The Elusive Centre (of Europe)
Spalato, Fiume, Istria. The Italian Exodus in Literature
Publication: 14 October 2021
The Elusive Centre (of Europe)
Spalato, Fiume, Istria. The Italian Exodus in Literature
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Historic changes are always accompanied by a sense of profound, unrecompensable loss and disorientation, and previous identities are lost once and for all, irrevocably, suppressed by the historically or culturally new identity.
Spalato: malo misto
At a time when victims of 20th-century expulsions from all corners of Central and Eastern Europe have passed the baton of their trauma on to the next century, and with the competitive plaints of their own suffering only recently quieted, it would not be out of place to recall the Italian exodus from post-war Yugoslavia, something about which the Polish consciousness is only dimly aware. This was the ﬂight of some 300,000 people from Istria and Dalmatia, prompted by repressions on the part of Tito’s new Yugoslavia, in which Italians were usually associated with former fascists. The reality described in Esilio, a book by the well-known Italian journalist Enzo Bettiza, will be instantly recognisable to Poles from Lviv, Germans from Wrocław, and Hungarians from Kosice alike. The eponymous esilio is more than emigration; it is exile – the most obvious and ﬁnal loss of place, and with it ties, roots and identity. And thus, if we are using the past tense in this context, it would probably be more appropriate to write of Lwów, Breslau and Kassa, for these were the names by which those cities were known to their erstwhile residents. Bettiza, too, writes of Spalato – not Split – where his family had settled two centuries previously, and where he lived until the age of 18.
It is undeniable that the identity of anyone who lived in Wrocław, Kosice or Lviv must have been multifaceted – at least bilingual, imprecise, as is common to all borderland regions. For Dalmatia was certainly such a region: now Croatian, but previously Yugoslavian, Italian, Austrian, Napoleonic, Byzantine and Roman, situated on the eastern Adriatic coast, facing Italy, separated from Bosnia and Herzegovina by mountains, different from the predominantly rural and inland Slavic world: a place of countless islands, fjords, ports, inhabited by ﬁshermen, sailors and merchants, at the intersection of East and West. This was a space with a multifaceted, incohesive identity, an ethnic cocktail that was resilient to nationalism, open to otherness, cosmopolitan and liberal: a peculiar Mediterranean Mitteleuropa, Catholic between Orthodoxy and Islam, a linguistic and cultural Tower of Babel.
In this Dalmatia of the past, annihilated once and for all by history, as in the writer’s native Spalato / Split, there was no difference, either ethnic or linguistic, between residents who considered themselves Italians and those who considered themselves Slavs (it is no accident that the term in use was precisely that: Slavs – and not Serbs, Croats or Montenegrins). Both groups spoke both Serbo-Croat and the old Venetian dialect, both went to Vienna to pursue further studies, both served in the Austro-Hungarian army, and thus knew German. Both also identified with the transnational Mediterranean civilisation within which from the 18th century Austria had promoted, as in Trieste, the assimilation of the Jewish minority, descendants of the Sephardic Jews once expelled from Spain. The powerful Pasches and Morpurgo dynasties, like all the other residents of Spalato, selected Italianness or Slavdom according to preference: back in the 18th century the Morpurgo booksellers promoted Italian literature, but a later heir to the line, Vlad Morpurgo, fought for the introduction of Serbo-Croat to schools and government offices, which had been bastions of German and Italian.
The memories that Bettiza recounts were not triggered until half a century after he left his city. It took a real cataclysm – the war in Yugoslavia – for dormant memory to be awoken and the suppressed images of the past to resurface in this eminent Italian journalist, envoy of La Stampa, to places which included Moscow, and co-editor of Il Giornale. This private operation of erasing memories of a childhood and youth spent in the Italo-Slav Spalato suddenly found an unexpected, tragic parallelism in Serbia’s military operations, the culmination of which, for Bettiza at least, was the bombardment of Dubrovnik, which represented the intent to destroy a tradition of cosmopolitan, marine-focused Slavdom far removed from Byzantine icons, Orthodox cupolas and sacred books written in Cyrillic. Paradoxically, Serbia’s cruelties called forth from the depths of his memory reminiscences of his own Serbian roots: his mother, his nurse, and his beloved Baba (Granny) Mara, a Serbian peasant woman, all bound him in linguistic, religious and cultural terms more closely to the Serbian than to the Italian tradition. It was Baba Mara who told him Serbian sagas and legends, terrible stories from the Balkan folk epic tradition, at the heart of which was immutably the legend of Kosovo: the smashing of the Serbian forces by the Ottoman Army. The myth of Kosovo, with roots going back 500 years in the collective Serbian imagination, also took hold in the child’s imagination, a myth of glory and death, an atavistic myth demonising all that is alien, the embodiment of which was to become the Muslim, the Bosniak in the fez.
