Michael Dibdin’s fourth Zen novel Dead Lagoon (much quoted in my Venezia project) begins with a fisherman called Giacomo rowing across to a cemetery island covered in a dense undergrowth of briar and creeper, and as such makes his title a fitting one. Of course there are layers of meaning within the title; his protagonist bemoans the demise of his city’s culture, and investigates some suspicious deaths, the cemetery makes a further contribution, and then there’s the lagoon itself. Many will be unaware that the shallow waters include patches of marshland that are never rinsed clean by the ebb and flow of the Adriatic, and that these are known as the Laguna Morta.
It’s hard to imagine Venice as desolately morbid, though the city’s ability to scare is beyond question to anyone who remembers Don’t Look Now, but travel across the lagoon to some of the outlying islands and you get a different picture. Torcello, once the most populous of Venetian islands was strangled by those marshlands, killing off the population with a combination of navigational problems and rampant malaria. It’s population now barely makes double figures.
On the day I travelled the lagoon itself seemed heavy and lifeless; the wake of the boat bringing welcome aeration to the waters.
The flat, colourless expanse broken by the occasion derelict perched on islets.
When I first read the book many years ago I mistakenly assumed that Giacomo’s destination was San Michele, which is a cemetery island, but an island of manicured trees and monumental walls like any other large burial ground.
Instead, in the thick of the swamp, he is heading for Sant’Ariano, a walled rectangle of greenery beyond Torcello. Viewed from the air it is barely distinguishable from the wilderness around it, but until 1933 it had been the Venetian ossuary for several centuries, where bones were dumped to make space in the cemeteries, a practice that began in the time of the black death.
In this drab environment I feel slightly alien, despite my own coastal heritage. This is something very different.
Another film comes to mind. Deliverance.