Martin Cruz Smith’s standalone historical thriller The Girl from Venice reads like literature and grips like a thriller, but somehow fails to satisfy. The characters, dialog, locales, and time period are perfectly drawn and very believable, the prose beautiful, but problems in structure and a certain moral hollowness undermine the author’s efforts. In the end, The Girl from Venice is an accidental study of the strengths and weaknesses of certain aspects of modernism.
In 1945, in the waning of World War II, the Nazis still prowl Venice, Italy. A fisherman named Cenzo pulls a strange catch, a beautiful young Jewish woman named Giulia. In a world of fascists, communist partisans, intrigue, and the desperate wickedness of the Third Reich, protecting the girl from Venice will be no easy task. To navigate these dark waters, Cenzo must employ all of his professional knowledge and personal wit.
Cruz Smith expertly lays the scene in 1945 Venice, and his research is as meticulous as his style is natural. The reader can almost smell the canals and taste the air. The author dwells lovingly on the details and secrets of a fisherman’s trade, while giving us a protagonist in Cenzo who seems so authentic, he might have sprung living from the byways of Pellistrina. The prose is beautiful and poetic, with both the narrator and the protagonist full of observations and ruminations that might well be found in a fisherman’s mind. Symbols break the narrative surface spontaneously and organically, like fish in the twilight. The dialog is also excellent. While there are some problems with the plot and structure, these are likely a function of the book’s deeper metaphysical problems, to be discussed shortly. Judged purely on technical grounds, The Girl from Venice is a very well-written book, and presents a strong case for reading Cruz Smith’s more popular Arkady Renko novels. Ironically, that very technical proficiency brings the book’s defects into sharp relief; not only its own defects, but those of the worldview to which it gives voice, and of the resulting kind of literature of which it is an example.
Cruz Smith carefully establishes Cenzo as a decent, even innocent man. After losing his own wife, he is deeply wounded. Having refused to cooperate with evil in an earlier military engagement, we see him as basically decent. He is good, in a quiet way; a man with the potential for heroism, if only the situation should arise. For the first ten chapters, he carefully watches over the vulnerable young woman under his care. Their relationship is not exactly Platonic — Cenzo paints the beautiful Giulia — and yet the characters’ present circumstances, and tone of the novel seem to steer clear of romance. This is only appropriate, since Giulia, a vulnerable young woman who may have lost her family to the Nazis, hardly has the kind of freedom and security for a romance that wasn’t, under the circumstances, a bit exploitative. The author establishes what may be called a “Josephite” romance, though one with the potential for further development when circumstances have changed. Nor is that likely to be an accident: Cenzo’s ship is called The Fatima, Giulia is compared to the baby Moses saved from the waters, a painting depicting the Blessed Virgin hovering over a crucial back story event plays a major role in the story, and the event depicted occurs on the feast of St. Joseph.
Having worked so hard to establish this restrained, barely romantic, almost fatherly dynamic, the story takes a sudden sexual turn around the eleventh chapter, which proceeds to undermine the previous ten chapters. Cruz Smith, having promised us a story about a tattered but good man forced to put on the armor of a white knight, does not seem to even recognize that this is the kind of story he is writing. He seems to think that by making the relationship with Giulia ‘romantic,’ he’s following the natural development of events so far, and also giving Cenzo a reason to take further risks on Giulia’s behalf. Instead this turn simply undermines the logic of the story, and taints the lead character. This new relationship never feels believable in itself, nor consistent with what came before.
And this isn’t the only broken promise. At least twice, Cruz has Cenzo or other supporting characters deliver anecdotes that suggest clear plot directions, but which turn out to be red herrings. Structurally, these are like little prophecies, stoking his readers’ expectations, and yet the author fails to deliver on them, as if he’d forgotten what they implied. They become pointless, pretty stories; sound and fury, but too disjointed to be intentional. Perhaps just as bad, the author twice goes so far as to show us a gun, a very special gun, and then he never fires it. It’s a gimmick completely forgotten by the end of the book. That ending, incidentally, drags on long after the plot’s energy has largely dissipated, and only Cruz Smith’s delicious prose keeps us reading for the last few chapters. Yet in spite of these problems, the novel has a few key positives.
As previously mentioned, the writing itself is superb, and the book feels very well researched. By way of comparison, Philip Kerr’s March Violets from the Berlin Noir series feels quite artificial, its historical details like paper thin movie sets, mere backdrops to a story that could take place almost anywhere. But Cruz Smith’s readers will feel as if they have actually been in Venice in 1945, have fished with an old salt in the gloom, have felt the icicle dread of a lingering, diabolical enemy that will not die. Writers, lovers of beautiful prose, and students of World War II will find much to imitate or enjoy. Still, one of the book’s best features is the lesson it unwittingly imparts about the poverty of literature that has been divorced from transcendence.
This can be seen in at least three ways. There is the book’s rich, organic symbolism, full of apparent signs and figures that seem totally uncontrived in their genesis, but which never really connect to any concrete truth. Pretty noise. Then there is the disconnect between Cenzo’s character and his actions; he lies constantly and easily, and enters into a romantic relationship that neither rings true nor seems just. Yet there is no indication that Cruz Smith intends or is even aware of any tension or irony here. Because the romance isn’t believable, the plot stops working, and the book progressively loses any reason for being, until it crawls to an artfully written, but exhausting end. Finally, the novel is at odds with itself over religion, and transcendence in general. On one hand, the writer makes liberal use of religious iconography in order to impart a sense of meaning and purpose to the most poignant scenes; on the other, he repeatedly undercuts the notion that there is a higher meaning to things, and we are left with the mere odor of meaning.
Perhaps Martin Cruz Smith believes this is clever irony. Actually, it merely demonstrates how parasitic and self-contradictory is that kind of modernism that wishes to cast itself in the role of the wise critic of unenlightened mankind, while at the same time depending on man’s natural religiosity as a medium for conveying its critique. Or put another way, an entirely irreligious novel is almost an impossibility. Narrative itself points upwards toward meaning, and meaning, as Cruz Smith accidentally proves, points toward God.
Readers who can take the good from a phenomenally well-written, if imperfectly structured, book, and who have the requisite maturity for the fleeting sexual content, may enjoy the book, as I did, for the reasons mentioned above. However, the greatest feature of The Girl from Venice may be that it casts light on the chasm between marvelous technique and real literature. Without the objectively transcendent, there is no literature.
- A character calls Cenzo “a bad liar”, yet Cenzo lies repeatedly throughout the book. Do you think author is being ironic? Why or why not?
- Cenzo complains about a God who would allow a German soldier to die in intense suffering. Do you think this an understandable way to react? Why or why not?
- Were you surprised by villain’s identity? If so, how was Cruz Smith able to achieve that surprise? If not, what gave it away?