That little boy who was entertained with stories of Serbian heroism in place of fairy tales about Little Red Riding Hood felt himself to be an exile, an émigré, long before he left Spalato, he felt it even in his own home, in his Italian school in Zar / Zadar, where he experienced bilinguality and indeterminate national identity. His first memory is linked with the awareness that he came into the world not in the West, but in the shadow of the Orient, Serbia and Montenegro: any trifle would suffice to bring out the Montenegrin identity – so akin to the Serbian nature, in a community of Orthodoxy and Cyrillic – of his mother and maternal grandfather, the Vuśkovićes, even though Dalmatia had been their homeland for several generations. The portrait of his grandfather in his mother’s family home shows a bearded man dressed in the Turkish fashion, a sabre at his side, in pointed slippers, the image of a pasha, a warrior from an oriental fairytale. By contrast, the portrait of his paternal great-grandfather, painted in the style of Ingres, depicts a bourgeois entrepreneur in a tailcoat and starched collar… but with a gold earring in his ear. The gulf between this Europeanised burgher and the Turkish pasha at first glance seems bottomless, but the Mongolian moustache and gold earring akin to an oriental amulet – like the sabre and the Turkish garb – suggest pure orientalism on the one hand, and semi-orientalism concealed with western wealthiness on the other.This family history, reconstructed half a century on, proves remarkably emblematic, not only for the multinational Spalato, but for all borderland territories. Bettiza’s paternal grandfather, a judge and scrupulous executor of Habsburg law, though in the depths of his soul sensitive to the Slav cause, condemned the assassin Gavrilo Princip as a criminal and terrorist, but could not fail to perceive the Slav patriot in him. His father chose Italian citizenship, although he, too, remained an exemplary homo austriacus, not presuming any marked national affiliation. One of his brothers, an internationalist and a socialist, does not want to be considered Italian, while the other, although hit by an Italian bullet during the First World War, evolves into an Italian nationalist. Bettiza’s mother was a representative of a radically different tradition: a raven-haired, Eurasian beauty, consumed by her own allure, she surrounded herself with clairvoyants, indulged a penchant for long siestas and Turkish coffee, and took no interest in the life of the Italian community – in a word, a symbol of the arcane oriental world resisting the process of occidentalisation.
One clear indicator of the multiculturality of Bettiza’s family home is its cuisine, to which he devotes a whole long chapter. It is typically borderland in its nature, featuring Venetian, Slovene, Turkish, Hungarian, Viennese and Jewish specialities, reconciling the Adriatic and the Danube, the Puszta and Anato‑ lia, the bazaars of Sarajevo and Istanbul, pantagruelian appetites and cruel slaughter rituals. Literature dealing with loss of place returns again and again to culinary ceremonies, and calls up names and flavours as the most sensuous reminders of past times. Tomasi di Lampedusa, for instance, described the endless meals in Sicilian palaces, for nothing could convey the sense that this was a world gone for ever like talk of jellies with rum. He was echoed by Sándor Márai, who in Memoir of Hungary described an interminably long dinner in Kassa, during his grandmother’s lifetime: “We thought we were having lunch. Later we realized that it was ‘History’.”
It is in this environment that the writer grows up, dimly aware that he is neither entirely Italian nor entirely Slav. Paradoxically, the Serbian side of his personality is strengthened during his time at the Ital‑ ian gymnasium in Zara, a city diametrically different from Spalato, a militant city of the borderlands – or marches, where national affiliations were wont to be radicalised, a city that in the interbellum was to see anti‑Slav student demonstrations, which as an adolescent he interpreted as being directed at his mother and nurse, and hence at a significant element of his own identity.
