(World War II Venice)
For those that are familiar with the work of Martin Cruz Smith the author of GORKY PARK, STALIN’S GHOST, TATIANA, among others, his latest effort, THE GIRL FROM VENICE should prove very satisfying. The novel is centered in Venice in the small fishing village of Pellestrina. One evening during the spring, 1945, Innocenzo Vianello, a poor fisherman is watching allied planes pass overhead on their way to rain havoc on Turin, Milan, or Verona, as he tries to secure his catch, when he notices a body floating in the water. The body turns out to be a survivor of a Nazi SS raid on San Clemente, a mental institution. The survivor is Giulia Silber, from a wealthy Jewish family, whose parents, aunts and uncles, in addition to many others have been seized by the Nazis and are presumed dead. Cenzo, against his better judgement rescues the girl and immediately is confronted by an SS boat in a lagoon. It seems the SS is looking for the escaped Jewess. Cenzo hides the girl and an incident will occur that makes him as much of a target as Giulia.
(Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler)
Smith’s writing is very clear and he does a remarkable job developing the relationship between Cenzo and Giulia, from teaching her to be a fisherman, how to enunciate as not to appear upper class, friendship, and finally falling in love. For Cenzo thinking about his own miseries pale in comparison to what Giulia has been through and he becomes very protective of her. They are both in a quandary as to how to proceed when Cenzo’s friend, Eusebio Russo, who was a smuggler, arranged to take Giulia north and turn her over to Communist partisan to allow her to escape. However, at this point Cenzo and Giulia realize they might mean more to each other than they thought.
As the novel progresses the reader will come across a number of interesting characters. There is Cenzo’s brother Giorgio a famous actor and follower of Mussolini who he is estranged from. Nido, the owner of a bar in Pellestrina, who along with his good friend Cenzo oppose the war after their experiences fighting against Haile Selassie’s forces in Abyssinia. Colonel Steiner, a Nazi officer that may have turned against Hitler. Steiner claims he needs to locate Giulia as she is the only witness to what happened at San Clemente when Steiner’s conduit to the Americans disappeared, Vittorio Silber, Giulia’s father. The catch is Steiner wants Cenzo to work with his brother to find her. Maria Paz Rodriguez, the wife of the former Argentine Counsel in in Salo, the capitol of the remainder of the Italian Socialist State. Paz is an interesting character as she is an excellent forger for both Jews and Germans who are fleeing. Otto Klein, supposedly a neutral Swiss filmmaker, but he has ties to the black market, Joseph Goebbles, and seems to want to bring down the Germans. Farina, an Italian Fascist who cannot understand that the war is lost. Lastly, Dante, the partisan leader whose loyalty is to communism.
There is a Kafkaesque quality to the story. As the war winds down everyone thinks it is almost over and they begin to contemplate their lives once hostilities will come to a close. They wonder who will be in charge and most conclude the Germans will just leave, but Italian fascists and partisans will battle for Italy’s soul. Smith provides unique insights into society in the “capitol,” Salo. The nerves of the people are being shredded as they worry about who they will be able to trust. Cenzo will undergo a remarkable transformation as he tries to find Giulia and has to deal with his brother Georgio, but also has nightmares over the death of his younger brother Hugo, who had been killed by an American pilot the year before. The novel has an undercurrent that pervades each page as Cenzo, also a talented artist had painted a picture of the scene where his brother Hugo had been killed. The problem is that Cenzo is transfixed by what he has created, and it takes him almost to the end of the story to finally understand what his unconscious was telling him.
The novel itself is an indictment of Mussolini’s regime and the marionettes that followed him. Smith’s dialogue reeks of sarcasm as he points to the weaknesses and incompetence of Italian fascism. Il Duce is a comic figure, however the story that he is a part of is not. Martin Cruz Smith’s new book is worth engaging and I recommend you take a few hours, get comfortable with a glass of wine, and enjoy-it will be bellissimo!
(June 25, 1941, the Venice Conference)