Christine Strelan - Between the Covers

The City of Falling Angels

John Berendt

Sceptre 2005 many stories set in Venice were mysteries. Sinister moods could be easily conjured by shadowy back canals and labyrinthine passageways, where even the initiated sometimes lost their way. Reflections, mirrors and masks suggested that things were not what they seemed. Hidden gardens, shuttered windows and unseen voices spoke of secrets, possibly the occult.

Beautiful and mysterious would probably be words most of us would use to describe Venice. We think of fabulous artworks, decadent Carnival parties, and intriguing tales of love and death played out against an elegant and decaying backdrop, angelic boys or red-hooded dwarves leading hapless visitors to their doom.

Berendts book begins with the 1996 fire in Venices opera house, which destroyed the building and provoked years of legal wrangling before it was re-opened in 2003. Like the crime he investigated in his first book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the fire and its aftermath prove to be extremely complicated. He spends several years in Venice, examining its causes and consequences, and on the way meets many of the citys residents. This is the books most interesting part; the details of lives lived in such a unique environment. For example, outdoor voices carry exceptionally clearly, because there are no cars, and very little vegetation to absorb sound. Everyone has to walk or take some kind of boat, so privacy is difficult, and the place seems like a giant, gossip-ridden village.

He meets a man whos the rat poison king of the industrial world, an eccentric painter who loves getting arrested, and a flamboyant gay poet who daubs his own work on walls in red paint. During Carnival he spies a gondola carrying two men dressed as male and female genitals.

The final third of the book lost my attention a little, as it got bogged down in the legal details concerning the opera houses rehabilitation. However, most of it was an informative read, and I would certainly recommend it to anyone lucky enough to be visiting Venice in the near future.

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.

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