Book: The Girl from Venice
Author: Martin Cruz Smith
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK
A quaint lagoon. Weathered shacks on stilts. Star gazing. Deep-diving. Muddy toes. And a lot of fish. This is Innocenzo “Cenzo” Vianello’s life, a superstitious fisherman from Pallestrina, a village on a lagoon in Italy. It is the fag end of World War ll and having served Mussolini in the Abyssinian War, Cenzo realises that he was made for the quiet life. Little does he know, that the quiet life was not made for him.
One fateful night, Cenzo strides out on his routine fishing trip in the lagoons off of Venice. As he sits filling his nets with the sea creatures, he noticesthe body of a young girl floating in the lagoon. Presuming her to be dead, he pulls her into the boat as an act of humanity. Just then a German gunboat motors its way into the scene, changing his life forever. The Germans search Cenzo’s boat for something fishy, but find nothing other than fish. That’s when Cenzo realises that the young girl is far from dead. To make it worse, she turns out to be Jewish, and on the run from the Wehrmacht SS.
In this thriller of a novel, Martin Cruz Smith cleverly plants the seed for a blooming love story, brimming with suspense. It’s a historical fiction about Cenzo and Giulia – the Jewish girl from Venice, the sole survivor of an attack on a group of Jewish bureaucrats tucked away in a hospital in Venice. Someone powerful is out to kill her. The question is, who is this person? And can Cenzo help save her? The answer to these questions drive Cenzo to Salo, sailing onto an unprecedented adventure.
The book is rife with characters that play the part of Italian fascists, partisans, Nazis, film makers, consuls and more. Cenzo’s elder brother – Giorgio, a popular movie-star and the voice of Mussolini, plays a vital role in shaping the plot and heightening the suspense. On the other hand, you witness the weakest version of Mussolini, being puppetted by The Third Reich. One of the strongest characters developed in the book is that of a German army man Colonel Steiner, who makes an appearance in the beginning of the book. He could be passed off as an inconsequential character at the start, but slowly becomes an integral part of the plot as the story progresses.
The moral compass in this book swings from one end to another. Most of the characters, including Cenzo have shades of grey that depict the reality of life. Although you live with many characters throughout the book, it’s difficult to feel for any of them as the depths of their personalities don’t seem to be explored to the fullest.The fishing jargons, metaphors and techniques together with the violence of air-raids, hate speeches, shootings and war-torn households make for an interesting paradox. You are left wondering how two diverse worlds can co-exist in the lagoons of Venice at the same time.
You also get a glimpse into the life of the average Italian woman during the World War ll. It’s saddening to see that her life only revolves around the man she’s engaged or married to. The major themes in the book are centred around the traditions of patriarchy and rampant infidelity, proving that the war was not the only cause of breaking up families at that point in time.
The book is written about a period in time, doused in chaos, with incompetent political leaders and terror running through the veins of every being. It’s laced with philosophies derived from Byron’s verses that connect with the reader even today. But one question that the book raises is – why does the author choose the fag end of the war for the action to happen? Is it just to contrast the despair with a fairy tale love story? Or to subliminally show the similarities in the current affairs of the world, then and now?
All in all, The Girl from Venice is fast-paced. It’s an adventure with a mystery that you’ll gladly unravel with plots and sub-plots that reek of history and romance. So if you want to learn a thing or two about war-torn Italy or a trick or two about fishing, this book is sure to be a good read.