Habsburg Trieste: anxiety at the border
On the morning of 23 May 1914, Zeno Cosini set out from his family villa, already looking forward to the coffee he would have on his return. A few minutes into his daily walk, he stumbled into a ragtag band of Austrian soldiers – and the beginning of a world war. As he was now on the wrong side of enemy lines, he had no choice but to head back to Trieste. Zeno never got his longed-for coffee. His wife remained on the Italian side, taking refuge in the interior, and Zeno was separated from his family for the duration of the war. That Italo Svevo (1861-1928) chose to end his ironic and intimate novel,
La coscienza di Zeno (1923) (Zeno’s Conscience), with this reference to the onset of war in 1914 was an unusual decision. Despite the fact that he lived through one of the most politically charged periods of Trieste’s history, and himself participated in acts of resistance against the Austrians, Italo Svevo seldom referred to political events in his fiction. Daily life in Trieste was saturated with political significance – during the first years of the century even the brand of matches used by smokers would identify their sympathies.1 Hotels and cafés were identified by their political allegiance. Trieste may have resounded with the shouts of rioting in favour of Italian independence or to the noise of bombs set off in public places, Svevo’s writings focused instead on the tortuous meanderings of the bourgeois mind. Although this final episode of the novel has familiar Zeno-like touches, like the thwarted desire for coffee, the tone shifts, bringing Svevo’s comic story to a surprising, apocalyptic end. The battle lines that Svevo inadvertently crossed became the deadly Italian
front in the First World War. The zone of conflict between the Italians and the Austrians,2 marked by horrific trench warfare, took place along a faultline that for centuries marked the encounter of three great cultural identities – German, Italian and Slav. Trieste lies precisely at this junction, where the northeastern tip of the Adriatic joins the upper edge of the Balkan peninsula, and where the Italian cultural zones of the coast meet the historic zones of
Habsburg and Slavic influence. While the city that Svevo knew had once benefitted from this convergence, becoming a great cosmopolitan and polyglot emporium, the effects were disastrous when Trieste became a flashpoint in both world wars. Cities flourish on sites that are places of encounter – where rivers converge,
where mountains slope towards the sea, where populations meet to trade. But the original tensions of such sites never dissolve entirely. “Incontri” can easily turn into “scontri”, as Italian neatly suggests. Cities like Trieste stand on territory that will readily splinter along ancient fracture lines.