Martin Cruz Smith has just published his new book, a standalone novel set in the Venice of 1945, at the end of World War II: The Girl from Venice (Simon & Schuster, 2016).
No Russians, no Gorky Park, no police crime investigation, but a larger crime, that of Nazism and the persecution of the Jews, so to call it...
... “Charming” seems an unlikely descriptive for a thriller, a genre known for double agents, deceptive lovers and hairbreadth escapes. But the word perfectly befits Martin Cruz Smith’s latest novel, The Girl from Venice. Smith suffuses this tale of the losses and gains of war with tender moments, affecting characters and sage observations.
A great deal of the book’s beguiling quality emanates from its witty protagonist, Cenzo Vianello, a fisherman who responds to World War II with wise equanimity. He lives in the village of Pellestrina, near Venice, which, near the end of the war, in 1945, has been “attacked only by pigeons.”
It’s with his family that Cenzo steps in harm’s way. His mother, Sofia, and widowed sister-in-law, Celestina, rush at him “with shawls flying like black hens on the dock.” Sofia insists Cenzo’s duty is to marry Celestina. The drowning at sea of Celestina’s husband, Hugo, nags at Cenzo and stirs tensions with his surviving brother, Giorgio, a second-rate Errol Flynn in Italian movies. In real life, Giorgio made off with Cenzo’s wife, who died later in a bombing raid.
Piloting his boat, Fatima, one night, Cenzo hauls aboard the body of a young woman who appears to be dead. But soon Cenzo is startled to see “the dead girl” sitting up and “consuming his polenta patty.” The girl is an 18-year-old Venetian named Giulia, and Cenzo finds her vulnerable and prickly. One minute he thinks, “She was a little bird whose eyes could light a room.” The next minute he faces “a hedgehog ready to bristle at the slightest touch.”
In a series of lovely moments, Cenzo teaches Giulia the skills of fishing, and soon they fall in love. He also shelters her: as a Jew who escaped the Nazis, she remains in danger of discovery by Germans who patrol the village and its surrounding waters. Eventually, in a poignant scene, he hands her over to a partisan who, he hopes, can spirit her to safety.
The book’s middle third shifts to Salò, rife with intrigue, panic and violence as Mussolini falls. Here, Cenzo learns the wrenching truth about his brother’s death and searches for Giulia. Readers will miss her in this section, but there are compensations. Splendid images give this act sweep, as when Cenzo looks down from a low-flying reconnaissance plane:
“Dirt roads ran as rivulets from town to town. Each farm had a roof of red tiles, a cow pen, a pigsty, or a small vineyard framed by lemon groves and oaks and the dusty clime of the Italian Socialist Republic. …The black smoke of an armored train slid underneath the plane as it disappeared into the contours of the landscape.”
It’s tempting to say that The Girl From Venice would make an exciting film — as indeed it would. Populated with partisans, informers and furtive lovers, the narrative suggests cues for soaring music and panoramic shots.
But to reduce the work to its cinematic potential is to miss the exquisite pleasures of the rich, insightful writing on its pages. The book’s haunting opening line is the first of thousands like it to come: “Without a moon, small islands disappeared and Venice sank into the dark.”