"Every night for twenty nights in a hotel room in Venice, an Australian man recently diagnosed with an incurable disease writes a letter home to a friend. In these twenty letters he describes not only the kaleidoscope journey he has just made from Switzerland across northern Italy to Venice, but reflects on questions of mortality, seduction and the search for paradise in deeply life-enhancing ways. Interweaving incidents from an actual journey with stories of enchantment and passion set in a variety of lands and centuries, Robert Dessaix leaps from twelfth-century India to Lygon Street, Melbourne, from the tale of a bogus Russian baroness to a diatribe against St Anthony of Padua, from a bizarre interpretation of Casanova's exploits to a meditation on Dante's idea of heaven.
"Against a rich background of earlier journeys in literature, Robert Dessaix weaves a compelling and ultimately exhilarating tale of a life lived with a heightened sense of mortality."
Venice, April 1st
Streaking through the jungle on a gaudy leopard, cape billowing out behind me as if I were aflame, I have on my head (my greying pate) - and this is vital - a hat, a black, gargantuan fedora with a drooping brhn, and streaming from one side of it is a cassowary feather (of all things). A flash of red and blue - and I am gone! Should I explain? Perhaps I should, because of all the things I want to tell you, why I'm now astride a leopard is, to me at least, the most important.
I never know where to start when I explain. Where should I dive in? Begin with the first sentence, was Sterne's advice, and trust to Almighty God for the second. Sterne was an inspired buttonholer, but even he had to begin somewhere. I could begin, for instance, right here in blue-veined Venice, with her glassy sky and blotched fašades recalling old brocade. I can smell her rotting in the night outside my window. I've been here almost a week now. On the first night I couldn't resist following that zigzagging route from the station across to the Rialto Bridge and then on to St Mark's Square. Do you know what it reminded me of at night? Those enchanted mazes I used to be taken to at Christmas as a child in one or other of the big department stores - all those brightly coloured displays of dolls and masks, everything glinting and gleaming in the beautiful, menacing darkness, I couldn't bear to come out. Then, with the wave of some wand - boom! you're out of the maze and in St Mark's Square, vast and magnificent to the point of absudity. And glaring at me from the pinnacle of St Mark's fašade across the square - the golden winged lion of the saint and the city. No other city in the world gathers you to itself, to its very heart, quite so abruptly, surely. Ever since that first moment I've actually found myself skirting St Mark'ss Square, preferring to make my way around the city along more intimate alleyways, through passageways beneath the houses and across those bare little campielli. I don't mind getting lost.
From the Macmillan hardback edition, 1996.
This novel was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 1997.
About the Author:
For many years presenter of ABC's 'Books and Writing' program, Robert Dessaix is well known as an essayist, translator and literary commentator. In 1994 he edited Australian Gay and Lesbian Writing: An Anthology for Oxford University Press and in the same year published to critical acclaim A Mother's Disgrace, an autobiographical account of his life as an adopted child and his eventual meeting with his natural mother. He lives in Melbourne.
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Last modified: May 13, 2002.