On their last evening, Dad had hired a gondola with lanterns and they had been serenaded in the manner of an ice-cream commercial.
Lucien spends a considerable amount of time before they take their gondola ride, examining the gondoliers in order to pick out the best-looking one, and his declaration that it would be distracting if the gondolier was ugly (p. 235) is emblematic of the often un-realistic desire of the tourist to find perfection on all fronts.“You have to pay extra for the singing”, whispered Dad. “I wonder how much extra you’d have to pay to get him to stop” (Stravaganza, p. 235).
“Bah, selfish tourists, little food, little work”
“Did you stand by your credo?” asked Baciolo”
“Yes I did. Shitty tourists—shit for the tourists. I bombarded half a dozen”, replied Pastrocio, puffing out the feathers on his chest with pride (p. 22)13.
It is surely significant that the only other language into which this novel has so far been translated is Dutch, given that the canal-based city of Amsterdam is experiencing a very similar crisis to Venice’s. Would this novel be understood by an anglophone reader in quite the same way? The question is worth considering, not least because there may well be limited value in drawing attention to the threat that global tourism poses to Venice’s local culture if this testimony goes no further than local (or already sympathetic) contexts.The quest for authentic national cultural identity often results in efforts to reconstruct a lost national ethos as though it were some secret inheritance or that cultural identity were a matter of recovering some ‘hidden music’ Tradition appears as a coherent body of practice handed down over generations—but this is retrospectively imagined. These invented traditions reinforce the idea that identity can be passed down over generations as though it were some precious essence and that the rituals are a container for a pre-given national identity (p. 172).
Tiepolo’s campaign has brought grey sharks to the Grand Canal, and the damage that these unwanted creatures are causing to the flora and fauna of the lagoon is by no means dissimilar to the damage that the huge cruise liners are currently causing to the city and its fragile ecosystem18. Recent years have witnessed the establishment of a strong anti-cruise liner campaign within the city, and the handbills that the mermaids print on their Seldom Seen Press and distribute around the city, pushing them into railings and tucking them into flowerpots, bear an uncanny resemblance to those that were distributed around the city in the early years of the 21st century by the NO grandi navi committee in an effort to raise public awareness about the environmental damage that was being caused by the visiting cruise liners19.“See the sign on the side of the trolley. It’s called Baja-Menta Gelato. Don’t you see? Menta as in mint’. “It’s certainly going down a treat. Look at those people trying to get more’, exclaimed mother. They’re going mad for it! […] Teo cried out, ‘It’s as if you’ve all been enchanted by this ice-cream’. […] And the people around the edges of the square clutched their cups of green ice-cream, seeking comfort in its sweet taste. Their eyes were glazed with craving. They pushed it into their mouths greedily. The more they ate, the more they wanted” (p. 192).
When it comes to self-reflexivity, Lovric’s novel is, thus, more aware of the responsibilities that it has towards the city than are the other two. Unlike Stravaganza: City of Masks, which effectively seeks to colonize Venice for a select few tourists who possess talismans (who incidentally happen to be British) and Mistica Maeva e l’anello di Venezia, which seeks to keep Venice for the Venetians, The Undrowned Child invites all its readers to put the interests of the city uppermost, providing them with a transnational reading of the city that has much in common with the “moral” transnational vision of which Randolph Bourne (1916) spoke over a hundred years ago.My own deployment of Venice begins to worry me. What can I give back to the city? Well, love and respect are part of my novels. Venice is always a character in them, not just a setting. I also know of children who have nagged their parents to take them to Venice because of my books. I have even devised tours of Venice based on my stories. But is that a good thing for La Serenissima? Do I add to her serenity? No. Although my books take people to islands, squares and hidden cloisters far from the madding crowds of San Marco, Venice doesn’t need me to bring any more tourists than the 22 millions she suffers annually. By writing for children, and embedding some of the city’s lesser-known history, do I perhaps educate? Or do I merely entertain21?
Conflicts of Interest
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See Valentina Mazzucato, “Transcending the Nation: Explorations of Transnationalism as Concept and Phenomenon” (Mazzucato 2004), pp. 131–62.
As the recent volume on Imagining Sameness and Difference in Children’s Literature (2017) clearly demonstrates, children’s books have always been about the construction of identity (both on a personal and on a collective level), and the construction of that identity has almost always by necessity been formed through discourses of “othering”.
Recent critical works which explore transnational aspects of children’s literature include New World Orders in Contemporary Children’s Literature: Utopian Transformations (Bradford et al. 2007) and From Colonial to Modern: Transnational Girlhood in Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Children’s Literature 1840–1940 (Bradford et al. 2018).
