By Joseph Kanon
Henry Holt. 405 pp. $26
Former publishing executive Joseph Kanon drew me into his fourth novel with a beguiling first sentence -- "After the war, my mother took a house in Venice" -- that promised both the beauties of that great city and the intrigue of the postwar era. To a great extent, the novel keeps that promise. Kanon is an elegant, evocative writer, and his story is replete with rich glimpses of Venice: "Above all, the city was still beautiful, every turn of a corner a painting, the water a soft pastel in the early evening, before the lamps came on. Then the music started at Florian's and the boats rocked gently at the edge of the piazzetta, and it all seemed timeless, lovely, as if the war had never happened."
After setting the stage with such passages, Kanon brings on his characters. The narrator, Adam Miller, is a young American soldier who pursues Nazis in postwar Germany and then, after his discharge, goes to Venice early in 1946 to visit his mother, Grace. She is a rich widow with a "quicksilver quality" who soon falls in love with a handsome Venetian doctor, Gianni Maglione. Despite his mother's happiness, Adam is suspicious. Maglione, he decides without much evidence, is a fortune hunter and perhaps a fascist who collaborated with the Nazis.
We soon realize that, despite Adam's good intentions, this book might have been called "The Blundering American" because he endlessly makes problems for everyone, most especially himself. First, however, he, too, falls in love. Claudia is Jewish, and during the war she was sent to an Italian concentration camp where she was forced to trade sex for survival. Adam is drawn to her mystery and vulnerability, but she wonders if she is still capable of love. They begin spending afternoons together: "Day after day in our cheap hideaway room, warm with radiator heat, we slid against each other, slick with sweat, until, finally exhausted, we felt the world begin to come back a little. . . . Days of it like this, drunk with sex."
The lovers glory in their hideaway; it is when they enter Grace's glittering expatriate world that trouble starts. Claudia, meeting Dr. Maglione, insists that he handed over her dying father to the Nazis. He responds that she is crazy, that far from being a fascist he was secretly helping the partisan resistance. Other characters are introduced: Grace's gay friend Bertie, an American who gives parties and knows secrets; Rosa, a communist and partisan who is helping the Americans track down fascists; and Inspector Cavallini, a sinister policeman with political and social ambitions. Adam learns that even though Venice is "a city so beautiful even the Germans agreed not to fight in it," the war is not really over there, that the hatreds between fascists and partisans still rage on. As the police inspector tells him, "You know, Signor Miller, everyone worked for the Germans. We don't like to say now, but what could we do? This was an occupied country."
This is a world of ambiguity. The characters keep fighting the war, and no one is entirely right or wrong. Adam makes a connection between Venice's architecture and its morality: "There were no straight lines in Venice. Maybe if you lived here long enough your mind began to work that way too, seeing around corners, making leaps out of sequence, until you arrived at the right door." The underlying sadness of the novel is suggested when one dying American expatriate explains why he collaborated with the Nazis: "Sometimes I think the only thing I've really loved is Venice. It doesn't love you back either. But I couldn't lose it."
My only reservations about this novel concern its plot, which I must discuss only in vague terms. Someone is killed -- more or less by accident, but killed nonetheless. The guilty party seeks to avoid detection. But when an innocent person is charged with the murder, the killer cannot accept that and seeks to prove the accused person's innocence even though it will reveal his own guilt. We take a lengthy detour to a wartime massacre of partisans by Germans that, however dramatic, does not have much connection to the case at hand. Everyone is working at cross-purposes, wartime hatreds boil to the surface, and the story climaxes with a blaze of gunfire and a cloud of ambiguity. Despite the idealistic, blundering American, it is a murky, highly political, Italian-style justice that prevails.
What do we make of all this? I have a friend who reads thrillers not for their plots but for their "atmospherics," and I think she would probably love "Alibi." For my part, I think Kanon writes gorgeous prose and creates intriguing characters, but this time he has given us a story that is a bit overwrought. Still, if you want to explore life, love, death, beauty and moral confusion -- all glimpsed from a gondola, so to speak -- you won't do much better than this.