Book Review: Danube by Claudio Magris

Though marketed in some editions as a novel, this is anything but. Taking a trip down the Danube River from its source down to its end as a springboard, this unorthodox travelogue (in which Magris himself barely figures) examines landmarks, historical events, and philosophical and literary ideas based around the waterway. Topics vary from Celine and Hegel to beer and Bulgarian bandits, from well-knowns to people obscure even to those with PHDs.

It’s impossible to discuss all the themes and ideas presented in here, as it’s basically a cultural biography of the region, but if pressed to identify one, identity plays a huge part. Identity is one of those big themes in literature, and many a writer has set out to record on it in all kinds of manners. But this is a wholly original book. Historical stories on ancient peoples migrating and assimilating throughout the ages populate it, and as far as writers go, it seemed like Elias Canetti and IB Singer came up the most regardless of the specific areas Magris finds himself in, two once great giants of literature who lived all over Europe and America. This is one of those rare books where subject and theme align perfectly, like they were made for each other.

It’s slow going at times. There is no real plot or conflict to motivate the reader to read on. And yet, each day, I would pick up this book and read a few pages (it’s so dense, expect to take your time with this). The prose is beautiful, poetic, but this is definitely not for everyone, especially those who just want escapism from their reads.

Encyclopedic in scope, I’d like to recommend this book but I can’t actually think of anyone in real life I know who would like it. DANUBE is not the kind of book you can pick up and quickly power through; it needs to be read slowly, let your attention meander like the river, look up some other books as you make your way through this one. If you are the kind of reader look past the lack of a traditional story into the history or philosophy or literature, the type of reader who likes to be challenged, this is for you.