Monday, October 27, 2014

Review of The Bellini Card by Jason Goodwin (Faber, 2009)

Istanbul, 1840, and there is a reshuffling of power as a new sultan succeeds the old.  The young sultan has heard a rumour that a portrait by Bellini of his ancestor, Mehmet the Conqueror, has resurfaced in Venice.  Yashim, a palace eunuch and detective, is asked to quietly investigate whether the painting exists and is for sale.  Not wanting to draw attention to sultan’s interest, Yashim sends his friend, Palewski, the Polish ambassador to Istanbul to Venice.  Given that Venice is in the control of Austrian authorities, and their recent conflict with Poland, Palewski adopts the disguise of a rich American seeking masterpieces to take back to the new world.  Venice is a shadow of its former glory, but its people still possess the guile and hospitality that made it a key Mediterranean trading port.  Palewski is soon moving in a world of old aristocratic families, dealers and cunning guides, seeking the fabled Bellini, but so is a killer who’s leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. 

The strengths of The Bellini Card are the sense of place, characterisation, and historical detail.  Goodwin places the reader in both Istanbul and Venice -- the landscape and architecture, the sights, sounds and smells, and the social strata and living conditions.  The descriptions are wonderfully evocative and come to life in one’s mind’s eye.  This is aided by a melting pot of nicely drawn characters -- a mix of fading aristocrats, bureaucrats, servants and criminals -- and their interactions conditioned by social standing.  This is all well framed with respect to byzantine politics and the long history of connections between the two cities.  The plot, however, is also somewhat byzantine.  It might have been because I was tired when reading, but as the story progressed I became increasingly lost as to logic driving the story and I reached the end without really understanding the denouement.  Maybe if I read it again it would become clear, but on first reading the complex weave and twists in the story never fully unravelled to reveal themselves.  The result was a tale I enjoyed for the rich portrait of people and places, but where the plot became evermore incidental.

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