#RivetingReviews: Anna Blasiak reviews THE BOOK OF VENICE. A CITY IN SHORT FICTION edited by Orsola Casagrande

Three times I have travelled to Venice. I was teenager the first time and only spent a few evening hours there – I remember darkness, dampness and excitement. The next time was many, many years later, in 2018. That week spent in the lagoon city was a proper touristy binge, with lots of wandering around, sightseeing, eating and drinking. I did not buy a souvenir mask though. Or rubber boots – acqua alta came right after we’d left…

A year later I was in Venice again, this time for a feast – a wonderful writers-and-translators programme run by Jewish Book Week. This was a revelation, a completely different introduction to this city, a moment of actual falling in love with it.

Reading The Book of Venice was like yet another trip to the floating city, so desired, so pined for … as with any trip, it ended up being a mixed bag. And it was brilliant.

The stories in this collection deal with very topical issues, from depopulation – by which I mean Venice citizens moving to Mestre on the mainland and leaving the city to the tourists, made so acutely obvious when Covid came and everything stopped; to over-tourism, manifested through the difficult relationship between visitors and locals, through the city being turned slowly but steadily into a theme park, and through the fight against cruise ships coming right into the heart of the city. Those conflicts and contradictions seem to have been built into the texture of the Venice – since forever. Because Venice is and always was opposite things: eastern and western, of the flesh and of the spirit, of the earth and of the water, of the past and of the present; classy and kitsch (think Murano glass ‘made in China’). The thing about Venice is that it doesn’t bring these oppositions together; on the contrary, it almost willingly clashes them, grinds them, confronts them.

Some of the stories in this collection are simply beautiful – evocative, striking and well written: like Elisabetta Baldisserotto’s ‘Carmen’ – an absolutely stunning, poetic snippet of a story about a local laundrywoman-cum-singer. Or like Marilia Mazzeo’s ‘The Casket’, about elderly Venetian artist Guido Zane and his very last day. At one point Guido sums up what Venice signifies to him (and probably not just to him): 

‘Many have left, for Rome, Paris. Why? I asked them. What’s more beautiful than Venice? This city is a theatre, a stage. A precious casket. A dream. I’m not leaving … Do you know what Venice is? It is the only city in the world without ugliness. Here there is only beauty. And I want to stay here, in my casket, because I am old.’

This particular reader found some other pieces in the book weaker, as if somewhat strained or written fleetingly. But that is fine too. Because this might actually be a great way of portraying Venice, of capturing the essence of its weaknesses, its unevenness, its transience – the city where you get lost, where you don’t know what awaits you round the corner.

Reviewed by Anna Blasiak


Edited by Orsola Casagrande

Translated by Orsola Casagrande and Caterina Dell’Olivo

Published by Comma Press (2021)

June 2021 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.

Anna Blasiak is a poet, writer and translator. She has translated over 40 books from English into Polish and, mainly as Anna Hyde, Polish into English. She is a co-translator (with Marta Dziurosz) of Renia’s Diary by Renia Spiegel. Her bilingual poetry book, Café by Wren’s St James-in-the-Fields, Lunchtime, is out from Holland House Books, as is Lili. Lili Stern-Pohlmann in conversation with Anna Blasiak. annablasiak.com.

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Category: ReviewsJune 2021


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