Just as memory floats in and out of focus, there are bland descriptions, periodically marred by clichés, as well as the most arresting insights. There is the führer, triumphantly entering Vienna in March 1938, “transforming Austria, with its overstated grandeur and its promiscuous cross-breeding, into a commonplace, boring Eastern March.” And Magris makes this comparison about the Germans and Russians: “There is Nazi sweat; frigid, different from the Bolshevik kind with its heavy human odor of long marches without a change of underwear.” The book is permeated with such essences, which in a lesser writer’s hands would be mere stereotypes.
This is far from a perfect book. It could have done with more editing. There is a sense of the run-on sentence in many of its passages. But more importantly, this is a serious book. Great novelists are even greater philosophers. They are always concerned with profound questions. In that regard, Blameless is like a long meditation on human reality, which is also political reality. Though Magris writes about blacks, Jews and so on, this is the opposite of a self-absorbed identity novel. This is all about the writer transcending quotidian reality and plunging into the marrow of history. Periodically Magris is mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize. He should get it.
Robert D. Kaplan is the author of many books on travel and foreign affairs. He is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a senior advisor at the Eurasia Group.