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Onyx reviews: City of Falling Angels by John Berendt

It took ten years for John Berendt to publish his follow-up to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which holds the record for longevity on the NY Times non-fiction bestseller list: four years. In City of Falling Angels, he examines a setting that in many ways parallels the one he explored in his first book. Like Savannah, Venice is small, geographically isolated and replete with colorful characters at all levels of society. The literary ghosts of Lord Byron, Henry James and Ezra Pound haunt the city, as do countless generations of musicians and artists. Of Venice, James once wrote, "There is notoriously nothing more to be said on the subject . . . It would be a sad day indeed when there should be something new to say."

Venetians identify themselves as citizens of their fabled city first and their country second. Their home is crumbling and may someday sink into the sea. The population has dropped by over 50% in the past fifty years. The city is preternaturally quiet: the only motor vehicles in the city travel the canals. The lack of automobiles means people are always walking in public, which lends a deceptive air of familiarity. For several months each year, the maze of streets is overcrowded with tourists on day trips, few of whom ever get to see beneath Venice's thick veneer. As Count Marcello tells Berendt early after he arrives: "Everyone in Venice is acting. Everyone plays a role, and the role changes. The key to understanding Venetians is rhythm, the rhythm of the lagoon, the water, the tides, the waves. It's like breathing. High water, high pressure: tense. Low water, low pressure: relaxed. The tide changes every six hours."

Berendt arrived in Venice for a vacation in 1995, three days after the historic La Fenice Opera House-where several world-famous operas debuted-burned to the ground. If the winds had been blowing in a different direction, the entire city might have been consumed. The opera house's destruction is a blow to all Venetians. In the ensuing days, weeks and years, two themes dominate conversation: what caused the fire, and how will La Fenice be rebuilt?

Intrigued, Berendt decides to stay on, ultimately spending years interviewing people and winning the confidence of the city's notoriously guarded citizens. He learns how to step beyond the well-traveled tourist paths to discover the real Venice. During the eight years between the fire, the trial and the official reopening of La Fenice, several other dramas play out. Berendt devotes chapters to several, including the apparent suicide of a beloved poet, the schism that forms in the directorate of an American charitable organization devoted to restoring Venetian buildings and treasures, the financial difficulties of several families that force them to sell off parts of their valuable estates, and the dispensation of Ezra Pound's papers after his long-time mistress dies while under the influence of a pair of manipulative social climbers.

For his own part, Berendt remains mostly aloof and impartial. A former journalist, he researches his stories while trying to minimize his impact on them. He refrains from drawing conclusions-except in one situation where he makes an unstated but unmistakable insinuation pertaining to the significance of a blue marker. In other situations he considers passing information gleaned from one interview to another involved party, but stops himself, realizing that he would be meddling. Becoming a player in the story instead of an observer.

There are elements of Peyton Place to Berendt's books. Readers are placed in the voyeuristic position of becoming privy to the inner thoughts, gossip and machinations of a city's socialites. Count Marcello warns Berendt, "Venetians never tell the truth. We mean precisely the opposite of what we say." Few of Venice's residents-native and foreign expatriates alike-refuse to share personal thoughts with Berendt. The author, when possible, explores all aspects of a controversy. For example, he interviews every member of a famous glassblowing family feuding over the next generations' right to continue the legendary business and presents their differing opinions on equal footing.

Berendt withstood criticism for writing himself into situations where he wasn't present in his first book and for compositing some characters for the sake of drama. This time he sets the record straight early by stating that all the characters in City of Falling Angels are identified by their real names and nothing has been dramatized.

The only recurring thread in the book is the bureaucracy-bound La Fenice investigation and rebuilding, which by itself isn't as compelling as the killing that was the focus of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Not every incident he explores is likely to fascinate every reader. Some of the bickering and infighting is petty and boring. However, City of Falling Angels is an ensemble piece, populated by eccentric, flamboyant, larger-than-life characters, many of whom proudly trace their lineage into the Middle Ages—occasionally glossing over some of the rotten apples on the family tree. The individual stories, minor and major, come together to reveal the larger tapestry of Venetian society.

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