Europe to the Black Sea. Different points along the banks generate different types of discussion, ranging from little anecdotes to longer sympathetic accounts to broad philosophical expressions.

Throughout, there is irony and wry humour. Consider the very start of the book, at the purported source of the Danube. One theory holds that the source of the ultimately mighty river is no more than a gutter in the south of Germany, itself fed by a leaking tap that no one ever succeeds in fully turning off. In any case, the actual source is inevitably disputed, as borne out by the evidence of the plaques at different points, which have become the source of continuous discord between the competing village claimants.

But even more than emotional geography, this is a book full of people, both historical and created. They spring out from the pages in often startling detail, but always with empathy, discernment, even passion. And their personalities suddenly illuminate for the reader the major and minor events that they were involved in.

Consider some of the characters ebbing and flowing from this account: the engineer Neweklowsky, who spent most of his life producing the definitive tract on navigation and rafting on the upper Danube, in 2,164 pages weighing just under 6 kilograms; Marieluise Fleisser of Ingolstadt, the playwright whose complex relationship with Bertolt Brecht both elevated and consumed her; Ferdinand Thran, the 19th century architect and restorer of the Ulm Cathedral, who devoted considerable energies not only to his detailed published guide to the cathedral but to a meticulous and even more detailed File of Rudenesses Received in which he recorded all the outrages and affronts that life had offered him.

There was Agnes Bernauer, the lovely daughter of an Augsberg barber, who was charged with witchcraft and had be to drowned in the Danube by tying her long hair down with weights because she had married the son of the Duke of Bavaria and threatened the policies of the dynasty and the state with this misalliance; the mathematician Johannes Kepler who wrote a little treatise on Six points of nothing dealing with the properties of snowflakes, and who sent it to his mentor with the words, I know that you like Nothing, not because of its minimal value, but because one can play with it in a light, witty way, like a garrulous sparrow, and I therefore think that a gift will be more welcome to you and be more appreciated the more it approaches zero; Marianne Jung Willemer, the unacknowledged creator of some of the most beloved poems in the German language the poems of Zuleika in Goethes West-Eastern Divan who wrote them in the midst of her passion for Goethe, and who never wrote anything again.

Other characters include Herr Baumgartner, whose job was to shoot the excess hares that destroy the flowers and other memorials on the tombstones at the central cemetery in Vienna; Maria Vetsera, the little teenage baroness, who avoided a performance of Wagners Ring at the Vienna opera to have a secret meeting with Rudolph of Hapsburg, thereby setting in motion the events leading to their tragic double suicide in Mayerling in 1889; Robert Reiter, the avant-garde Hungarian poet, who disappeared from the fashionable literary scene in Budapest only to be tracked down years later as the German lyric-poet Franz Lebhard in Timisoara, Romania, having changed his name, nationality, language and literary style... .

Even places develop personalities in Magris account: the clock museum in Furtwangen that calls forth meditations on the ambiguity of contemporaneity; the room in a little two-storeyed house in a small town near Klosterneuberg where Franz Kafka died; the marshy woods and meadows around Tulln where the naturalist Konrad Lorenz developed his uncomfortable theories; the tranquil city of Linz, beloved of Hitler, to which the Fuhrer wished to retire after creating the most grandiose city along the river; the sterile geometry of the house Ludwig Wittgenstein designed in Vienna; the old pharmacy The Red Prawn in Bratislava that shows the history of the herbalists art; the tomb of Gul Baba, a 16th century holy man buried in on a hill of roses in Budapest; the improbable city of Subotica, whose very existence is based on fascinating falsifications and infractions... .

The historical and geographical details coalesce to transcend this particular river, this particular geography, to encompass all rivers and all humanity. At the end of the book, Magris is in Sulina on the Black Sea, trying to establish the mouth of the river. But there is no mouth; he cannot see the Danube. His mistake was to look for the mouth of the river in the open undefined spaces of the dunes and the beach, the horizon and the sea, by following the trails and dispersals of little rivulets. Instead, Magris discovers that the Danube ends in a regimented canal, and reaches the sea in a harbour reserved for dock personnel, and under the surveillance of officialdom in the form of the Harbour Master.

Is that all there is to conclude this riparian journey? Not really, because the canal runs, runs on, calmly and confidently into the sea, and it is not longer a canal, a limitation, a regulation, but a flowing outwards that opens and abandons itself to all the waters and oceans of the entire globe, and to the creatures living in their depths.

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