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A Specialist Retires

Jan Morris's Trieste Elegizes

With the onslaught of Italian travel memoirs in these past years -- Frances Mayes's Under the Tuscan Sun and Laura Frazier's musings on Florence in An Italian Affair to name just two -- most people would flee from yet another Italian literary spree. But Jan Morris's book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, departs from its comrades in both subject and slant.

By modern terms, Trieste is an Italian domain but it is really an ethnic prism, only miles from the Slovenian border. It never lost its cherished role in the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg empire. This mingling of humanity offsets its lack of "attractions." With no sandy beaches or tourist sites, no great parks or architectural feats, Trieste is not the consummate tourist goal. (For a recent volleyball tourney, sand had to be imported.) Morris says, "Trieste is good for the drifter, not the pedant."

The city of Trieste has one of the highest suicide rates in Italy -- it is a Jungian shadow city and Morris treats it as such. Morris is the outsider and, unlike other diarists, rarely brings any of her personal travails to the forefront. She never whips out her wallet to discuss family photos. However, this also means that we never meet any Triestian intimately.

Morris wanders the streets, commenting on the types of experiences one might have in Trieste or what you might see from a bus window: an elderly woman distributing spaghetti and fish heads to a band of feral cats; students with their textbooks spread over the tables at the Café degli Specchi; opera fans who no longer interrupt the second act with bouts of crying.

The memoir also jogs between modern time and the city's relationship to history under the Romans, Austro-Hungarians and Slavs. One chapter is devoted to Trieste's reputation as a "Jewish city." Another muses on Trieste's ability to attract notables, such as James Joyce, who wrote his Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man while working as an errant teacher in the city.

Trieste was designed as a port city, but never proved its importance to global affairs as an Amsterdam or Hamburg. It is a town used to being battled over by powers that found it more important to know who it belonged to, more than knowing exactly what it was for.

The author of more than 30 books, including surveys of South Africa, Wales, Hong Kong and Venice, Morris claims that this book is her last, which may account for the wistful tone of the book. In the final pages, she describes Trieste as a great city that has lost its purpose -- like a specialist in retirement.

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere
by Jan Morris
Hardcover - 208 pages (October 2001)
Simon & Schuster; ISBN: 074301280

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