City as Character: La Serenissima

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Photo credit: johngregory via Compfight

There are books and movies in which the place – the setting of the events – is as much a character in the plot as the main players. Think of London, in the Sherlock Holmes stories, or New York in Woody Allen movies. But there are also many other examples, where the atmospheric sense of the story would simply dissipate if it were set somewhere else – Barcelona in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, Savannah, Georgia in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, or Los Angeles in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (or really any one of his books featuring Easy Rawlins). You get the idea – location can be a crucial element of a story well told. I was thinking about this the other day, and it struck me that it would be an interesting exercise to look at places in the world that are compelling or unforgettable in ways that would make them a prime candidate for being a character in a novel.  This is completely subjective, of course (that’s what makes it fun, right?), but the first name that popped into my head when I came up with this idea was Venice. What other city can one think of that almost invites mystery and intrigue into it, as though to say, this is the offspring that I am destined to nurture in my womb?

Think about it – this is a city that sits atop over one hundred islands on a marshy lagoon in the Adriatic, has no cars or roadways, and yet has a rich cultural, political and artistic heritage stretching back over more than a millennium. It’s barely a quarter the size of London but has over 400 bridges. The main means of transport is by boat, yet it has a maze of streets, including one of the tiniest in the world, a mere 53 cm wide. Houses are numbered by district, not according to the street, which makes it so confusing that even the mail workers can’t figure it out.  This is the city of carnivals, masked people, and acqua alta (the high tide that floods the famed Piazza San Marco). What an ideal setting for murder, mayhem, conspiracy, and subterfuge! And to my immense gratification, Venice does not disappoint, at least in this sense. I did not have to wander long in my trove of mystery and historical fiction to discover a rich vein of material set in this City Most Serene (a clever façade, if ever there was one).

Let’s start with Donna Leon and her series of contemporary police procedurals featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. These are all set squarely and unapologetically in Venice, a city, which ironically (according to the author) boasts “very little violent crime.” Death at La Fenice, for instance, chronicles the death by cyanide poisoning of world-famous conductor Helmut Wellauer during a performance of La Traviata at the famed opera house, Teatro la Fenice. The New York Times Book Review calls the book a “stunning procedural which lures us away from the glittering Rialto into the working class heart of Venice.” Another review gushes about how Leon has spun a “challenging mystery, a sophisticated drama, and a unique glimpse of a medieval society that still flourishes.” As a complete aside, Donna Leon, for those of you who care for that sort of thing, is on Hillary Clinton’s reading list.

Venice and La Fenice again feature in John Berendt’s City of Falling Angels, which weaves an intriguing tale around the real-life fire that almost completely destroyed the opera house in 1996. In his trademark atmospheric style (very reminiscent of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), Berendt evokes all the magic, mystery, and decadence of Venice in this story, filled with richly detailed characters and enough plot twists to fill, well, a John Berendt novel. Not unexpectedly, given its medieval and mystical flair, Venice also makes a prominent appearance in one of Dan Brown’s thrillers, Inferno, where it’s home to a particularly significant plot point and the eventual denouement.

And finally, just to tread a little off the beaten path, here’s a work that doesn’t quite fit neatly into any one genre, but is a hidden gem in its own right – Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino, which is a fictional depiction of the encounter between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Calvino is sometimes spoken of in the same hushed tones reserved for the likes of Umberto Eco, so he’s no lightweight when it comes to spinning a yarn with a delicate balance of literary heft and popular appeal. Invisible Cities has all the magical realism, historical detail, and romantic fantasy that a city like Venice deserves. Even Kublai Khan ultimately realizes that every fantastical place that Marco Polo describes in their encounter is some version of the Venice he loves.

And what more can a city ask for, than to become a character in a novel?


Books mentioned in this post

Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt

Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley

Death at La Fenice, Donna Leon

City of Falling Angels, John Berendt

Inferno, Dan Brown

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

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