"One hundred years ago, Trieste was the chief seaport of the entire Austro-Hungarian empire, but today many people have no idea where it is. This Italian city on the Adriatic, bordering the former Yugoslavia, has always tantalized Jan Morris with its moodiness and melancholy. She has chosen it as the subject of this, her final work, because it was the first city she knew as an adult - initially as a young soldier at the end of World War II, and later as an elderly woman. This is not only her last book, but in many ways her most complex as well, for Trieste has come to represent her own life with all its hopes, disillusionments, loves and memories." "Jan Morris evokes Trieste's modern history - from the long period of wealth and stability under the Habsburgs, through the ambiguities of Fascism and the hardships of the Cold War. She has been going to Trieste for more than half a century and has come to see herself reflected in it: not just her interests and preoccupations - cities, empires, ships and animals - but her intimate convictions about such matters as patriotism, sex, civility and kindness. Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere is the culmination of a singular career."--BOOK JACKET.
This book can start like this because it's at least as much about travelling in time as in space. Trieste had a period of glory and importance in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when it was the seaport for the Austro-Hungarian Empire - but as wars broke out, borders shifted and new countries were born, it lost its role and fell into a decline. So the story of Trieste is about "age, doubt and disillusion ... lost consequence and faded power". It also, in many ways, is a reflection on Jan Morris' own life - she first visited the city immediately after WW2, and has been a regular visitor ever since.
The book is undoubtedly melancholy, yet it's also uplifting. There are extended flights of imagination to the city in its prime: "All around me first-class passengers, awaiting the time to board their ship, are enjoying their last half-hour on Austrian soil before sailing away to America, Alexandria or the East. There they sit at their tables in the sunshine, with their parasols and their ebony walking-sticks, greeting old acquaintances or introducing one another to fellow-passengers." The book as a whole is a song of praise to a certain state of mind, sympathetic, honest and courteous, which Morris claims to have found in this city more than any other.
Ultimately, "Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere" is deeply imbued with an understanding of the historical dynamics which have created the city - and makes you wander what the point is of going anywhere without that sort of understanding. It's also beautifully written, and a book that leaves you with ideas fizzing round your head, from Morris' musings on the nature of nationalism or of exile, to her throwaway lines like "ports are more vulnerable than most cities to the vagaries of history".
Morris has a lot of fun exploring this kind of oddity, but of course there's more to it than that. It turns out that Trieste was the place where she (then still "he") was stationed as a young army officer at the end of World War II, and she's evidently kept in close touch with the place over the intervening half-century. This gives the opportunity for some very interesting insights into the way the city reflects - or doesn't - the ways that Europe has changed over the years. One important theme that keeps coming back is exile: how Trieste's peculiarly central and yet non-central situation, perpetually on the fringes of European spatial awareness, has allowed it to act as a shelter for people and ideas that don't really fit in with its ostensibly businesslike, commercial atmosphere.
This probably isn't a book that will produce a profound shift in your way of looking at the world, and (like all really good travel books) it would be of little practical use as a guide for the visitor. But it is definitely a book that will give you the feeling that you ought to visit the place it describes (and the sense that in a way, you already have); it is a book that will leave you reflecting that the world can't be altogether a bad place if it is capable of inspiring such wonderful writing; and it will probably also leave you with the hope that Morris, despite assurances to the contrary, might have one or two more unpublished books tucked away somewhere still...
I have always been fascinated by Trieste, and was looking forward to reading Jan Morris' impressions of the city. Unfortunately, I found the book a rather rambling discourse about life and European history in general, rather than about Trieste and its place in the world.