Monday 27 July 2020

Unexpected place to find a lion – Michelle Lovric

You know that moment, that storytelling moment, when a place or a smell or photography or a page in an old guide-book triggers something inside you? That’s it. You’re signed up. You belong to that place, that face, that idea, and you will not be liberated until you’ve fashioned it into a book.

I had that moment in Arequipa, Peru, a decade ago, and it turned into my fourth novel for adults, The Book of Human Skin. And I had it again in the Castle of Jabrin, Nizwa, a few years later.

The idea came at once: a Venetian palace with an Arabian castle magically tucked inside it, and a world of trouble for the inhabitants of both places. That world had to rest in the bottom oven for a few years because of other commitments. But quietly, fed only with the occasional page of scribbles, it kept proving and growing, until it was ready to mould, punch and (as usual for me) finally sculpt into shape. As we say in Italy, eccoloqua! – my new novel for children, The Water’s Daughter.

Looking back now at my photographs from the trip to Oman, I’m almost embarrassed about how obvious a book setting is presented by the Castle of Jabrin.

It’s set in a grove of palms beset by sand dunes and brooding hills … 
It has most excellent crenellations … 
Inside, tall terracotta walls are punctured by graceful half-concealing fretwork … 
Soaring ceilings are painted in the bruised colours of an oncoming storm … 
The stones in this floor were rolled smooth in an emerald green wadi at Quiryat … 
Down in the kitchens are the date honey chambers. The dates would be stacked in sacks, pressed down by their own weight. The honey seeped down through the runnels of granite laid in ridges, like little waves turned to stone. 
These are ‘trip stairs’ to catch out creeping assassins in the night … 
This is one of the ‘murder grates’ for pouring boiling date honey on the heads of invading armies … 

There’s a 'Walk of Shame' – a low-ceilinged corridor. Court cases were held in the castle. Anyone judged guilty would be forced to walk down that corridor bent over double, a taste of the rest-of-life prostration that awaited him or her.

There’s a special prison room for women. Imagine being chained to a wall in the windowless innards of a castle, looking up at a dark eye-hole in the ceiling, knowing it’s so exactly placed in relation to the hooks that hold you that a gunshot or a spear despatched through it couldn’t miss. Your executioner wouldn’t even need to see or touch you when he sent the spear or musket ball down the slot to kill you ...

Here’s Jabrin’s marble incantation against Enviers, who don’t get incanted enough against, in my opinion:

‘Let the Enviers die with their desperation
For we have built this place strongly
And it stands up high.’ 

A local legend says the walls of nearby Bahlia fort were built in one night by a magic woman. Clearly, the whole place was suffused with stories. How could I not set a book here? It would take a stronger writer than me to even think of evading that fate. 

In my novel, I populated the castle of Jabrin with a learned astronomer, elegant servants, a talking leopardess named Musipul and a spell-clumsy Djinniya named Ghazalah, who bears little resemblance to a Disney genie. She couldn’t, because she’s built out of research, conversations with Muslim friends at home and in my local mosque – and a sincere attempt to evade demeaning orientalising tropes.

When setting and plotting the Venetian part of The Water’s Daughter, I decided on ‘Bon’ for as the surname for my heroine, Aurelia. She’s a wilful twelve-year-old with a large and characterful nose – and an uncanny ability to see the past when she presses her fingers against the wall of an old building. Aurelia Bon’s own family has plenty of past, most of it pleasantly murky. ‘Bon’ or ‘Buono’ means ‘good’ in Italian: I liked the idea of Bons who were bad.

