cover image Angelo


Jean Giono, Jan Wiese. Harvill Press, $12 (185pp) ISBN 978-1-86046-024-1

This jumbled fable of a first novel by a Norwegian writer revolves elliptically around the unearthing of an unknown, magnificent Renaissance painting of the Madonna and Child and the further discoveries of the stories surrounding its creation. The tale opens in 1989, just after the collapse of a new church--to which the Vatican has bequeathed the painting--has killed 700 people. Narrating is the Vatican scholar responsible for finding the lost work of art. Now disgraced, widowed and imprisoned, he first documents the recent events: how the Madonna was unjustly removed from an isolated wine valley's church in 1808, then lost in the Vatican's cavernous collection and finally presented during the recent disaster. For the painting's origin, he delves into the diary of a local storyteller and his encounter with an unknown 14th-century painter commissioned to portray a beguilingly pure model--his ""living Madonna."" Wiese blends the naive painter's literal virgin-whore complex with the storyteller's counterpointed tales of love, hatred and village mores, which conceal his own history. But this historical melodrama fares no better than the quasi-parables about love, faith and inspiration or the painting's ambiguous miraculousness; and the story's final plot twist strains too hard in trying to link the fates of the scholar and the storyteller. (Apr.)