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Open Letters Monthly, an Arts and Literature Review: "The novel simply but engagingly unfolds through a series of bizarre discoveries"

Date: May 28 2015

Europa Editions brings us an English-language translation of Roberto Tiraboschi’s La pietra per gli occhi, a “medieval noir” by screenwriter and playwright Roberto Tiraboschi, and it’s a book that takes a calculated gamble, since it’s a historical novel set mostly in Venice – but the Venice of AD 1106, before the city became the well-known sophisticated and evocative Renaissance bastion of half the historical novels ever written. When Tiraboschi’s novel begins, the monks of Bobbio Abbey know of the place only as an improbable-sounding legend:

“Two days from here, along the coast of our sea, where several rivers flow together and interweave in an inextricable labyrinth of basins and canals, lakes and pools, a city rises, built on water. Its inhabitants move about only on boats and ride the waves faster than galloping horses. They know the names of all the fish in the ocean, they can govern the winds and are not afraid to push their ships beyond the Pillars of Hercules. The name of this city is Venetia.”

Bobbio is the scene of a slowly-unfolding tragedy: young crooked-backed manuscript copyist Edgardo d’ Arduino has recently come to realize that he’s losing the very thing that makes his beloved copying work possible: his eyesight. When his friend Ademaro relates stories he’s heard from Eastern traders about a magic stone that old men use to bolster their failing eyesight, Edgardo is desperately intrigued (“Is it some kind of amulet?” he asks, “or a substance to take with medicine?”), and a quest is born. The two embark on a trip to Venetia, and Tiraboschi’s descriptions of the place betray far more of his own love for the modern incarnation of La Serenissima than they do the extent of his archival research:

"Sky and water sank into each other, blending in an all-enveloping mother-of-pearl glow. A light northerly wind had swept everything away, and cleaned Venetia of the infernal smoke and fog. The city appeared to him in all its incomprehensible and daring desire to steal land from the waters and build on nothing – churches, convents, towers, and dwelling places – in a defiant array of joists, platforms, bridges, dikes, and stilt houses. The fresh water that descended into the sea from the mouths of the rivers ended in a swamp and mixed with salt water, creating, with soil and mud dragged in by the floods, a labyrinth of small and large canals, streams, pits, ponds and a succession of pools among rises, tidal shallows, and fords."

The novel simply but engagingly unfolds through a series of bizarre discoveries (including a corpse with stones set in its eye sockets)(and including a perfectly-orchestrated last-page revelation) that ensnare Edgardo even as he struggles with his failing sight, and Tiraboschi is playful enough to weave in a good deal of profanity and even some buffoonery and also insightful enough to remind the reader periodically of the sheer technological miracle that sits perched so cheaply and easily on the bridge of their nose, allowing them to read the pages in front of them. The wonder of the shopping mall eyeglass store – like the wonder of modern Venice – lies far in the future for poor Edgardo.