Friday, June 15, 2007

The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt

The City of Falling Angels
by John Berendt
412 pages
ISBN 9780143036937

The City of Falling Angels opens on the evening of January 29, 1996 with Berendt traversing in a water taxi to his hotel three days after a when a powerful fire destroys the historic Fenice opera house. Berendt chooses to extend his stay to learn more about the fire and the city from the most fascinating source, not necessarily consistent—the Venetians themselves.

It is a great work of journalism, storytelling, and societal insight. It is a spellbinding look at an otherwise unreachable community of people, who inhabit one of the world's most beautiful cities, a city instilled in art, history, tradition, and ritual. It is a portrait of the captivating and colorful Venice—the world that exists in the off-season, when the tourists have departed and Venetians have Venice all to themselves.

Dragging on all his talents as an investigative reporter, Berendt goes behind the pretense of decaying buildings to reveal the city's intricate, hidden private life. Complex by nature, the Venetians reveal themselves in both open and secretive ways—as Count Marcello tells him, "Venetians never tell the truth. We mean precisely the opposite of what we say."

Berendt gets to meet people whose families lived through a thousand years of Venetian history. He speaks with a variety of people who make their homes in grand palaces and in tiny cottages. In the course of his investigations, Berendt introduces us to a rich cast of characters: a prominent Venetian poet whose shocking "suicide" prompts his sceptical friends to pursue a murder suspect on their own; the first family of American emigrant that loses possession of the family palace after four generations of ownership; an organization of high-society, party going Americans who raise money to preserve the art and architecture of Venice, a contemporary Venetian surrealist painter and shocking provocateur; the master glassblower of Venice; and many more, stool pigeons, scapegoats, hustlers, sleepwalkers, the Plant Man, the Rat Man, and Henry James.

Berendt spins a suspenseful tale out of the threads of many stories—some directly connected to the fire, others not. He finds chaos, corruption, and crime are as characteristic of Venice as its winding canals. With a compelling combination of inquisitiveness and composure, Berendt presents an intimate look at a community of natives and expatriates as multifaceted as the colors reflected in the Fenice fire and in the artwork designed to commemorate it.

Berendt tells a tale full of atmosphere and surprise as the stories build, one after the other, ultimately coming together to reveal a world as finely drawn as a still-life painting. The fire and its aftermath serve as a leitmotif that runs throughout, adding the elements of chaos, corruption, and crime and contributing to the ever-mounting suspense of this brilliant book.

I enjoyed Berendt’s deep descriptions and adroit method for telling stories. In particular, he is good at telling both sides of striking events, often shaping his tale to make the reader alternate between one side and another. Berendt is a master of real-life characters and their stories.