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Friday, April 4, 2014

Mysticism in a Mystery Set In 16th Century Venice

I really love unusual mysteries.  The Aquatic Labyrinth by Alistair Fontana has quite an original approach.  The Da Vinci Code has popularized puzzlers involving history and mysticism, but many of these are quite formulaic and lacking in insight. Let me assure you that Fontana's book is very different. 

I was reminded of Umberto  Eco's mystery The Name of the Rose.  Eco's book isn't similar to Fontana's in content, but they are alike in being mysteries that are also novels of ideas.

The most famous labyrinth is the one that appears in the Greek myth of Theseus and Ariadne.  Theseus had to slay a Minotaur at the heart of the labyrinth.See Theseus and the Minotaur  in the Wikipedia article on Theseus.   Labyrinth is now regarded as a synonym for maze, but some scholars speculate that it's derived from "labrys" which means double axe.  A description of a Bronze double axe from the ancient Minoan civilization on Crete that can be seen at the  British Museum includes this theory. The theory is based on the idea that the labrys marked sacred sites such the labyrinth in the Theseus myth indicating its religious significance. 

 Fontana's novel deals with labyrinths that exist on the physical plane, and symbolic labyrinths that are totally conceptual.  I was delighted to discover that books which connect to each other could be considered a type of labyrinth called "rhizomatic".  For more discussion of symbolic rhizomatic labyrinths see Borges 2.0: From Text To Virtual Worlds by Perla Sasson-Henry on Google Books.  Sasson-Henry points out that for Borges a book in the mystery genre can be regarded as a rhizomatic labyrinth with many branching paths. Only one path in a mystery's labyrinth leads to the solution.  Yet this mystery's plot twists demonstrated that Venice itself can be seen as a labyrinth, and a very dangerous one in the context of the shifting politics of the 16th century.

Another aspect of this book that I appreciate is the information about the history and culture of Venice.  Particularly fascinating to me is the symbolic marriage of Venice to the sea which is still celebrated in Venice on Ascension Day.   See the Marriage of the Sea Ceremony on Wikipedia.  This event made a colorful addition to the plot of The Aquatic Labyrinth.

The character that I found most notable is Sara Copio Sullam, an actual historical personage, who was a poet and a thinker who was accused of heresy.  For more information see the article about her by Howard Tzvi Adelman on The Jewish Women's Archive.

I admit that I didn't always agree with Fontana's version of  Sara.  He has her thinking that allegories are a strategy to make men feel more learned than they are.  I think that allegories are codes used by people who know a great deal, but are afraid of the consequences of expressing what they know publicly.  When the consequences include being denounced to the Inquisition, disguising what you know in elaborate ciphers would definitely seem wiser.

There was a great deal of value in The Aquatic Labyrinth.  I found the story very compelling toward the end, and I identified with the character of Sara.

Yet I do have criticisms.  As much as I liked the thematic, historical and cultural content, I did think that characterization was a weak point of this book.   It seemed to me that the only well-drawn complex character was Sara. Another problem is that some significant events weren't shown.  Fontana chose to tell us about them indirectly. There was also a great deal of overt didacticism.  In fiction, I  prefer a plot that demonstrates the ideas that the author wants to communicate through its events, rather than being told about these ideas in the manner of non-fiction.

I do recommend this book to people who are interested in labyrinths, the history and culture of Venice and novels of ideas.

                                           Carnival Masks courtesy of Salvatore Vuono            



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