Roberta Rich’s novel set in 16th cen­tury Venice

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - Books - MORDECHAI BEN-DAT SPE­CIAL TO THE CJN A Trial in Venice will be pub­lished in March.

About 100 kilo­me­tres al­most di­rectly north of Verona, in the lush ver­dant reaches of the cen­tral Alpine moun­tains of Italy, is the city of Trento, the cap­i­tal of the Trentino re­gion. Trento is small by mod­ern stan­dards. Some 100,000 peo­ple live there. It was smaller even in 1475, when an ac­cu­sa­tion of blood li­bel was lev­eled against the hand­ful of Jews who lived there.

In all, three ex­tended Jewish fam­i­lies lived in Trento in 1475 – likely not more than 30 peo­ple. They had set­tled in Trento with the per­mis­sion of the au­thor­i­ties and were al­lowed to prac­tise their pro­fes­sions, one of which was medicine, the other, not sur­pris­ingly, mon­eylend­ing. Com­pared to the ma­jor­ity of the towns­folk, the few Jews of Trento were rel­a­tively well-to-do.

Some days be­fore Easter that year, a fa­nat­i­cal Fran­cis­can monk, Bernardino da Fel­tre, trav­elled through the town preach­ing hate­ful ser­mons about Jews.

A few days later, the day be­fore Easter, a two-year-old boy named Si­menino went miss­ing. The next day his mu­ti­lated body was dis­cov­ered near the home of a Jewish fam­ily. With the monk’s wild, vile dis­par­age­ments of Jews still ring­ing in their ears, the towns­peo­ple ac­cused the Jews of their town of hav­ing killed Si­menino to ex­tract his blood for use in bak­ing Passover mat­zot.

The ac­cu­sa­tion crushed the few Jews who lived in Trento. As the En­cy­clo­pe­dia Ju­daica records, “the whole com­mu­nity, men, women and chil­dren were ar­rested. Af­ter 17 of them had been tor­tured for 15 con­sec­u­tive days, they “con­fessed” to the crimes of which they had been ac­cused. One of the tor­tured died in prison, six were burnt at the stake and two (who had con­verted to Chris­tian­ity) were stran­gled.”

The blood li­bel against the Jews of Trento is the de­fin­i­tive dra­matic cen­tre of A Trial in Venice, Roberta Rich’s third in­stall­ment in the stir­ring three-part his­toric fic­tional series chron­i­cling the fate of Han­nah Levi, a Jewish mid­wife from Venice.

Han­nah is a fic­tional char­ac­ter whom read­ers met some five years ago in the first novel in the series, The Mid­wife of Venice. In the sec­ond book, The Harem Mid­wife, Han­nah’s story re­sumes in Con­stantino­ple in the Ot­toman Em­pire where she has been ap­pointed mid­wife to the sul­tan’s harem. In A Trial in Venice, the au­thor brings Han­nah’s har­row­ing ad­ven­tures back to Venice. It is fit­ting that Han­nah’s saga re­turns here. For the city it­self - its unique wa­tery set­ting, rich cul­ture and en­trenched le­gal tra­di­tions - plays a key con­tex­tual and back­drop role in the un­fold­ing and res­o­lu­tion of Han­nah’s fate.

A Trial in Venice takes place in 1580, about 100 years af­ter the mur­der of Si­menino in Trento. The au­thor mas­ter­fully recre­ates the on­go­ing hard­ships of life for ordinary Vene­tians. With equal mas­tery, she jux­ta­poses the poverty of life along the city’s fouled canals with the high priv­i­lege of the city’s pam­pered wealthy class in their nearby coun­try es­tates. In­deed, the stark di­chotomy be­tween those who have so much and those who have so lit­tle takes hold of the mind and soul of one of the story’s main char­ac­ters, re­lent­lessly driv­ing the sin­is­ter plot­ting against Han­nah and her fam­ily.

The au­thor is also adept in de­pict­ing the sti­flingly close con­di­tions of life for the city’s Jews within the tightly con­fined quar­ters of the ghetto. The pre­cise por­trai­ture by Rich of the his­toric, phys­i­cal and cul­tural at­mos­phere of time and place is one of the key fea­tures through­out the Han­nah Levi tril­ogy and plays a large role in the charm of the tril­ogy.

Like the two in­stal­ments that pre­ceded it, A Trial in Venice fea­tures fast mov­ing plot de­vel­op­ment and twists, and fully formed main char­ac­ters who con­tend with un­am­bigu­ous moral choices. The “good” peo­ple in the story, pre-em­i­nent among whom is Han­nah, are re­li­ably de­cent and moral though also flawed. Han­nah, for ex­am­ple, is coura­geous, re­source­ful, com­pas­sion­ate and deeply prin­ci­pled. But time and again her stub­born na­ture steers her to­ward trou­ble. The rogues in the story are fully bad. They are greedy, cov­etous and dishonest, with­out con­science, ca­pa­ble of mur­der.

The story, again like its pre­de­ces­sors, is akin to a lit­er­ary made-for-tv movie. The pace is quick. Events un­fold in short spa­ces of time and in tightly framed mo­ments of ac­tion. Han­nah fol­lows her in­stincts for good. By do­ing so, how­ever, she be­comes en­snared in a thick spi­der’s web of de­ceit and phys­i­cal peril. The predica­ments are har­row­ing. The es­capes are a re­lief.

In de­ploy­ing her con­sid­er­able de­scrip­tive pow­ers, Rich of­ten con­veys to the reader the very taste, touch and smell of a par­tic­u­lar set­ting. For ex­am­ple, when Han­nah is taken into a tented hovel to use her mid­wifery skills, she finds her­self in this ap­palling scene.

“A sack sus­pended from the low ceil­ing, stiff with smoke and grease from cook­ing, smacked her in the face. Other sacks – grease-stained can­vas bags con­tain­ing un­washed wool, await­ing wash­ing and card­ing – hung like sta­lac­tites in a cave. A chim­ney-less fire smol­dered in the mid­dle of the floor. Sour air like old cheese per­vaded ev­ery­thing. The stink of un­washed bod­ies and un­clean linen made her eyes tear.”

There are few lofty flour­ishes of evoca­tive, elegant lit­er­a­ture in the book. But in­spi­ra­tional prose was likely not the au­thor’s main in­ten­tion. Her in­ten­tion was to cre­ate a tale of sus­pense, in­trigue and malev­o­lence against an ac­cu­rately de­picted pe­riod tableau of life for Jews in mid-re­nais­sance Venice. And in this she cer­tainly suc­ceeds.


Roberta Rich

A Trial in Venice By Roberta Rich (Dou­ble­day Canada)


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