Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Girl From Venice by Martin Cruz Smith

This is one for male readers and those few female readers who enjoy Raymond Chandler books and the film Casablanca. The author uses the hard-boiled style to present a tough-guy love story set in the era when Italy went truly, totally bonkers: the end of WWII. The spare style is best appreciated if you picture the text as a film playing in your mind.

Family, rivalry, friendship, loyalties, prejudice, politics, pop culture and military culture all mix together in this well-researched book. Through it all we are shown how the exhausted Italians just tried to keep their heads down and emotions doused so they could make it through to the end of the horrible nightmare. Clinging to daily rituals and pretending that the outside world was more fiction than reality, the inhabitants of Venice feel very real in this story.

Readers will get the most out of the story if they have a basic understanding of the history of the era. Briefly, after insanely embracing Mussolini, a megalomaniacal bully, criminal, misogynistic, pathological liar who promised the world and more to the poor country, Italy then came to its senses and switched sides in the war Mussolini signed them up to. Then they had to fight a war against Nazis while at the same time fighting a civil war between opposing Italian political sides.

To top up the insanity, an embattled and increasingly bonkers Mussolini established a fantasy Republic of Salo in northern Italy where he deluded himself into believing he could hang on to power. The author takes the reader into that crazy place at a certain point in the novel, and portrays the crackpot enablers of the dictator very ably, bringing to mind the evil, manipulative minions in the classic 1945 Rossellini film Roma, Citta Aperta.

The tough-guy with a broken heart protagonist of the book, the Venetian fisherman Cenzo, has shut himself down to make it through the war. He fishes, sleeps, eats and broods until he fishes up a young Venetian woman, Giulia, who escaped a purge of Jewish prisoners. She brings him back to life, and through the course of the book, she becomes the reason he reengages with the insanity around him, putting him in contact with the Republic of Salo and the forces fighting in Italy on all sides.

At first, refined Giulia is seen thus by jaded, coarse Cenzo:
The girl was a brief interruption in his life and the less he knew about her, the better.
Occasionally we see the story from Giulia's perspective, but mainly the narration is from Cenzo's perspective, which reflects the Italian perspective at that time.
Then you switch sides in the middle of a war, it gets very confusing.

The first part of the book is the reawakening of Cenzo that comes through his discussions with Giulia as he teaches her his fisherman's craft. Like therapy, describing what he loves most in life, what keeps him sane when the world around his is off its rocker, helps Cenzo open up to Giulia. He even comes to care about her troubles.
...he found his own miseries reduced in size when he focused on hers.
Acts Two and Three of the novel then move the reawakened Cenzo into the world of spying, the retreating German Nazis, the rival partisan factions, and the wacko Republic of Salo. There is some violence but this is not a gory book. There is some sex, but suggested only, not in scene. There are family rivalries that become explained as the story progresses, explaining some of Cenzo's resentments and his heartbreak. Cenzo is a tough-guy who falls for a waif and tries to protect her in the middle of a world gone crazy.

The author is a wonderful writer with a distinctive style that will appeal to his loyal fans. New readers, especially female readers, may find the spare, butch, hard-boiled style not to their liking. I suggest sticking with it, and being an active reader, visualizing the story as it is told, and empathizing with the characters to understand their feelings. The style is for perceptive, informed readers who don't need, or want, everything spelled out. The plot is unraveled at the end with a clear explanation for the reader.

For Italophiles, the book offers a look at an odd moment in Italy's history, but from a different, more personal angle than found in history books. Brush up on the history beforehand, then enjoy the details that come out from the author's in depth research, along with the tender tough-guy love story.

From the book's description:
The highly anticipated new standalone novel from Martin Cruz Smith, whom The Washington Post has declared “that uncommon phenomenon: a popular and well-regarded crime novelist who is also a writer of real distinction,” The Girl from Venice is a suspenseful World War II love story set against the beauty, mystery, and danger of occupied Venice.

Venice, 1945. The war may be waning, but the city known as La Serenissima is still occupied and the people of Italy fear the power of the Third Reich. One night, under a canopy of stars, a fisherman named Cenzo comes across a young woman’s body floating in the lagoon and soon discovers that she is still alive and in trouble.

Born to a wealthy Jewish family, Giulia is on the run from the SS. Cenzo chooses to protect Giulia rather than hand her over to the Nazis. This act of kindness leads them into the world of Partisans, random executions, the arts of forgery and high explosives, Mussolini’s broken promises, the black market and gold, and, everywhere, the enigmatic maze of the Venice Lagoon.

The Girl from Venice is a thriller, a mystery, and a retelling of Italian history that will take your breath away. Most of all it is a love story.

Here is a direct link to the book at Amazon.com: