Taking its name from one of the water buses in Venice, Robert Girardis novel Vaporetto 13 is set in the City, and concerns Jack Squire, a American currency trader who has been sent there on assignment. Venice is a City which has featured in a large number of books, but nevertheless Girardis novel is sufficiently original that it is an intriguing book which stands out from those which only consider the face of Venice familiar to tourists.
Vaporetto 13 does a very good job of recreating the atmosphere of the City. Many tourists will be familiar with the beauty of the canals, gondolas and piazzas, all bathed in the Mediterranean sun. Its a compelling image which makes Venice popular with tourists and authors alike. Many tourists who visit often want to return to live there, perhaps amused by the idea of being able to commute to work by boat. Beneath this facade, however, there is another face to Venice: the maze of dark alleyways, the feral cat population, and the winter mists. It is this alternative face, the secretive and sinister aspect of the City, which Girardi has captured so well.
The basic plot is that Jack Squire has been sent to Venice by his bank with the task of producing reports on the political situation. However, unable to sleep in a noisy hotel room, Jack takes to wandering the streets at night. On one such nocturnal ramble, Jack meets Caterina who has devoted herself to looking after the stray cats of the city. He immediately becomes captivated by this strange and enigmatic lady whose real identity is destined to remain elusive.
Although the author has done a good job of building tension, I found the plot to be a little weak: yes, Jack has sex with Caterina a few times, meets some of her similarly enigmatic friends, and attends a strange festival for all the faithful departed, but despite the build up the end seems an anti-climax. While Jack does eventually follow Caterina one night, this simply ends up at a vaporetto which goes direct to an ossuary. I was expecting some shady secret, but instead Caterina was apparently dead all the time. Am I to assume that all this was an elaborate hallucination brought on by lack of sleep, or part of a nightmare when he did finally fall asleep?
When, at the end of the book, Jack consults the local Catholic priest in an effort to understand this, neither Jack nor the reader is left any the wiser. Indeed, although the priest makes reference to some of the miracles in the bible, his main preoccupation seemed to be with Jacks sexual relationships, or trying to increase his own Sunday congregation. Ultimately, however one understands Jacks experiences in Venice, it is about showing him that there are more important things in life than money. An important lesson, but perhaps there were easier ways for the author to put that message across. Perhaps, too, there is another message about how we treat animals given Jacks evident guilt over Elizabeth, and the frequent references to the feral cat population of Venice.
Furthermore, the plot does seem to rest upon some not entirely believable elements. Firstly, I would have expected the bank to choose someone with better spoken Italian to undertake the project. Admittedly, Jack was supposed to be learning the language, but the course tape was stuck in his car stereo. Secondly, when faced with a noisy hotel room I would have expected him to complain. Finally, having made himself conspicuous by his nocturnal rambles through the streets, he forgets his map and becomes lost at the same time and place where Caterina was feeding the cats.
While Jacks reports may not have been very useful to his bank, I was nevertheless interested in his second report on Venices inexorable slide into the lagoon; arguably more interesting than currency exchange rates, and still a current issue. Although rather outside the scope of this book, there are some parallels with the fens or coastal areas in East Anglia: both are vulnerable from erosion or flooding due to rising sea levels.
In conclusion, Girardis book does a good job of capturing the atmosphere of Venice, and for uncovering the face of the city which tourists wont see. However, although it is adequate, I am disappointed by the weak plot, and the way in which the mystery is left unexplained. Equally, although some aspects are rather incredible, the final conclusion in which Jack loses his job with the bank was to be expected, and will hopefully prove more fulfilling.