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BOOKS IN THE MIRROR: Unraveling Life in Venice (Italy): City of Fallen Angels, John Berendt, Penguin: September 2005

Wandering through the twisting labyrinthine walk streets and bridges during Carnivale in Venice, Italy, John Berendt observes “…the height of decadence…. parties, dances, spectacles, games, and walking around Venice behind masks, incognito.” Berendt’s latest work, City of Falling Angels, explores how closely the day-to-day life of Venetians resembles a never ending Carnivale.

In a series of chapters, each of which easily works as its own complete story, Berendt revels in the ornate masks, both interior and exterior, worn by Venetians. He attempts to peek underneath these masks for a better look, with varying degrees of success.

Berendt wants to unravel a great mystery: what is it like to live and work in Venice? How do the citizens of a complex 21st century European city view the world from a city without automobiles or even mopeds? What does it feel like to run errands in a city composed entirely of walk streets? Imagine a floating city, geographically isolated and packed with tourists, slowly sinking — six inches each year.

In early February of 1996, Berendt arrived in Venice during its brief off-season between New Year’s Day and Carnivale for a six-week vacation. His purpose was to see “people who actually lived there, going about their business purposefully, casting familiar glances at sites that still had the power to stop me in my tracks.” He rents an apartment and begins interviewing residents about the Fenice Opera House fire. Next, he investigated the real motivations behind rich Americans who donate large amounts of money to Venice preservation. He stumbled upon the incredible tale of Ezra Pound’s last years, and joyfully chronicled the lives of a poet, a painter, and an inventor of rat poison. Once embedded in the dramas of Venice life, however, Berendt couldn’t bring himself to leave. He purchased a house, and six weeks turned into eleven years.

The tales in City Of Falling Angels are extraordinary and deeply moving, due in a large part to Berendt’s exuberant prose. He describes people with the same reverent attention to detail that he gives the frescoes and ornamentation of Italian Palazzos (palaces) on the Grand Canal. Unlike his earlier work, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, all the names, places, and events in this nonfiction work are real. In the course of a decade, Berendt wanders in and out of the lives of both Venetians and American expatriates. We follow him gladly; his talent with language turns the most mundane scenes into appealing interludes between occasionally thin plot points. A reader best approaches this book as a group of vignettes about modern Venice life, rather than as a book-length narrative.

In one such vignette, “The Last Canto,” Berendt explores the final years of Ezra Pound’s life, lived in Venice with his mistress Olga Rudge, a concert violinist/Vivaldi expert. The tragic tale of Pound’s inability to speak in the years before his death, followed by an American woman’s vicious scavenger hunt for his personal papers after he dies, is simultaneously a poignant love story and a shocking revelation of American greed.

In “The Man Who Loved Others,” Mario Stefani spray paints graffiti all over Venice. He writes, “Loneliness is not being alone; it’s loving others to no avail,” and always signs his name. Mario is a well-known Venetian poet with a cable access show, and since he only sprays graffiti on temporary wooden walls erected at construction sites, the local papers run favorable mentions of his creative vandalism. Mario is in love with his unique home town and its people. His tragic, complex story involving mysterious devotion to a local one-year-old girl contains some of the most beautiful moments in the book.

The January 1996 Fenice Opera House fire pops up throughout the book in fragmentary fashion, sometimes in a self-contained chapter, while other times vital plot points unfold as background conversation within another story. Felice Casson, the prosecutor assigned to the fire investigation, immediately pits himself against the most powerful Venetians in the city, many of whom could be charged with negligence if Casson fails to prove arson. Casson alternately pursues theories of arson and negligence for six years, and his persistence in the face of shadowy, possibly Mafia-related opposition is one of the most engrossing, if disjointed, stories in the City of Falling Angels. Indeed, the story of the Fenice fire and investigation would be more satisfying if Berendt had given it one long chapter onto itself, the way he does for Ezra Pound’s tale, rather than inserting elements of the Fenice story at odd points within other chapters.Berendt does not provide any tidy endings for his exhaustive views of Venice life. He simply stops writing after ten years or so, as if to say, “that’s all for now.” Like tourists at Carnivale, readers enjoy the costumed revelers as they pass by, happy to delve into their mysteries, rivalries, and celebrations. Somewhat abruptly, the day of departure arrives— it is time to board the plane, and go back home.

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