Friday, October 8, 2010

Intrigue ~ and Food ~ in Renaissance Venice

There is so much to say about The Book of Unholy Mischief that I hardly know where to begin or what all to include.

Being a lover of historical fiction, and having a few years ago explored and fallen in love with Venice on a trip to Italy, it was with great anticipation that I began The Book of Unholy Mischief  by new-to-me author Elle Newmark.  Set in Venezia at the very dawn of the Renaissance, the novel brings to life this proud but decaying old city and its denizens.  Every page is redolent with the sights and sounds, the smells and the raw energy of Venice at the height of its power as a center of world trade.  As the action moves from the doge's palace to the marketplace in the Rialto to the port where ships of all nations dock to unload exotic goods, into the warren of narrow streets in the poorest quarters, under crumbling bridges and in the dank cold cellars of the meanest taverns, it becomes clear that the city of Venice itself is a major character. 

The Book of Unholy Mischief tells the story of Luciano, an impoverished orphan living on the teeming streets, eking out a meager existence by thievery along with a pair of other hapless street urchins.  One fateful day, after stealing a pomegranate from the cart of a fruit vendor, he is caught by Amato Ferrero, master chef to the doge, Venice's supreme but nominal ruler.  Instead of having the boy tossed into the dungeon, the chef sees something salvagable in Luciano and takes him under his tutelage.  While working as a scullery lad in the palace kitchen, Luciano witnesses many strange and terrifying things, from political intrigue to casual cruelty to a macabre murder, yet it is the creative genius of the master chef which excites the imagination of the young boy more than anything else.  Until, that is, he discovers that the chef may be in possession of a fabled book that some believe holds the key to immortality and others believe contains the secret alchemical formula for turning lead into gold, and which a few, including the impressionable Luciano, believe includes the process for making a love potion.

As the search for the book by the depraved and power-mad rulers of Venice intensifies, becoming ever more frenzied and brutal, Luciano spends his days and often his nights in the kitchen learning about food ~ how to appreciate the different smells, tastes and textures, the proper way to prepare the most succulent dishes, what seasonings work best with which foods.  Luciano begins to aspire to the position of chef, and I found his clumsy attempts to create an original dish in order to impress his mentor one of the most charming episodes in the book.  Highly intriguing to the impressionable boy is the way that certain dishes prepared by his mentor seem able to change the mood of the diners, thereby affecting the course of history.  It must, he is certain, be magic.  Torn between gratitude to and loyalty toward the chef and his urgent desire to find the formula for a love potion that would allow him to win the fair Francesca, for whom he feels an unrequited but mindless lust, Luciano blunders about trying to discover what he believes the chef is hiding from him and everyone else.  Thus are the seeds of disaster sown.

Despite Luciano's almost willful blindness and stubborn resistance to reality (which I admit drove me nuts at times), Chef Ferrero begins to teach him more than simply the art of cooking.  In his lessons, the chef uses food to illustrate his points.  In one evocative scene, Chef Ferrero prepares a simple cheese souffle.  After he and Luciano have eaten it, the following conversationn ensues:
"You know, Luciano, sometimes I think the rumors about alchemy might also have been started by this souffle."

"Because of the golden color?"

"No. Because once you learn to live in the present, you're as rich as anyone can be. We must embrace each moment."

"Even the bad ones?"

"Especially the bad ones. Those are the ones that show us who we are."

P. 279
Descriptions of the various luscious foods beguile and entice, while scenes of voluptuous feasts and the way the different foods affect the diners fascinate and amuse.  I don't believe I am being too extreme by warning potential readers that reading this book while trying to lose weight may be problematic when even the cover art looks delicious enough to make one's mouth water.  Nor do I think it is off-the-mark to say that food can be seen as another major character, so important is it to the story.  As Chef Ferrero says of a banquet at which the purpose of the doge is changed from entrapping his guest to embracing him as a dear friend:

"Food has a power, Luciano. Each dish works its own magic, a kind of alchemy that changes our bodies and our minds....Consider the effect of melted cheese. Soft, warm, comforting, so easy to eat you barely need to chew. It makes a man relax. Then came the dumplings. Plain, common food to inspire trust, to awaken a sense of shared humanity and the enjoyment of simple things....Food can manipulate men's hearts and minds."
P. 105
As I read, I began to see Holy Mischief, at least in part, as a study of opposites:  Love versus lust; loyalty versus betrayal; violence versus redemption; descriptions of decadent opulence and power amidst grinding poverty and degredation; the quest for knowledge opposed by the close-minded Catholic Church and the ruling classes; the credulous beliefs in alchemy and magic set against the scientific and philosophic discoveries just beginning to shine after centuries of darkness ~ sort of entitlement versus enlightenment.  They all war for ascendancy, and Luciano must find the strength within to find his way through the maze and become the better man the chef believes he can be.

I noticed a few little problems, among which was the illogic of the highly intelligent chef entrusting to an obviously immature boy who can't keep his mouth shut secrets that could mean his death if disclosed, or the fortuitious way Luciano seems to be wherever he needs to be to find out things that advance the plot.  I also felt that some of the characters' behavior was not adequately explained, and there was a loose end or two left at the end of the book.  Even so, the writing was so delightful and the story so compelling (not to mention (again) the descriptions of Venice and food) that the only thing that really stands out as annoying now that I've had some time to digest (pun intended) the novel is the wrong-headed way Luciano behaved at times.  And I will say no more about that lest I include a spoiler in my review.   There were also, as the author discussed in her note at the back of the book, a few anachronisms. I guess I'm not much of a pedant, because they weren't bothersome enough to stop me from enjoying this work of fiction. I think that anyone who loves good food, revels in rich language and who is fascinated by the idea of a secret order called the Guardians who collect and guard knowledge in order to pass it on to the future generations would enjoy the novel as well.

DISCLAIMER: I received this novel for free from Pump Up Your Book, with no strings attached. The opinions are my own, and I am being paid nothing for my review.

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