As Arjun Appadurai has noted, “the central feature of global culture today is the politics of the mutual effort of sameness and difference to cannibalize one another and thus to proclaim their successful hijacking of the twin Enlightenment ideas of the triumphantly universal and the resiliently particular” (“Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy”, (Appadurai 1990, p. 308)).
Venice now has more than 140 visitors per inhabitant (Settis 2014). At its height, the population of Venice peaked at 164,000 inhabitants. Today, that number has sunk below 60,000 (Kingston 2009). In 2015, several heritage protection organizations in Venice and Italy were so concerned about the damage that tourism was posing to the city that they asked experts from UNESCO, RAMOS and ICOMOS to engage in discussions with the city management in order to address some of the most pressing threats.
On the topic of “bellezza”, it is noteworthy that the final pages of Settis, study of Venice’s future, Se Venezia muore, stress that if the city is to survive, her beauty must not be understood as “una pesante eredità del passato” (a heavy inheritance from the past) but rather as “uno straordinario dono per vivere il presente e una straordinaria dote per costruire e garantire il futuro” (‘an extraordinary gift for living in the present and an extraordinary dowry for building and guaranteeing the future’, p. 154).
This is why in 1992, UNESCO on the understanding that ‘cultural landscapes are at the interface of culture and nature, tangible and intangible heritage, biological and cultural diversity—they represent a closely woven net of relationships, the essence of culture and people’s identity’, recognised three categories of cultural landscapes of outstanding universal value for world heritage listing. See Rossler (2006), Van der Borg et al. (1996) and Minoia (2017).
Most of Venice’s supermarkets, industries, hospitals and other essential community services are located on the mainland of Marghera and Mestre, and the resident Venetian population has fallen dramatically over the last twenty years, not least because it has become both too costly and too challenging for working-class Venetian families to live in the city centre.
“Bah, turisti poco generosi, poco cibo, molto lavoro”. “Hai tenuto fede al tuo motto?” lo interrogò Baicolo.“Eh, sì. Turisti di cacca, cacca ai turisti. Ne ho bombardati una mezza dozzina” confermò Pastrocio, e gonfiò le piume del petto per l’orgoglio” (p. 22). The English translation is my own.
It is significant that Teodora defeats Bajamonte Tieoplo by shouting curses from a Spell Almanac written in many languages to him. These curses, which the book’s arch-villain has inscribed on her skin, ultimately make her a transnational, cultural repository par excellence.
She moves the historic flood of 1966, which caused much devestation to the city, for example, to 1899 so that she can use this as the reason why Teodora’s parents are in Venice at an environmental conference.
And it is telling that Lucien and his family in Stravaganza enjoy icrecreams in St. Mark’s Square, while the parents of Giaki, Mistica Maeva’s friend in the eponymous novel, own a successful gelateria on the Zattere.
As Whigham (2014) notes, “large cruise ships have come to symbolise the struggle to prevent tourism from monopolising the Venetian economy. Currently, cruise ships literally pass through the city in order to enter or leave the port of Venice, crossing the Giudecca canal and brushing up against St. Mark’s Square” (p. 128).
Lovric discusses the work of this committee in her blog post, “Suicide by greed: the monsters looming over Venice”, written on the 10 December 2017.
The flotilla of creatures that fight Tiepolo and his evil forces at the end of the novel are assisted by several international figures as well as by mythical sea creatures from Great Britain and a group of dolphins from the South Seas.
Michelle Lovric, “The real deal or the raw deal”, The History Girls, 10 January 2013.
Venice is also always a character in her novels and while The Undrowned child did have a sequel it was not originally envisaged as the first novel in a series about different Italian cities as were both Walter’s and Hoffman’s novels (See Hoffman 2008, 2010; Walter 2015a, 2015b). When a sequel did appear it was set in London (the other city in which she resides) in order to explore the connections between the two cities that have always fascinated the author. See The Mourning Emporium (Lovric 2010).
The Mourning Emporium (Lovric 2010), Talina in the Tower (Lovric 2012), The Fate in the Box (Lovric 2013a) and The Wishing Bones (Lovric 2019) are all set in Venice while the following articles: “Suicide by greed: The monsters looming over Venice” (Lovric 2017), “If Venice dies” (Lovric 2018) and “The real deal or the raw deal” (Lovric 2013b) all address the controversial issues that lie at the heart of The Undrowned Child.
Pino Cottogni, “Michelle Lovric e la sua Venezia”, Fantasy Magazine, 30 Marzo 2011.
Since writing The Undrowned Child, Lovric has written three more novels for young adults which explore the challenges that Venice is currently facing even further: Talina in the Tower (2012), The Fate in the Box (2013) and The Wishing Bone (2019) as well as a sequel to The Undrowned Child, The Mourning Emporium (2010) in which the protagonists of the first novel save London from the baddened magic of Bajamonte Tiepolo.
© 2019 by the author. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).