Beyond the Book: Background information when reading 54

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54

by Wu Ming

54 by Wu Ming X
54 by Wu Ming
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  • Published:
    Jul 2006, 560 pages

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To appreciate the complicated comings and goings in 54 it would be best to have some understanding of the context in which the book is set.  Today, Trieste is a charming Italian city bordering Slovenia (formerly Yugoslavia) on the Adriatic Sea, home to a wide mix of cultures (map of Trieste), but in 1954 it was at the center of a Cold War quandary - what to do with this little city-state caught in the power struggle between East and West? 

Over the centuries Trieste became an important trade hub.  It was constituted a free port by Emperor Charles VI (Holy Roman Emperor from 1711-1740) in 1719 and remained thus until 1891. It lost much of its autonomy during the Napoleonic Wars when it was occupied three times (eventually being returned to the Austrian Empire in 1813) but continued to prosper as the Imperial Free City of Trieste and was an important commercial port and shipbuilding center.  

At the turn of the 20th century it was a popular city on the "Austrian Riviera".  Triestine (a Venetian dialect) was the primary language spoken by the people of the city, German was spoken by the Austrian bureaucracy and Slovenian was the language of the surrounding villages.

In 1920, following the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Trieste was transferred to Italy, with some negative consequences, firstly, the city was reduced to a border town without a proper hinterland and the Slovenian part of the population (about 25%) were suppressed by the Italian Fascist regime. 

When the Italian Social Republic was constituted in 1943, Trieste was nominally considered part of it.  However, the Germans annexed it (setting up the only extermination camp on Italian soil near Trieste), and the city suffered from partisan activity and Allied bombardments.  In April 1945 Italian anti-fascists incited a revolt against the Nazis, and in April, Yugoslav partisans from Tito's army occupied most of Trieste and, with the help of New Zealand forces that arrived shortly after, successfully took the city on May 2nd.  However, the Yugoslavs were forced by the New Zealanders to leave the city the following month after aggravating the local population (firing on pro-Italian demonstrators, arresting members of the Italian democratic resistance force, etc). 

In 1947 Trieste became an independent state as the Free Territory of Trieste, but the state was dissolved in 1954 when the city was officially annexed by Italy on October 26, with the southern part of the territory going to Yugoslavia (now Slovenia).

This article is from the August 17, 2006 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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