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Mystery in Venice, 'The City of Falling Angels'


John Berendt's new book is out, 11 1/2 years after his last best-seller, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." This time the ancient, intoxicating, infuriating and irreplaceable city of Venice is the main stage for an astounding array of characters, who are by turn eccentric, outrageous, intriguing and precious in both the best and worst ways. Mr. Berendt's new book is called "The City of Falling Angels." And John Berendt joins us from our studios in New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. JOHN BERENDT (Author): Pleasure to be here.

SIMON: You were warned that everyone in Venice is acting, weren't you?

Mr. BERENDT: Yes. Count Girolamo Marcello said to me, `Everyone in Venice is acting. Venetians never tell the truth,' he said. `We mean precisely the opposite of what we say.' Well, part of that was charm...

SIMON: Including what he was saying to you then, I gather. Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Mr. BERENDT: Well, later, yes, he said, `Well, when I told you I was telling you the opposite of what I meant.' But as Mary McCarthy says, everybody thinks they're the first to notice that the buildings all look like painted stage sets. Well, that's true. And you really do feel as though you're in the middle of some play, some drama. And it is a feeling that you have wherever you look.

SIMON: At the heart of your book--and we certainly want to talk about some of this collection of characters if we can--but at the heart of your book seems to be an ongoing Venetian version of the farmers vs. the ranchers; seems to be the preservationists vs. the people who say, `Look, this is a living city. Things will fall apart. This isn't decay, it's endurance.'

Mr. BERENDT: That's exactly. If something isn't decaying--it's lasted for 500 years, so how can say it's decaying? Yes, it's aging. My book centers around the burning of the Fenice opera house. And when it burned, the only opera house extant in Venice disappeared. At one time in the 19th century, Venice had 12 opera houses all operating at the same time. When the Fenice burned in 1996, there were no opera houses left. There were no major stages for theatrical performance of any kind. So Venice had to realize right away that, `We are a dying city if we don't have the performing arts--a place to have the performing arts.' And so they were desperate to rebuild the Fenice and be a living city. And the mayor even said, `We must rebuild the Fenice to prove to ourself and to the world that we're a living city.'

SIMON: So I'd like you to read a section, and this section talks about when you first arrive at Venice three days after the Fenice opera house fire.

Mr. BERENDT: (Reading) `The air still smelled of charcoal when I arrived in Venice three days after the fire. As it happened, the timing of my visit was purely coincidental. I had made plans months before to come to Venice for a few weeks in the off season in order to enjoy the city without the crush of other tourists. "If there had been a wind Monday night," the water taxi driver told me as we came across the lagoon from the airport, "there wouldn't be a Venice to come to." "How did it happen?" I asked. The taxi driver shrugged. "How do all these things happen?"

`It was early February in the middle of the peaceful lull that settles over Venice every year between New Year's Day and Carnival. The tourists had gone, and in their absence the Venice they inhabited had all but closed down. Hotel lobbies and souvenir shops stood virtually empty, gondolas lay tethered to polls and covered in blue tarpaulin, unbought copies of an International Herald Tribute remained on newsstand racks all day, and pigeons abandoned sparse pickings in St. Mark's Square to scavenge for crumbs in other parts of the city.

`Meanwhile, the other Venice, the one inhabited by Venetians, was as busy as ever: the neighborhood shops, the vegetable stands, the fish markets, the wine bars. For these few weeks, Venetians could stride through their city without having to squeeze past dense clusters of slow-moving tourists. The city breathed. Its pulse quickened. Venetians had Venice all to themselves.'

SIMON: I want to ask about some of these characters. The master glassblower, Archimede Seguso, that fire got into his work.

Mr. BERENDT: As a matter of fact, Archimede Seguso was the master glassblower of Venice. He happened, by chance, to live right across a narrow canal from the back of the Fenice. He refused to leave. He sat at his window mesmerized, looking out the window as the Fenice burned. It became a furnace. It was over a thousand degrees heat, they say. It was like the furnace that he had stared into for 76 years. He was a glassblower at the age of 11. He was now 87. And he could tell that the breeze was blowing a certain way and it was going to be blowing not quite in his direction, but to his right. He realized at that point that he could go to bed because the fire was not going to jump across the canal.

And, as usual, he still got up at 4:30 or 5 and went to Murano, the island right off Venice where all the glassblowers are. He went to his factory as he always did at that hour. But what he then started doing was to make vases and bowls that were representative of the actual fire. There were all kinds of colors. When the fire was burning, various substances inside created purple, green, orange, blue flames, and these are all swirling around in his vases and bowls. It's a series called La Fenice.

SIMON: I have to ask you about the rat poison man.

Mr. BERENDT: I happened to sit next to this man at dinner one night and he introduced himself and said, `I am a world-famous chef.' A woman on the other side of him said, `Oh, what is your speciality?' And he said, `Rat poison.' And he said, `I have the biggest-selling rat poison in the world. I have 30 percent of the rat poison market.' I said, `What's your secret?' He said, `Well, my competitors all study rats, I study people, because rats eat what people eat. Therefore, Venetian rats'--he pointed to my plate--`would be happy to eat what you have on your plate. A German rat would turn his nose up at it because he's used to pork fat. So in my German rat poison, I make sure to put pork fat in. In the Paris or France, I have butter. In America, I have vanilla and pop corn. My competition in every city is the garbage.'

SIMON: I have it written down in my notes here to ask you what made you decide to set a book in Venice, but I think at this point in the interview I think I know what made you decide to set a book in ...(unintelligible).

Mr. BERENDT: Unusual, eccentric people. I love them. And part of that gets into something that's very interesting about Venice. It's something that Edith Wharton wrote, and she said once there was that clear American air where there are no obscurities, no mysteries. That's what they do have in Venice: obscurities and mysteries. So yes, they may eventually tell the truth, but if the truth is not knowable, it doesn't bother them the way it would bother us.

I mean, for the Fenice opera house two young men were convicted of arson, and at the sentencing the judge said something really remarkable. He said there were others in the shadows who were responsible for this. In other words, there were people who paid these boys to do it. And when I mentioned this to another person--an artist, a Venetian artist--he said, `What a perfect ending. You have a spectacular fire. You have a mad scramble for the money to rebuild it. You have a trial. You have arson. You have convictions and people go to jail. But you may have (Italian spoken), people in the shadows.' It leaves you an indefinite ending, and for Venetians that's perfect because we can let our imaginations play.

SIMON: John Berendt, speaking with us from New York. His new book is called "The City of Falling Angels."

Mr. Berendt, it's been very nice talking to you.

Mr. BERENDT: It's been a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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