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Italian travels of a classicist with an eye for the absurd

Speaking to Clio, by Alberto Savinio. Translated by John Shepley. Marlboro, Vt.; The Marlboro Press. 131 pp. $14.95. American readers have not had easy access to the works of Alberto Savinio. Savinio - the pseudonym of Andrea de Chirico - was a writer, musician, and painter. Like his brother Giorgio, he was associated with the Surrealist movement. Of some 20 books of fiction, essays, and plays written by this Italian author, ``Speaking to Clio'' is the first to be translated into English.

Originally published in 1941, ``Speaking to Clio'' is the journal of brief trips Savinio took in 1939: to the Abruzzi highlands and to the Etruscan burial places at Cerveteri and Tarquinia.

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As a travel journal, the book is delightful. Savinio is at once erudite and light in spirit, a classicist with an eye for the absurd - as when he tells us that the Apollo Belvedere, ``the most foppish of the pagan gods,'' has the ``Hollywood disease,'' or how the guide in Sulmona, asked why Ovid's statue rests upon a book, replies that he was so learned he ``read even with his feet.''

But from the start, Savinio makes it clear that his journey is unusual. His guide, he tells us, is Charon, ``he who escorts souls from this life to the other.'' His muse is Clio, whose province is epic poetry and history.

In his preface, which provides the underpinning for the journal, Savinio ruminates on the process of history. Playing on the meaning of the name Clio, which is derived from the Greek word ``to celebrate,'' he associates it instead with a homonym meaning ``to close.'' Written history, Savinio suggests - including a journal such as his - is a process of closure, a cleansing. ``That civilization will be perfect that translates everything into history and allows us to rediscover ourselves each morning in a fresh condition, free from the past.''

Civilization, of course, isn't perfect, history functions incompletely, and the past does haunt the present. As Savinio travels, he seeks out the interplay between past and present, the relationship between the living and the dead.

In the Abruzzi, the churches are built on the temples of pagan gods. Near Sulmona, Savinio feels ``an ineffable Presence in the countryside''; the region is haunted by Celestine and Ovid - ``conflicting genii'' - the first, ``a genius of saintliness and grace,'' the second, ``an infernal spirit.''

Savinio's theme becomes yet more explicit in the Etruscan necropoli. In an eloquent essay on Cerveteri, he discusses the struggle between the Romans and the Etruscans: ``...a war of souls.'' The Etruscans - our ``romantic fathers,'' with a touch of evil - were vanquished by the logical, classical Romans; but they bequeathed us ``their acute doubts, their metaphysical terrors.'' Is it because the Etruscans left no literature, no written documents, that their mysteries - unprocessed by history - linger, threatening to surface?

This is a tight, evocative book, strengthened by what it leaves unsaid. Savinio offers philosophical musings, not theories; poetry, not proof. Literature, he says, ``wants only to give form and shimmer to the continuous present in life.'' ``Speaking to Clio'' conveys a sense of that present, which is why, perhaps, though it leads through the land of the dead, it leaves a sense of joy.

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Gail Pool reviews travel literature for the Monitor.

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