Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
We think of the Mediterranean as a warm, tide-less sea, but not every town that touches its coastal edges is like that. Venice is one of those exceptions – lying inland yet daily its lagoons flooded by tides, a city that was once so prosperous that it grew if not tentacles, then resorts and villages on its edges like the sea-wrack and barnacles that mark the high-waters of our northern beaches. It is in these small hamlets that fishermen will land their catches every day – both catches which have been washed in on the tides, and the harvests of the sea floor less than a fathom below the surface.
Cenzo Vianello is one such fisherman, the last member of a fishing dynasty. One day, though, early in 1945 Cenzo makes a strange catch in the waters of the lagoon – the eponymous girl. Finding she is alive Cenzo is able to pass her off as the help that so many of his rivals’ boats carry – three in a boat would be suspicious to the German gun boats which continue to sweep the waters, two seen in the distance do not stand out.
At one time the Vianello boat would have been fishing fully manned, but Cenzo’s brother drowned, and their third brother has made his own way in the world, finding success as a film star and a hero in Mussolini’s propaganda films. Mussolini by this time has been reduced to his puppet republic in Salo but his fascists still patrol and the Germans – especially the SS – are ready to clamp down on any Italian who shows sympathy with their liberated compatriots south of the Gothic Line. The SS are also in the last stages of their anti-Semitic mania, rounding up the Jewish population of Venice to ship them north to their deaths: Giulia’s father helped her escape through the hospital waterways that ended with her in the lagoon where Cenzo saved her from death.
Now Cenzo is going to save her death again: he will not let her taken by SS. How, though, is he going to hide his ward from the notice of his family, from his brother’s widow who plans on marrying him, from the local fascists who have known him since childhood and know the routines of a simple fisherman, or from the German patrols? If he wants Giulia to escape, can he contact the resistance and hand her over without anyone knowing? Will the resistance believe him rather than slit his throat as an informer?
Not all the Germans sympathise with the SS, as Cenzo finds when a visit from his celebrity brother allows him to visit army headquarters, and the army are quite happy to rub the Deaths-Heads’ noses in their failure to capture her. Unfortunately for Cenzo, though, his problems are not at an end as he is required to use the skills he learned in the Italian invasion of Abyssinia the previous decade – he like his brother knows how to fly. It is not who he flies but what he might have flown that will hang over him – a potential death sentence – even in the months after the end of the war.
There is something about lagoons and marshes that seems to make manifest doubt, fear, insecurity and the proximity of death. Think of the opening chapter of Great Expectations. In the winter of 1945 the girl from Venice would have floated in waters just as cold. Oddly, though, the book does not have the brooding sense of paranoia the events (did I say that Cenzo has not only lost a brother, he has also lost a wife?) would suggest. The Germans do not trust the Italians; the Italians do not trust the bullying fascists; the army does not trust the SS; the resistance do not trust anyone; resistance and smugglers might be at odds; Cenzo even doubts the motives of his sister-in-law; and, of course, could be given away by an innocent word from anyone who wonders why he is spending longer than usual at sea. Those are all possibilities before characters actually tell him what they have been using him for. Now, all that should be a reason for paranoia. Instead the book has a placid air, like the tide coming slowly, almost imperceptibly, in, as if Cenzo were the subject rather than the girl, and that as he reached under the water for his next catch he had become a sort of ‘fish whisperer’.
Martin Cruz Smith has cast a different almost sepia view on some small people in the last days of a great war. If you dislike gung-ho glory then The Girl from Venice could show you how it was.