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Onyx reviews: The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith
Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 9/24/2016
Most famous for his novels set in Russia featuring Arkady Renko, Martin Cruz
Smith strikes out in several new directions with his latest book, set
in April 1945 in northern Italy during the final weeks of the German occupation.
The story focuses on two characters: Cenzo Vianello, a simple fisherman (his
full name is, symbolically, Innocenzo) and
Giulia Silber, a young Jewish woman who escapes from her captors after the rest
of her family is killed.
her in the lagoon one night while he's out on his fishing rounds. At first, he
thinks she's dead, too, and for a while she refuses to communicate with him,
but they gradually break through their nervous tension and become friends.
Though the Germans are actively searching for her, Cenzo makes the risky decision
to protect her, keeping her aboard his fishing boat (Fatima, which translates as
Captivating) as an apprentice.
Cenzo is one of three sons of a fisherman. His younger brother Hugo was killed when
an American pilot strafed their boat while they were fishing. His other brother,
Giorgio, is a famous actor who stole Cenzo's wife and took her to make a film in
Milan, where she
was killed by a bomb on set. Naturally, this
has caused some tension within the Vianello family. Also, Giorgio is acting as a
mouthpiece for the fascists. For his part, Cenzo was drummed out of the army
after he refused to drop poison gas on the enemy.
Once he understands the danger Giulia is in, Cenzo decides she needs to leave
the Venice area. He entrusts her to a smuggler friend named Russo, but he
hears soon after unconfirmed reports that Russo has been killed. Giula's whereabouts are unknown.
Cenzo leaves the Lido—a symbolic location as it is a sand bar that
protects the famous city of Venice from inundation by the sea—to go to
SalÚ, where the Nazis have established a wartime capitol, to try to find Giulia.
The story has a fairy tale atmosphere as Cenzo wanders around the occupied
city in a dream-like state. Everyone seems interested in his plight, and history
is happening all around him. Mussolini is omnipresent. There are several
partisan groups at odds with each other ready to kill anyone from the other
factions. The Argentineans are the only ones who have an embassy in SalÚ—no
other countries recognize it as a capitol—but the ambassador is suffering
from dementia. Everyone says the war is over, but no one seems to be willing to
actually call it quits. Cenzo is thrown into this mix of politicians, fascists,
soldiers, spies, actors, directors, femmes fatales and freedom-fighters, a
little bit dazed and confused by it all. There are rumors aplenty, but very
little verifiable information.
Once he tracks down Giulia, he has to protect her from the Germans who are
doggedly determined to exterminate her even as they prepare to dismantle their
occupation and retreat north. Cenzo's wartime experience comes in handy when it
comes time to flee. He and Giulia are both artistic, literate and passionate
individuals who become united by Cenzo's love for fishing. They might seem like
an unlikely couple, but in this charming novel—a markedly more uplifting
work than most of Smith's other novels—readers will root for them to end
up living happily ever after.
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