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Juan Manuel de Prada: La tempestad (The Tempest)

I have a weakness for novels set in Venice and novels about art forgery. The former tend to steer away from the Japanese tourists in July massing in Saint Mark’s Square and focus, instead, on the misty, humid out of season Venice, with dirty deeds taking place in dank palazzi and bodies being found in the canals, while the tourists blithely ride around, oblivious to the nastiness happening around them. The latter often have profound thoughts on the difference between what is real and what is not and on fakery in general. So when I saw this novel, which had had an excellent critical and commercial reception nationally and internationally, it was an obvious choice. Sadly, it turns out to be something of a disappointment.

It’s not a bad novel. It’s just that it is by no means a great novel. The plot is relatively simple. Alejandro Ballesteros, a Spanish student, is writing a thesis on Giorgione‘s The Tempest. Like everyone else, he has an original interpretation of what it means, something which has baffled experts for many years. (De Prada says that the interpretation came from his father.) He is now visiting Venice to see the original and to defend his thesis to the director of the Accademia, the gallery where the painting is housed. His professor had steered him towards a specific hotel in Venice, which turns out to be somewhat rundown and seedy but is owned and managed by an attractive woman, Dina. (Much of the novel is about the decidedly wimpy Ballesteros trying to satisfy his sexual lust with three different women whose significant others are all impaired in some way – the hotel owner’s because of professional reasons, one of the other’s because her one lover is dead and the other candidate is her impotent stepfather and the third who is married to a rich but decrepit old man.) No sooner has he checked into his room and had a few sexual fantasies about Dina than he hears a shot. He runs out and finds a man dying from a gunshot wound. The man soon dies before Ballesteros can get help.

From here on, things get complicated. The dead man is a notorious art expert and forger and the police assumes that Ballesteros knows him (he does not). He ends up, as any good hero, conducting his own investigation and is sometimes one step ahead of the police and sometimes not, though his lady friends usually tend to be ahead of him. Of course, all sorts of dirty deeds are afoot, with forgery, art theft and rich people behaving badly, generally involving The Tempest. Things more or less sort themselves out artistically if not in other ways but my complaint is that de Prada seems to be too concerned with having his hero get laid and taking a fairly conventional view on dirty deeds in Venice to produce a good novel. Read it for fun but not as great literature.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1997 by Planeta
First published in English 2000 by Sceptre
Translated by Paul Antill