The war years see successive occupations step up in pace, each one equally damaging to the multiethnic oecumene that had evolved in Spalato. After the Italian fascists came the Nazis and the Ustaše, and when in September 1944 Tito’s army marched in, there was no longer room for the Italians. Emigration, as Bettiza ponders it decades later, for the then 18‑year‑old has nothing but malevolence in view. Most significant is the state of mind that the writer recreates: a chronic sense of unreality, the vague, nagging sense that everything is a mirage, an outward semblance, and the provisory, random nature of his life abroad render it no more than a surrogate for his arrested real existence back in Dalmatia. This true émigré syndrome, described by Kundera, Cioran, Márai and so many others, is much, much longer lasting than the trauma of the uprooting itself, and cannot be eradicated by the new life, however successful it might be. It is interesting that the writer associates it with his loss of memory and the supplantation of his reminiscences, contradicting the received view of the émigré as a person who lives in the past and manically nurtures the memory of it. Conversely, Bettiza avers, emigration causes the gradual erosion of memory, which becomes memory in exile, comatose memory.
Frank Ankersmit, in his De navel van de geschiedenis, devotes a number of fascinating pages to forgetting, writing about various types of forgetting, all of which without exception are nevertheless connected with the state diagnosed by Bettiza. He speaks of forgetting what is truly important for our identity, of forgetting what is too painful – suppression of traumatic experience to the realm of the subconscious, although the subconscious memory constantly reminds us that there is something that we would prefer to forget. And then there is the forgetting that is of most importance from the historiographic perspective of Ankersmit, but also from the perspective of the émigré: in the course of historic changes, when people entered a new world, it only worked on condition that they forgot about the world they had left behind, and shed their previous identity. Historic changes are always accompanied by a sense of profound, unrecompensable loss and disorientation, and previous identities are lost once and for all, irrevocably, suppressed by the historically or culturally new identity. In such cases, “our collective identity is for the most part the sum of the scars on our collective soul caused by the forced abandonment of previous identities; scars that will never fully heal, and will cause us constant distress and pain.” But when the traumatic experience is told, its terrible nature is mitigated, experience and identity are reconciled, so that both are respected, and this reconciliation is elevated to a central concept in Esilio.
From Istria and Fiume to Trieste
If Esilio is a novel about a long oblivion, from which its author is only awoken by the war in Yugoslavia – although he does not change the Italian identity he ultimately assumed – the entire oeuvre of Fulvio Tomizza talks of the faithfulness of memory, which is above all the memory of the place, languages and the past of a multiethnic community forced by history to make dramatic choices and leave its small homeland. The writer’s exodus from Istria does not essentially alter his identity, which remains mixed; he is unwilling to declare himself in favour of a single national option. With the loss of place, the subject of place takes centre stage in Tomizza’s work, and exile is transposed into profit in the form of the painful, although reconciled consciousness of his own heterogeneous roots. Although he himself returned to the countryside from which his family had once moved to Trieste, and built a house near Umag, so symbolically taking possession of the “red earth of Istria”, his literary place remains the Italian-Croatian Istria that survived until the region was subsumed into communist Yugoslavia.
In contrast to Bettiza’s sea port and the old Spalato within the walls of Diocletian’s palace, in Tomizza’s writing we see the interior of the peninsula, a rural, farming country far removed from urban civilisation. The simplicity of this world and its centuries‑long rhythm contrast all the more sharply with the shock of its annexation to Yugoslavia and show all the more mercilessly the action of the steamroller of history on what seemed an unchanged community. As in the Joseph Brodsky sketch The Condition We Call Exile, then, the writer evolves into a retrospective, retroactive being, the matter of the past will be an inexhaustible source for his work, and the rural Istria from before his exodus will grow into a truly Borgeesque Aleph, a point in space, as Borges has it, that contains all other points. Thus it does not provoke resentment or restrict his view to local microhistory, but, conversely, broadens his angle on the world to encompass all those places in Europe – such as Prague and the Balkans – where history has brutally intervened.
