Translated by Gregory Dowling
The late Italian writing partners, Fruttero and Lucentini, worked together for decades, along the way writing five novels, four detective ones and this one. First published in Italy in 1986, it is a mystery and a romance, but it turned out to have much more hidden in its pages, taking a distinctly mystical turn in its latter chapters. I’m delighted to be today’s stop on the blog tour for this first English translation from Bitter Lemon Press by Gregory Dowling who has lived in Venice for over forty years, which is just as well, as Venice is the third star of this novel and he knows every calle, fondamente and vaporetto route!
The two protagonists meet on a plane. She, our unnamed narrator, a happily married Italian businesswoman and art expert from Rome, has come to appraise paintings for the auction house she works for. He is Mr Silvera, a tourist guide, accompanying a varied group of 28 punters on their Mediterranean tour.
When seen in profile, he is a man of about forty, tall and thin, with the sharp-cut features of a head on a medallion, the slightly rounded shoulders of a sportsman – a keen tennis player, for example – who at some stage, for some reason, gave up the game completely; or perhaps those of a chess player, curved by long meditations over the bishop. His thin, delicate, nervous hands suggest poker or roulette, but also skilled contact with porcelain, parchments, musical instruments; and with female stockings, with silk and lace and tricky necklace clasps. An unusual man, who is blandly (stoically?) doing a job that seems a little incongruous for him, somewhat menial.
He helps his Italian neighbour with her case, and simply says ‘Ah,’ to her thank you. ‘Ah’ is Mr Silvera’s all-purpose reply to life, the universe and everything as we shall see. She waves at him from the queue for water taxis. ‘Ah,’ he says. She never expects to see him again, and her taxi motors off to her posh hotel on the Grand Canal, where the old valet Tommaso in the lift says,
‘More beautiful than ever.’ He too is a professional; he comes out with a phrase like this but lets you know it’s the grand-hotel translation of the vernacular ‘phwoar’ or of the cruder expression that rises from his worn-out loins (but are they as worn-out as all that?).
As you can see from both quotes above, there is a lot of drollery in the narrative, which makes for an entertaining and teasing read.
Both go about their business, he taking his group around the sights of Venice, having to think on his feet when the backstreet trattoria near San Marco where they should have been booked for lunch is unexpectedly shut. She goes to inspect the collection of paintings for sale, finding them daubs in the ‘school of’, not the minor great masters of the hype, still worth pursuing though, and the German, Federhen from another auction house is interested too. Avoiding Federhen who she spies in a shop, she takes a different route…
And so, in the most underhand way, without anything that could suggest an extraordinary coincidence, a ‘sign’, some special intervention on the part of Fate, I saw him again. […]
‘Aren’t you supposed to be in Corfu?’ I asked him without moving.
‘Ah,’ said Mr Silvera. (p71)
They walk, talk, and ending up in his run-down pensione, make love. David, however, remains an enigma to his new lover. He speaks many languages, knows many historical things and has a mysterious sense of timelessness about him. And why did he abandon his group once they were onboard the ship for the next leg of their tour? He’s Jewish, so could he be a Mossad spy? She hopes that he’ll open up; she also hopes they can arrange to cross paths again once they both have to move on, she is head over heels in love with the moment. She wants to show him off though, so gets him added to a posh dinner party’s guest list, and so they move slowly towards an inevitable parting, and moments of revelation that turn the story into that something else.
All through the novel, Venice is there to tempt us. At another dinner party, before they meet again, conversation had turned to Venice.
…here in Venice, a small town with fewer than a hundred thousand inhabitants, the conversation always came back to Venice.’
A totally narcissistic city, remarked someone.
A symptom of La Serenissima’s problems and attractions. It is simply stunning though! Who wouldn’t want to go there?
As with all doomed romances between lonely people, for surely this must end up being one, we ask ourselves can it end on a high? The beginning of the end certainly has thought-provoking drama as the mystery is unravelled, just cross your fingers and hope for the best for the rest.
What a lovely novel, and really beguilingly told. I hope more by this pair are in the translation queue…
Source: Review copy – thank you. Fruttero & Lucentini, Bitter Lemon Press paperback original, 304 pages.
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