Next I needed to find my Bons a suitably hauntable palace. In Venice, architectural history generally delivers something picturesque: you don’t need to make it up. So my first investigation was to the Calle dell’Arco, also known as Calle Bon … 
… home to the sumptuous Palazzo Zorzi Bon, whose magnificent sottoportego 
dominates it, with canal light shining through in a hazy glow. 
But on making my way round to the San Severo canal to see the grand façade – having established its identity by shouting up at its owners on the balcony – the Palazzo Zorzi Bon simply did not speak to me. It was too bland and perfect to be the scene of dark deeds and darker magic. Do you see what I mean?
Walking away, disconsolate, I sought some shade and a chance to think. I found myself a dark, abandoned quiet street, Calle de la Madoneta. Deep in its shadows lurked an ancient Gothic palazzo behind high walls with oriental-looking crenellations. 
Peering through the rusted grates, I could see a series of beckoning arches.
My imagination immediately placed Aurelia Bon at this gate, her fingers poised 
to reveal all the stories this palazzo had to tell. 
Few palazzi in Venice bear their historic names. At most, they offer you a sculpted stemma or family crest to decipher and the names of the modern inhabitants on the doorbells. I photographed the name on the doorbell: Ugo Lavezzi. Back at home, juggling three reference books, I triangulated my prey, discovering that ‘my’ new palace was called Bembo, like quite a few others in the City. But there was nothing else about the building in any of my books, all references pointing to the more famous Palazzo Bembo at Rialto. I wrote a polite letter to Ugo Lavezzi to see if he would allow me inside to see the palace. This ploy has sometimes worked before. 

That night, I was chatting to Venetian friends. The beautiful architect Elena told of her amazing dentist and her recent experiences with him. The subject moved to the research for my new book. I explained that I was trying to find out more about the mysterious Palazzo Bembo near San Severo. I told them about the letter I’d just posted to Ugo Lavezzi and my friends began to laugh. Because Ugo Lavezzi is the father of the said dentist. Long story short, thirty-six hours later, I was inside the magnificent gate, ranging the courtyard of the Palazzo Bembo, accompanied by the charming and enthusiastic Signora Orietta Lavezzi, taking these photographs and scribbling down ideas for scenes so fast that some of them would never be legible afterwards. 
At one point, Orietta asked me to be quiet for a moment. She said, ‘If you stand in silence, you can hear bits of the palace dropping off.’ I did, and it was true. 

The biggest surprise was the large fresco of a lion. My camera had something 
in its eye that day: I apologise for the blurriness of the photograph.
Of course, a lion is the symbol of the city’s patron saint, San Marco. It’s probably impossible to walk more than fifty yards in Venice without seeing a winged lion with its paw on a book. The words carved into the pages say, ‘Peace, Marcus, my evangelist, here shall you rest.’ This refers to the legend of Saint Mark’s body being stolen from Alexandria by some Venetian merchants (one of whom was called – naturally – Bon). Venice has always wanted to make sure the world knew that the daring theft of Saint Mark had Our Lord’s blessing: hence the ‘here you shall rest’, signed God

Surviving frescoes are unusual in Venice. The humidity usually eats them off the walls. That was not the only unusual thing about the lion at the Palazzo Bembo. This beast was ranging towards a scene of desert or tropical vegetation, including palm trees. I’ve seen plenty of Venetian lions in my life in the city, but I had never seen anything like this before.

Orietta told me that the artist was thought to be Ugo Grignaschi, born in Grado in 1887, a painter of views, portraits, religious subjects. As he was active during the Fascist period, when Mussolini nurtured dreams of empire. Perhaps, I wondered, the palm trees referred to Ethiopa? But on the only hand, those trees also reminded me vividly of the groves of date palm I had seen in Nizwa … 

And here was the confirmatory link I needed to the other setting of my novel, the Castle of Jabrin. 

Writers among my readers will know that moment too: it’s the one when a story literally comes home.

And here’s that story now, all told and printed, on its book birthday on July 9th just past. 

Michelle Lovric’s website
The Water’s Daughter new web pages
The Water’s Daughter

PS. The campaign against the mega-partyboat the Ocean Diva continues.
The No Ocean Diva petition can be signed here
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Joan Lennon said...

Fascinating, Michelle - and your photos are so evocative! Thanks for this!

Sue Purkiss said...

Wonderful! Clearly, a story that was just waiting to be told.

michelle lovric said...

Thank you, ladies! Travelling to Arabia seems like a looooooonnnng time ago now!

Penny Dolan said...

What an absolutely wonderful palace to visit, and to paint into your new book too. Many congratulations!