- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 5, 2003

“‘In Venice, catastrophes do not actually occur, life hangs by a thread, defying the laws of physics, and it is the threat of what might happen, but doesn’t, that makes us anxious and apprehensive,’ Chiara had told me, comparing the theme of The Tempest with the customs that rule the way the city functions, a city that exists as if estranged from the real world, having turned its back on reason and logic.”

This is not the Venice of azure skies and scenic paintings by Francesco Guardi and his master Canaletto. It is, rather, a city where periodic floods threaten to turn rundown palaces into underwater mausoleums. In winter, it is like a ghost to Alejandro Ballesteros, the visiting Spanish art historian who arrives by night, full of excitement, only to be immediately downcast by the sight from the vaporetto (steamboat) carrying him, of snow falling on the lagoon and Grand Canal.

Alejandro is the speaker above, informed by Chiara, a young woman restorer of artworks whom he meets as she busies herself with some works of Tintoretto, perched on a scaffold in the church of the Madonna dell’ Orto. She is the daughter of Gilberto Gabetti, director of the Academia museum, who is in turn Alejandro’s principal contact in Venice. Gabetti and Chiara put Alejandro up in their house on the Fondamenta della Sensa, but not immediately.

The Spaniard’s first stop is the down-at-heel Albergo Cusmano, which has been recommended as being inexpensive by people back home. There he left behind the misanthropic Professor Mendoza, who, as mentor, held Alejandro’s career in thrall for the past five years while he puzzled to interpret (like many others before him) the mysterious Giorgione painting “The Tempest.”

The painting provides the novel’s title and guiding motif: as regards abstractions of exegesis (prominently reason versus feeling), the present-day Venetian scenario into which Alejandro more or less innocently walks, and Juan Manuel de Prada’s plot. Alejandro’s quoted lines provide some clue to the novel’s complexity, and to the new voice of the young Spanish novelist.

Mr. de Prada was born in Baracaldo in 1970. “The Tempest,” published in Spain in 1997, won him the Planeta Prize, and earlier this year a later book, “La Vida Invisible,” was awarded the Primavera Prize. His prose, for the American, and particularly older American, reader is a new experience, switching between a range of gears from the intellectual to erotic, to the downright repellent in its earthiness — but eventually magnetizing.

The novel’s tension swings between the appeal of Venice with its great art and the anxieties and apprehensions aroused in the newcomer, who quickly becomes enmeshed in a tangled web focusing on the Giorgione he has come to see. (A frontispiece helps the reader to visualize it.) The threads of this web include a love story, a murder mystery, betrayal, the politics of art masterworks acquisition, and details of their restoration and forgery, the techniques of which often are the same.

Arriving at the Albergo Cusmano at the start of his visit, Alejandro, despite fancying himself a celibate, briefly warms to the erotic charms of the proprietress, Dina Cusmano. Before going to bed he talks on the phone to Gabetti, to announce his arrival in the city, but their conversation is interrupted by a bloodcurdling cry from the canal bank opposite.

In the dilapidated palace across from the albergo, a man has been shot and staggers out into the snow.

Alejandro goes to the aid of the victim, who dies in his arms. The Spaniard’s one sight of the palace’s interior, through a window, is that of a caped figure wearing a Carnival mask of white porcelain adorned terrifyingly with the beak of a large bird.

The victim is Fabio Valenzin, a prominent art dealer, and Alejandro is the sole witness to his murder. Next morning finds him being quizzed by police Inspector Nicolussi. The inspector, bearded, bald and hardly ever without a cigarette between his lips, is all business at first but later on explains how after cutting his teeth in Naples, the authorities at last accepted his repeated application for a transfer:

“Our work in Venice is more ornamental than practical: we shepherd the tourists around … deport beggars and vagrants, either refuse or grant visas and resident permits to international crooks, according to how much money their illicit activities are likely to bring in … The locals don’t usually give us any trouble. Like all species that risk becoming extinct, they make efforts to preserve their way of life, and the preferred way of life of the Venetians is one of prudence and secrecy.”

The important thing, Nicolussi goes on to say, is not to create scandal and upset the equilibrium governing the Venetians. Obviously the murder of Valenzin is just such an upset to be avoided. Alejandro, who still hasn’t seen “The Tempest,” feels himself falling behind with his duties and threatened by hostile forces on every side.

It is another feature of Mr. de Prada’s technique that people talk to Alejandro, about each other and about Valenzin, whom they all seem to have known: Gabetti, Chiara, Nicolussi and Dina in whose hotel Valenzin kept a rented room with his own telephone. A supporting character, hard-drinking and unwashed to the point of smelling rank, is Vittorio Tedeschi, caretaker of the palace where Valenzin was killed. He befriends Alejandro after a fashion, explaining that they two are the only ones who want the truth to come out.

Another great talker is Gabetti’s sinister divorced wife, Giovanna Zanon, now married to Taddeo Rosso, a tycoon who at Giovanna’s instigation has become also a collector of art masterworks. Daniel Sansone a second tycoon, is in competition with Rosso.

Giovanna, who has her own palace, invites Alejandro to her Carnival masked ball, which turns out to be one of the novel’s more distasteful scenes — unless you can cheerfully imagine Venice’s patrician class pelting each other with raw eggs and letting their hair down “La Dolce Vita”-style. Alejandro’s costume for the event, provided by Giovanna who also sends for him in her launch, is that of a plague doctor, black with the same white porcelain, beaked mask that he first sees the night Valenzin is killed.

By the time Alejandro leaves Venice in an aircraft seat reserved by Nicolussi (the novel’s action consumes very few days) he has been dumped in cold, stinking canal water, thugs have tried to kill him, he has fallen fruitlessly in love and been drawn to the core of the mystery being played out over “The Tempest.” He has seen a Venice which may not exist in life and certainly is very different from that to which tourists, art historians and even readers of novels, are accustomed.

Mr. de Prada’s Venice will be familiar up to a point for the literary reader, balancing sickly-sweet romantic appeal with veiled threat — that much will be remembered from other writers’ works. But Mr. de Prada’s writing style is unlike anything that I have read before and, ably translated by Paul Antill, ultimately proves narcotic in its seductive power.


By Juan Manuel de Prada

Translated from the Spanish by Paul Antill

Overlook, $24.95, 341 pages, frontispiece

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