Ankersmit, whom I cited above, wrote of a reconciliation of identity and experience that would respect both and guarantee their continued existence. Such new relations between them, he added, are possible only at the cost of supreme effort, but they are attainable. Tomizza makes this effort, reworking the story of his own family’s fate into a metaphor for existence in the world, and the history of their loss into the reconciliation of generations liberated from such a curse. For him, Trieste ultimately becomes a place where contradictions can be reconciled, where he will be free to admit to his own roots in a lost world – a world that is Istrian, but also Triestine and Central European – and at the same time will be able to liberate himself from an exclusively rural, Catholic identity, to extend and enrich that identity with the urban, cosmopolitan, secular dimension of Trieste.
The process of urbanisation, which complicates – but does not eradicate – one’s previous identity, is the subject of La città di Miriam. Here, Trieste is a space of difficult assimilation. It does not welcome the Istrian fugitives with open arms; on the contrary, it greets them with hostile cries as people who “steal bread and homes”. The condition of the émigré is virtually tantamount to assignment to the “worse” Trieste, to the world of fugitives from the East, “hesitant even in the shadow of their own churches, whether Greek or Serbian Orthodox, and their synagogues”. The intermediary in this process of reconciling experience and identity – to borrow again from Ankersmit – is the Jewish family of the narrator’s future wife. Doctor Cohen, an expert in psychoanalysis and music, becomes his freely elected spiritual father, releasing him from his sense of guilt towards his biological father, persecuted and incarcerated by the Yugoslavian regime, while his son, briefly in thrall to the new ideology, travels Yugoslavia from town to town. Allegations of collaboration with Yugoslavia, the criticism by some reviewers of the Italian in which his first novels are written as primitive and coarse, and at the same time treatment of him as an Italian nationalist with an interest in the return of Istria to Italy, are all factors in placing Tomizza “on the other side”, as in the signature title of the essay by Claudio Magris. But it is possible, Magris wrote, to liberate oneself from the concept of a boundary separating our world from the other side, where an alien, hostile space begins – and literature has a major role to play in this. Tomizza was well aware of this, and might have averred, after Magris, that literature “is a quest for a way to overturn the myth of the other side, to understand that everyone is sometimes on this side and sometimes on the other, that everyone, as in a medieval mystery play, is the Other.”
In answer to a world dissected by borders, where monolithic national communities stand in opposition to one another, Tomizza proposes the fluid borderland world, which is free of both Yugoslavian nationalism and Italian “hurrah” patriotism, an Istrian world that is not only Italian and not only Slav, but Italo‑Slav. It is only to be sought in memory, for it is a classic “lost place”, but there is the potential for broadening its real frontiers in the real Trieste, where Tomizza had lively contacts with centres of Slovene culture, aware that this was the city not only of Italo Svevo and Umberto Saba, but also of Boris Pahor and Marko Kravos.
His most complete voyage of memory to a place no longer in existence is Materada, the epic story of the Istrian parish of Materada from the beginning of the 20th century until the exodus. This rural world in the backwaters of history, an archetypal periphery, existed for generations in unchanged form, ignorant of ideological conflicts, knowing no more than family quarrels. The uncertain identity of its residents in no way hindered the peaceful continuity of its patriarchal way of life. The collapse of this world came with the ethnic and political divisions: in the micro civil war, neighbours and members of a single family suddenly found themselves overnight mortal enemies. There was a war in progress, mused the narrator of Materada, over whether we were Italians or Slavs, but we were bastards.
Thus, this lament for a lost world can be translated into literature. We turn to literature, says Magris, when we do not know who we are. In Tomizza’s case, literature is a space of reconciliation, of consent to one’s own lack of belonging in preference to a rigid, unequivocal identification. As a writer, he appears to have experienced all the stages of exile so brilliantly described by Jerzy Święch in his study Wygnanie. Prolegomena do tematu (Exile. Prolegomena to the subject). Święch believes that although exile came to be synonymous with alienation, uprooting, homelessness in the 20th century, the exile as person – unlike the émigré or fugitive, for instance – is someone who utilises their condition as a type of trampoline, who can turn their life of agony and suffering into material for an opus. The final stage of this process is a kind of victory: the apparently arrested past “returns constantly in the memory, in a different, richer shape”. In a startling concurrence with the description of the road travelled by Tomizza, Święch writes that the exile “ultimately becomes himself through endowment not by a third party, but by himself”, and can escape “the person he was, chained to one place, as it were, confined to one role”, and thus gains a previously unknown freedom, the ability to cross frontiers; although still living in the “kingdom granted him by memory”, his true space is literature.
