The Tempest – Juan Manuel de Prada

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The life of the reader has its ups and downs. Recently I visited my favourite second hand book shop and found an elegant book in the translation section. It had a sepia image of an overhead shot of pedestrians and pigeons in St Mark’s Square on the cover – the quintessence of Venice.

Then I read the blurb:-

‘Alejandro Ballesteros, a young Spanish art historian arrives in a wintry, misty Venice to study Giorgone’s enigmatic painting, which has obsessed him for years. But on his first day in the flooded city he witnesses a murder, whose victim turns out to be…a notorious forger and trafficker in works of art…’

Lead me to it, I hear you say, but first, sample some of the text.

‘It is hard, despicable even, to avert your eye from those of a man bleeding to death…It is hard, and painful, having to witness the last agony of a man you do not know…It is hard, and distressing, to watch a man bleed profusely…It is hard, and futile, observing the flow of blood from his chest…It is hard,and hopeless, hearing the death rattle of a man beside the sluggishly drifting water…’ p1

The narrator then backtracks to tell us the reason for his visit to Venice. Although he has written his PhD on the subject of Giorgione’s The Tempest, he has only seen photographs of the work. His view, that it is a work of the intellect, with each image having its own coded meaning, is pooh- poohed by Dr Gabetti and his daughter Chiara, art historians themselves, who support the idea of the work being related to the emotions. Much debate takes place about this.

Lengthy metaphors abound in this work:

‘She spoke with the gravity of a sphinx, a precocious gravity that seemed to unsettle her both physically and mentally, and distanced her from me.’

‘The hull of the gondola slid through the water with the bloodless ease of a dagger penetrating flesh without touching bone…’

‘The pigeon died without a sound, and with one ineffective flutter – more of a posthumous convulsion than a sign of resistance.It had the slender grace of a ballet dancer who collapses in the middle of an exercise…’

Ballesteros of course has an affair with Chiara (which does not hold him back from a fling with her mother)and becomes entangled in the schemes of her father and other evildoers, but he remains a largely passive agent who allows himself to be manipulated. He spends a great deal of time observing, and fantasising about, women: their breasts, buttocks, disposition of underwear, success or otherwise of cosmetic surgery, their sex lives…At times he is an avid voyeur.

Yet all in all he seems incapable of bringing about any change in his own life. The last chapter, set after his return to Spain, begins, Other faces grow faint and disappear, (He uses this phrase at the beginning of all of the six sections that make up this chapter). He complains about the rise in status he has achieved by being a toady to Professor Mendoza. He can see he is trapped in the game, but has neither the will nor courage to break free.

If you want to read about a Venice that is a sewer of iniquity or about very unsavoury men in brothels, you might like this book. I quite enjoyed some of the descriptions of Venice in winter.

In 1997 The Tempest was awarded the Premio Planeta Prize, the second richest literary prize after the Nobel, worth 600,000 euros.

Have you heard of Juan Manuel de Prada?

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