Fiction – paperback; Picador; 276 pages; 1999.
Night Letters was published in Australia to critical acclaim in 1996.
Picking it up, it’s hard to work out if it is a fictional story or a real-life travel memoir. This confusion is aided by its subtitle — A Journey Through Switzerland and Italy — and the note which claims it is “edited and annotated by Igor Miazmov”. But for those who aren’t quite sure, this is a novel and Miazmov is none other than Dessaix under another name. (Quite hilarious, then, to see that Amazon.co.uk lists Miazmov as if he is a real editor.)
The book comprises a series of 20 letters written on consecutive nights by an Australian man staying in a Venice hotel. The man, who is named Robert, has been diagnosed with an incurable illness and while the disease is never named one gets the impression that it is HIV.
These letters, which are not addressed to anyone in particular (but are effectively you, the reader), are filled with Robert’s wide-ranging thoughts on travel, love, religion and mortality. But the common theme, which threads in and out of the often meandering narrative, is man’s search for paradise and whether, in fact, it exists. This is underpinned by references to Dante’s The Divine Comedy, which Robert is reading out of sequence, so that when he finishes Paradise he feels “oddly becalmed […] if that didn’t bring you to a point of absolute stillness, nothing would”.
As Robert narrates his often mundane, sometimes frustrating and occasionally menacing travels through Locarno, Vicenza and Padua, he offers fascinating glimpses of the people and places he encounters along the way.
In Locarno he befriends an English woman wearing a mysterious amulet — “a hugely endowed male copulating with a large-limbed female, all in exquisitely fine detail, every bead in the bracelets, every toe picked out” — who spends days telling him about the history of the tiny gold brooch she wears. And in Venice he meets another hotel resident, a German professor, with whom he shares many discourses on history and philosophy, mainly on how the famous Venetian residents Cassanova and Marco Polo represented “completely different ways of travelling — and therefore of living out your life”.
I have to admit that Night Letters initially failed to win me over. I actually considered abandoning it. But I’m glad I persevered, because once I understood this was a novel about storytelling — there are references to famous novelists throughout, including Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell and Salman Rushdie — I truly enjoyed it. There are stories within stories, and once you realise that these all combine weight to Robert’s search for meaning, you wonder why you didn’t “get” this much earlier.
What I loved most about this book — aside from the gorgeously authentic descriptions of modern Venice and the very funny footnotes by “Igor Miazmov” — are the insights into human nature and what it is to truly live. There are little gems dotted on every page — for example, Robert realises that the journey of life is not about getting to the destination, which is effectively death, but in experiencing each moment as fully as one can, and I love this passage, which seems so eloquent and true to me:
Journeying is, after all, so fundamental to the way we humans think of ourselves and assign our lives a meaning. Every second book you read is about some kind of journey, really, isn’t it? And we constantly talk about paths in life — ways, roads, progress, stages and so on — all travel metaphors, when you think about it.
In fact, I had to do everything within my power not to underline about 90 per cent of the sentences in this book, because so many of them resonated with me.
Night Letters is an incredibly subtle novel, but it’s a wise one too. It won’t appeal to everyone, but I loved its intelligence, its humanity and its big-picture look at life, so much so that when I got to the last page I immediately wanted to turn to the front to read it all over again — and that doesn’t happen very often. And do read it if, like me, you have a penchant for anything set in Venice — Dessaix captures the city so perfectly you’ll be rushing to book your air flights!