I’m reading River of Shadows at the moment. It’s the first book in Valerio Varesi’s detective series featuring Commissario Soneri. River of Shadows was shortlisted for the 2011 CWA International Dagger. Apart from the main human protagonists in the story, Varesi’s descriptions of the River Po and the surrounding landscape seem to give the location a life and character all of its own. Since my Italian roots are in the region of Emilia-Romagna and Parma in particular, this is a part of the world that I feel a strong connection with. Let me introduce you…
The Po river flows more than 400 miles through northern Italy, from its source on a rocky hillside in the Cottian Alps all the way to the Adriatic Sea not far from Venice. Il grande fiume (the great river) is prone to heavy flooding and, in an attempt to protect the surrounding fields and towns, over half of the river is flanked by man-made embankments or argini. Poplar trees have also been planted along the banks to strengthen them against the force of the water. This may work to some extent but the down-side of these flood defences has been that when the Po floods, it does so even more ferociously and with devastating effect.
The Po in flood is the backdrop to a mysterious disappearance in River of Shadows. The leading character, Commissario Soneri, is a detective based in Parma who is bought in to investigate when an old boatman goes missing from his barge on the river. Varesi’s writing is full of brooding storminess and conjures up the image of perpetual rain, mist and swirling currents. The power and menace of the river as it threatens the lives and livelihoods along its banks is painted beautifully as is the seeming contradiction of the serene timelessness of the river.
There’s a strange symbiosis that exists between the people and the Po. The river has caused destruction for centuries and yet the people who live within its reach rely on it for the success of their vineyards, rice fields, and fisheries. The benefits, though, are heavily one sided. They say that a third of Italy’s agricultural exports come from the area around the Po. Livestock drink its water and the sugar, rice and tomato crops rely on irrigation for a good harvest. Even the area’s power comes from the Po via the hydroelectric plants. No wonder the people of the Po cling to their homes so tenaciously in the face of floods that so often threaten to snatch it all away. They know that while the river takes with one hand, it gives very generously with the other.
This is the way it’s been for as long as anyone can remember. The seasonal dance with the river and its advancing and retreating water. They say changing climate patterns have made things harder but change is a way of life along the Po and things will just adapt and move on as they have done for centuries. The people have taken on the character of the Po itself – always changing but always the same.
Photo credits: turinphototours.it , Giuliano Chezzi, AsgeirFoto and Francesco Zaia