The loss of Fiume, the later Rijeka, and another Italian exodus to Trieste, is reflected in the short diary novel by Marisa Madieri, Verde acqua (Aqua‑green), a crystalline, simple story of a life full of bonds and sense, yet conscious of the silent work of time, which robs individuals of their world of affects and attachments. From the Fiume of her childhood to the Tri‑ este of her maturity, it is a straight road devoid of evidence of the émigré’s trauma. Her recognition of herself in her female identity as a wife and mother in the continuity of the generations, in which a fundamental role is played by female genealogy – both her grandmothers, her mother, her aunts and her sister – is equally natural. Hence, the essential dimension of the quotidian as the trigger of memory, which then effortlessly replays the whole of her life, linking the past and the present in an atmosphere of equanimity, acceptance of her life, and absolute freedom in making the privileged places of that life shared with Claudio Magris and their sons her own – Trieste, the island of Cres, the Slovenian forests – places that would return after her death in Magris’ Microcosms, now themselves lost places, because they had ceased to be the setting for their shared existence.
In his afterword to the collection of Madieri’s texts, Magris writes about both those fugitives from Istria and Fiume who were easily tempted by anti-Slav nationalism, and those who, like his wife, continued to recognise themselves in the Italian-Slav dialogue, and to see themselves as belonging to a world by nature heterogeneous, a Venetian-Croatian-Central European world. The multiple identities of the Fiume borderlands, which were primarily Italian, but also Croatian and Hungarian, are accepted without resentment, and Madieri’s voice harmonises well with Triestine borderland literature alongside those of Stuparich, Bettiza, Tomizza, while retaining its originality in recreating the perspective, first of a child, and later of a woman, for whom the world of affects and family ties entirely effaces the ideological or historical perspectives. The work of memory does not conceal the scars of any wounds; it simply enriches the identity of the narrator, for whom reconciliation is not a target but the obvious base on which to build that identity. The Istrian exodus, although portrayed so specifically through the example of her own family, becomes a symbolic interpretation not only of the uncertainty of human fate, but also of the conquest that is setting up one’s own home. From the times of biblical tradition, exodus has meant loss and salvation, death and rebirth, uprooting and re-rooting. Even the modest Aeneid, Magris adds, teaches that the foundation of any kingdom must be precipitated by expulsion.
Verde acqua, published in Italy in 1987, takes up the theme of exodus in the female version, in which microhistory finds an interpretation imbued with emotions and free of futile dilemmas and superfluous generalisations. There is no nostalgic living in the past; memory restores fragments of the past seemingly effortlessly, with the purpose of bestowing greater depth on the present moment, but leaves them untouched, unadulterated. Out of the depths of time, “echoes and reminiscences [reach us] that gradually form a mosaic, that emerge and take form out of the undifferentiated mass of magma that accumulates over the years on the dark, silent bottom.”
Her grandmother’s home on via Angheben, renamed after the war Zagrebačka Ulica, near the port, with the Croat neighbours with whom the young Marisa played, remains, in spite of the war, the bombardments and the Yugoslavian occupation, a true arch-place, a playground – the whole world, in the spirit of the literary and cultural symbolism of the home. Loss of her childhood home undermines her faith in the stability of the world, and brings with it the loss of language, one of her languages – Croatian, which she relearns as an adult in order to reaccess the forgotten part of her own identity. The post-emigration substitute for that apartment on via Angheben, and the apartment of her other grandmother on via Dante, is a true parody of a home: the Silos in Trieste – a former grain store, as its name implies, used as a camp for the fugitives, who sometimes lived there for years in numbered compartments, in stifling heat or cold, in stuffy, stale, cramped conditions. What is striking about this prose and renders it unique is the tone in which she recounts her family’s post-war odyssey: the poverty, the persecution, her father’s imprisonment, her parents’ profound grief and distraction at having to leave – all this is narrated from the mixed perspectives of the child and the adult who has absolutely come to terms with her loss.
