Monte Cristo on a Gondola: Michel Zevaco – “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice”


“I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs; a palace and a prison on each hand.” -Lord Byron, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”













Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” has inspired almost two centuries of pastiches. There’s several less-than-authorized sequels, (with titles like “The Countess of Monte Cristo,” “The Return of Monte Cristo,” “The Hand of the Dead,” “The Daughter/ Son/Wife of Monte Cristo”); there’s the respectful, duly-acknowledging homages, like Jules Verne’s “Mathias Sandorf,” Lorenzo Carcaterra’s “Sleepers,” Italo Calvino’s “The Count of Montecristo,” and, heck, Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”;  there are the geographical re-settings (“An American Monte Cristo,” “An Irish Monte Cristo,” “The Prisoner of Algiers”); there’s the wilder re-imaginings, (the anime color-explosion that was “Gankutsuo,” or Park Chan-Wook’s “Old Boy,” or Alfred Bester’s Nebula-winning classic “The Stars My Destination”); there’s recent imitations from TV Land (both guilty-pleasures like “Revenge” and out-and-out pleasures like the currently-running “Taboo”) A truly exhaustive list would be exhausting, (and might even include my undeserving name upon it.)

Michel Zevaco’s duology “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice,” like the crowd-pleasing bat, is equally at home among mammals and birds: among rip-offs, homages, wild re-imaginings, and geographical re-settings.

Making “The Captain” look subtle in its Dumasian-ness, “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice” follows Roland Candiano, a promising young man who is about to marry his betrothed, Leonore, when his petty, jealous frenemies have him falsely accused of conspiracy and sent to walk the famous, lattice-windowed Ponte Dei Suspiri which connects the Dogi’s palace with the Prisons, (hence all the loud sighing).

After years in solitary, Roland finally escapes in an action packed scene that has him a-historically punch a hole on the Bridge of Sighs and drop from it to the Rio di Palazzo below. Up to that moment, Zevaco has merely done a “Find and Replace” job on “The Count of Montecristo,” (Roland for Edmond, Leonore for Mercedes, Venice for Marseilles, etc etc) with the difference that where Dumas is expansive, Zevaco is an abridger. Roland makes his daring escape by chapter 6; compare to chapter 20 of “Monte Cristo.”

For those who wonder why anyone would read an inferior “shot-by-shot” remake, it’s important to note that after Roland’s escape, Zevaco abandons the slavish adherence to his literary master. Instead of a slow-burning, subtle revenge plot, Roland is more interested in hacking-and-slashing, and by chapter 22 (of 100 or so), his incognito is over, he’s declared out-and-out war on his enemies, and is more or less murdering them on sight. It’s here that Zevaco, desirous of bodies for this massacre, adds a neat twist to the formula: Roland not only takes revenge against the handful of people who put him in prison, but also against anyone else foolish enough to associate with them.




Salem’s Plots : Santiago Gamboa – “Necropolis”

“Lives are like cities. If they’re too neat and tidy they don’t have a story. The best stories come out of destruction and misfortune.”

ABOVE: City of Oddballs

“Neat and tidy” surely doesn’t describe Santiago Gamboa’s 2009 novel, “Necropolis.” Set in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel during an unlikely literary convention of “Biographers and Memory,” this novel-made-of-novellas borrows from Bocaccio and Chaucer (and a few other sources). Literary pilgrims try to drown out the noises of terrorism just outside the walls by telling their varied tales. Among them:

The picaresque saga of a former drug dealer/ evangelical pastor from Miami.

The spicy affairs of an Italian porn star who has (obviously and yet unconvincingly) read the Marquis de Sade – or at least Milo Manara.

The variations of two chess players ( Stefan Zweig’s “The Royal Game” is the inspiration).

And, (I know I  mention Alexandre Dumas a lot in here, perhaps more than he warrants) a thrilling remake of “The Count of Montecristo” set in modern-day Colombia.

Gamboa is one of Colombia’s most prominent narrators, (or THE most prominent, now that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is dead) – and perhaps one of the foremost Latin American writers, (now that Roberto Bolano has similarly ceased to be.) The (late) latter gets a friendly, pre-emptively defensive nod from Gamboa, who is surely aware that “Necropolis” invites comparison to “The Savage Detectives.” Working in a similar vein, he shows off with tonal shifts – but it’s too much showing off. The stories are all entertaining enough but never even remotely convincing. I can’t judge the original Spanish, but the translation flattens the voices of the male characters, whether Colombian or Israeli or Swedish. The females fare even worse: wish-fulfilling literate nymphomaniacs. And, (this could sound like a case of “bad food, small portions”) there aren’t ENOUGH stories to follow up on a Decameron or even a Heptameron.  For all its ambitious heft, “Necropolis” ends too soon. This is the rare 500 page novel that needed 1,000 pages to truly fulfill its promise.