Synopsis of The Coast Where Barbarism Starts, from The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Constance Eakins

Constance Eakins’ monograph about Trieste, The Coast where Barbarism Starts, was a middling volume, of interest only to Eakins completists and Triestini interested in an American’s take on their history. Most memorable is the chapter on the city’s lonely past, titled “The Nine Disappointments of Trieste.”
Unlike Venice or Constantinople or Alexandria, Trieste never had the benefit of a violent assault that brought about a full-scale decline. Instead it suffered only a slow lapse into insignificance and cosmopolitan urban torpor. In this chapter Eakins charts the history of the city through a series of disappointing events. These include:

—The disappointment of the Illyrians, a humble Indo-Celtic people who traded with fish, salt, olive oil and wine, when they were invaded by the Romans, and their city renamed Tergeste.

—The disappointment of the Romans in 394 AD when, due to a powerful gust of the Bora wind, they lost a battle—later christened “The Battle of the Bora.” Local historians believe that this battle directly precipitated the fall of the Roman Empire.

—The disappointment felt by the helpless Triestine fisherman when the Venetians repeatedly raided and occupied it at will during the middle ages, until they grew bored and abandoned it again.

—The disappointment of the14th century townspeople when their local rulers entrusted the city to the despotic rule of the Habsburg monarchy in Vienna.

—The disappointment of the Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Hapsburg who, having built the beautiful castle Miramare, was shot against a wall in Mexico in 1867 before he could take residence there. Before he died Maximilian wrote a letter from Mexico in which he demanded that two thousand nightingales be set free from their cages in Miramare, and sent across the sea to him. After his death his wife, Carlotta, left alone in the empty castle, slowly went insane.

—The disappointment over the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in 1914. His funeral procession proceeded down the city’s main street, the Corso Italia, marking the humiliation of the empire and the advent of world war.

—The disappointment of 1919 at the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire. Trieste was orphaned, smelted on to the recently united kingdom of Italy, becoming its easternmost fringe. Having no identifiable role in the new kingdom, the city was left to fade and evanesce into a languid state of disregard.

—Mussolini’s disappointment, realized as the noose was tightening around his neck, that he would not deliver on his promise to regain for Trieste its ancient status as one of the world’s great ports.

To get a further flavor of Eakins’ book, we quote here from his ninth “disappointment”:

“Imagine the disappointment of Antonio Smrekar, a mechanic from Trieste, upon presenting his identification papers to the civic clerk in Udine and being ordered to an internment camp under suspicion of being a spy. Antonio, an Italian irredentist of Slavic ancestry, had paid a train engineer two months’ salary to be smuggled out of Trieste and over the border into Italy. He wanted to fight alongside the allies against Austria, whose kingdom he blamed for Trieste’s pitiable decline. In the internment bunker he met other nationless casualties of war, a band of disheartened and forgotten men from Trieste and the border towns. These men were not known criminals nor were they even accused of any specific crimes, but they were nevertheless considered dangerous personalities in a time of war. Some were suspected of sympathizing with the enemy, others of sowing anarchy. The Italian military had orders to intern anyone seen holding “incautious conversations in public,” “behaving suspiciously,” “practicing imprudent comportment,” and “not respecting normal war-time of the war.” As a result, it was a large, motley bunch of professors, engineers, daffy pensioners, and leaders of youth organizations that lived in the bunker’s cramped quarters, sleeping on splintered wooden cots without the pleasure of a mattress and lining up to play chess and pinochle on the room’s single table. During the daily period of “recess” the men were allowed into the dirt yard to play bocce, roll dice, and pass around a soccer ball. Behind the towering fence lay hundreds of miles of Friulian farmland, interrupted only by pockets of forest and small hills on which there sat white castles and forts built for other wars, about whose participants nothing was known except that they died over a thousand years earlier.

“Imagine Antonio’s further disappointment at not receiving any responses from the Udinese Civil Commissary to his dignified pleas for release. This is from a letter he wrote in 1919, during his fourth year of internment:

‘I marvel not only at the length of my internment, but at your refusal to consider my case all this time.

‘I am tired of waiting, and so I implore you for neither clemency nor pity, but justice, if such a virtue still exists. I ask for freedom so that I might rejoin my family (who have been praying for my return since 1915), and come to their aid. Recently, in an effort to get away from the destruction of their city, they spent a Saturday at the park in Castle Miramare. While they were there, an airplane—they are not certain whether it was Italian or Austrian—dropped two bombs in their immediate vicinity. A shard of tree branch pierced the arm of my young son, Pietro. It would be a blessing were I allowed to visit and comfort him. He suffers silently there, alongside the beds of wounded soldiers swearing and carrying on in a way unsuitable for the observation of a boy only eight years old.

‘I hope that the Civil Commissariat understands my intentions and will not wish to deny me the justice that I request.’”