#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews THE LOVER OF NO FIXED ABODE by Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini

Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini were successful Italian newspaper and magazine journalists for many years until Lucentini committed suicide in 2002. They also wrote six highly original mystery novels that were bestsellers in Europe. The Lover of No Fixed Abode is the fourth of these, written in 1986, but only translated into English – very elegant English, by Gregory Dowling – this year.

Whilst there is certainly a mystery at the heart of the book, the story is equally a tale of sudden, unexpected and totally consuming passion between a tour guide, Mr Silvera, and a Roman art expert, who is never identified by name and about whose origins we only learn that she is married and, much later on in the narrative, that she is a ‘principessa’ (princess). She is in Venice in search of paintings at bargain prices for a London auction house; he is in Venice with a touring party. And so it comes to pass that the sights of la Serenissima, the Venice of oohing-and-aahing tour groups and the environmental degradation they bring in their wake, and the art and the world of art dealers – along with their rivalries, lack of ethics and general dishonesty – form the backdrop to the three days of this strangely ill-assorted love affair. But the story is driven by the mystery that surrounds Silvera. Who or what in fact is he? Why does he abandon his tour group in Venice for no obvious reason? Despite his down-at-heel appearance and the battered suitcase he carries, he’s clearly a cultured polyglot (he can speak to one of his charges, Mr Singh, in his native language), yet he remains laconic, enigmatic, monosyllabic even with his lover. 

The pair first meet briefly aboard the plane in which they’re travelling to Venice from London: she is momentarily intrigued, he merely polite. Yet she cannot forget him. They meet again by chance on the Campo San Bartolomeo, as she looks for a seat at a table; he offers her one. 

‘“Aren’t you supposed to be in Corfu?” I asked him without moving. “Ah,” said Mr Silvera. At times I think that without that special ah of his, poised between evasiveness and regret, nothing would have happened.’ 

The syllable proves irresistible to her, magnetic; and just as she is drawn to him, so is he drawn into the upper-class social scene she inhabits and the double-dealings of the art world. In spite of his threadbare image, he enters her world with ease and negotiates it with panache, without ever revealing any real detail about himself – not that she doesn’t try: 

‘I asked him what languages he spoke. But he answered evasively . . . he had grown up in various countries . . . he had been an actor . . . for a short time . . . he had ended up becoming “rather Babelic” as he put it in English.’  

Whilst there’s a whole cast of fascinating and important characters who come and go during this Italian brief encounter, the city itself is by far the most important: its calles and piazzas, its second-hand shops, cafés, museums and canals, are a constant presence in all their faded glory. ‘A totally narcissistic city . . . which is sinking, which is rising, which is dirtier, or more touristified, or more moribund . . .’but always irresistibly there in every page of this beautifully constructed novel. The story is told in the words of la principessa, the language at times slightly old-fashioned, but a perfect fit for the time and place. It’s a story of urbanity, passion, daydreaming, jealousy – and of course mystery: 

‘There is no moon, there are no stars, but the Venetian night can do without such cosmic trappings … it has such dreamy devices … that Mr Silvera and his companion … are overcome by its immediate seduction.’

It would not be in your interest – or mine – to say more about Mr Silvera than that he turns out to be, like Churchill’s description of Russia, ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’.This is truly a story to be savoured – and enjoyed with a glass of good vino del Veneto!

Reviewed by Max Easterman

THE LOVER OF NO FIXED ABODE

Written by Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini

Translated from the Italian by Gregory Dowling 

Published by Bitter Lemon Press (2024)

June 2024 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Max Easterman spent thirty-five years as a BBC broadcaster. He was a lecturer in journalism for seventeen years at Huddersfield University and is today a translator, media trainer with Sounds Right, jazz musician and reviewer.


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