Non-fiction - hardcover; Penguin Group (USA); 382 pages; 2005.
"The air still smelled of charcoal when I arrived in Venice three days after the fire." So begins John Berendt's unique travelogue of the world's most romantic city.
Taking the fire that destroyed the Fenice theatre in 1996 - one of the most important theatres in Italy if not the world - Berendt takes his readers on an extraordinary voyage into the (quite literally) stinking heart of the city that has intrigued and delighted mankind for centuries.
Having read Berendt's much-acclaimed Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil when it was first released a decade ago, I had expected The City of Falling Angels to be a tour de force that would not only capture the essence of the city and its inhabitants but weave a spellbinding account of the Fenice fire and its aftermath. What I got was a disappointing and, quite frankly, aimless narrative that leaves the reader wondering if they've missed something along the way.
The initial few chapters start well, setting up the story of Berendt's arrival in town and his decision to stay and find out what had caused the Fenice fire. The opening chapters are highly personal, introducing the reader to a strange, amusing and surreal cast of characters. But, as the book progresses, the first-person narrative inexplicably disappears and each chapter becomes a stand alone set piece that wouldn't be out of place as individual features published in Vanity Fair magazine.
Not only does the narrative wax and wane much like the Venice tide - or the acqua alta - but the time frame gets hugely condensed so that you're not sure how long Berendt actually lived in the city and how much of the story was written and researched while he was residing elsewhere. This would not normally matter, but when a book begins with a writer quite obviously emerged within the story one would like to know at what point he stepped out of it. To not explain this, leaves the reader wondering about the authenticity of the writer's claims.
That said, the book is not a total waste of time. Berendt writes well and very successfully captures the mood and spirit of this beautiful city (I visited Venice in 2003 and was immediately charmed by its crumbling architecture and waterways). His chapter on Ezra Pound and Olga Rudge entitled The Last Canto is particularly rivetting and worth the price of the book alone. An additional chapter on the politics and infighting of Save Venice, an organisation of rich Americans, who fund regeneration of the city's buildings and art works, is especially illuminating.
But, ultimately, there's no getting around that fact that the City of Falling Angels is flawed as an entire narrative because it lacks a cohesive plot. As a collection of short essays it works rather well - it's just a pity that this isn't spelt out at the outset.