The theme of borderlands has returned after more than half a century in the new global context of emigration, of new exoduses, new disintegrations of multicultural state organisms, but also in the guise of multiculturalism, whether valued or criticised. The collective work Peryferie i pogranicza. O potrzebie różnorodności (Peripheries and borderlands. The need for heterogeneity) speaks exhaustively about the present-day understanding of borderlands. Its editors, Bohdan Jałowiecki and Sławomir Kapralski, define borderlands as a space occupied by individuals of ambiguous characteristics, a heterogeneous space where coexistence of different cultural models is the norm. These are fluid, ambivalent areas which the modernising process has attempted to force within clear-cut boundaries. The authors cite Anthony Giddens, who states that borderlands are some of the first victims of the modern order, because they are not tolerated by nation states, which install borders in place of borderlands and erase local character in favour of the preferred state of uniformity.
Interest in borderlands has returned in our times of fluid modernity, and differences, fringes and indeterminate identities have gained favour. The definition of borderland given in the same volume by Tomasz Zarycki offers a succinct synthesis of the themes addressed in the texts by the three authors discussed here: “Thus, borderlands feature here as a kind of ‘no-man’s land’, in which traditions and various cultures intermingle freely, and the subjects in this space have complete freedom of choice as to their identity.” In this conception, then, the borderland would be a place where various different ethnic groups come into contact and cultures mingle, leading to a greater openness of attitudes than in the centre, and so becoming synonymous with the melting-pot, a national, linguistic and religious melange in which individual identity may be – although need not necessarily be – a matter of choice. This is the type of mythical and multicultural limes into which the former Polish Eastern Borderlands seem to be transformed in the interpretation of Robert Traba, who portrays them as a place of memory transcending the barrier of territoriality.
When a borderland of this conception is expunged due to a conflict with external roots – for instance the forced exodus from Dalmatia and Istria – emigration may cause the idealisation of the lost homeland, its imprisonment in the past, a fixation on a mirage. Bettiza, Tomizza and Madieri manage to avoid all these pitfalls, however; their memory has proved “fortunate” in the sense that Paul Ricoeur lent that word: they do not fetishise the images of their lost homeland or ritualise the loss; the memory of the place that has been lost, and the exile, have not prevented the journey onward or the further assimilation of spaces as areas of new settlement.
 Sándor Márai, Memoir of Hungary, trans. Albert Tezler, Budapest 2005, p. 339.
 Frank Ankersmit, De navel van de geschiedenis. Over interpretatie, representatie en historische realiteit, Groningen 1990 [trans. J.T.K.].
Joseph Brodsky, “The Condition We Call Exile”, in: Literature in Exile, ed. John Glad, North Carolina 1990, pp. 100–109.
 Fulvio Tomizza, La città di Miriam, Milano 1972 [trans. JTK].
 Claudio Magris, “Po tamtej stronie”, Przegląd Polityczny, 2000, no. 44, p. 85.
 Ibid [trans. JTK.].
 Jerzy Święch, “Wygnanie. Prolegomena do tematu”, in: Narracja i tożsamość II, ed. Włodzimierz Bolecki, Ryszard Nycz, Warszawa 2004, p. 117 and passim [trans. JTK].
 Marisa Madieri, Wodna zieleń, Warszawa 2004, p. 8 [trans. JTK.], (M. Maderi, Verde aqua, Torino 1987).
 Peryferie i pogranicza. O potrzebie różnorodności, ed. Bohdan Jałowiecki, Sławomir Kapralski, Warszawa 2011, pp. 7–28.
 Tomasz Zarycki, “Peryferie czy pogranicza?”, in: Peryferie i pogranicza, op.cit., p. 36 [trans. J.T.K.].
 Robert Traba, “The Kresy as a realm of memory: the long history of persistence”, Herito, 8:2012, pp. 58–91.
 See: Paul Ricoeur, Pamięć, historia, zapomnienie, trans. Janusz Margański, Kraków 2006, pp. 653–656. (La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli. Paris: Seuil, 2000.
 See: Hanna Buczyńska-Garewicz, Miejsca, strony, okolice, Kraków 2006, p. 130 and passim.
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