2010-07-08 / Opinions

Book Review

The City of Falling Angels
John Berendt is perhaps known to us because of his first book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Like that book about Savannah and its characters, this book is about a city. The author’s note in the beginning states that “This is a work of nonfiction. All the people in

are real and are identified by their real names.”

We might want to keep that note in mind if Berendt ever comes to Washington to take a look at us. He “pulls no punches.” Although he rather annoyingly describes the physical appearance of each character whom he introduces, he lets them speak for themselves. They do an amazing amount of speaking for people who know that they are talking to a writer and may well appear in a book sometime.

This time the city is the wonderful city of Venice. Ancient and beloved, but threatened by the sea and its age, it is a treasure of art and architecture. A Venetian native says to Berendt, “The key to understanding Venetians is rhythm -- the rhythm of the lagoon, the rhythm of the water, the tides, the waves . . .” He goes on to say, “Venetians never tell the truth. We mean precisely the opposite of what we say.”

The Gran Teatro La Fenice was one of the splendors of Venice. Berendt arrived three days after the Fenice was destroyed by fire. He weaves his book around that story -- what caused the fire and difficulties of the restoration. A frequent visitor to Venice, he has come this time in midwinter to avoid the tourists and to stay a while.

It is hard not to be a little envious of him. He speaks and reads Italian and settles in to an apartment, whose owners take him under their wing, introducing him to people he might not otherwise have been able to get to know. His interest was “not in Venice per se but people who live in Venice.”

His narrative technique is to report many conversations, some that he participates in and others that are reported to him. Through this dialog, he tells the stories that pertain to the fire, as well as stories about the fascinating people he meets. Signor Donadon is in the business of poisoning rats. Patricia Curtis owns part of the Palazzo Barbaro, one of the major show places of the city. Philip and Jane Rylands came from the States and became involved with the Guggenheim estate.

He also brings into the story those who just spent time in Venice but are part of its history, like Henry James and Ezra Pound. Sometimes the chronology is confusing as he moves around the city and moves around in time, always coming back to the investigation of the fire and the prolonged restoration of the famous opera house.

There is suspense involved as we wait for the Fenice to be rebuilt, but as he planned, it is the stories about people that keep us reading.

The City of Falling Angels is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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