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Hide and seek and stealThe Thief Lordby Cornelia Funke, trans Oliver Latsch 350pp, The Chicken House When writers for adults contemplate Venice they behold decay, dereliction and death. Thomas Mann, Daphne du Maurier, LP Hartley and Salley Vickers have all dispatched hapless protagonists to Italy, where they see Venice – and die. Cornelia Funke observes the city with a child’s eye. “There were so many hiding places, so many narrow alleys with names no one could remember – some of them with no names at all. Boarded-up churches, deserted houses… the whole city was one huge invitation to play hide and seek.” But for the children who flit through this maze, hide and seek is no game. In the disused Stella cinema lives a gang of runaways, Hornet, Mosca and Riccio, who have recently acquired two new members: orphaned brothers Prosper and Bo, who are fleeing their aunt because she would separate them, adopting the cute little one and sending the other to boarding school. Life in the Star Place, as they call it, is precarious. The children support themselves by scavenging and stealing. They are protected by their mysterious mentor, Scipio the Thief Lord, who comes and goes by night, insisting on secrecy and passwords – part Zorro, part Robin Hood. In spite of his carnival mask and his high-heeled boots, the children are aware that he can barely be older than themselves. Nevertheless, they believe his tales of high crime, and he has the loot to prove it. As it turns out, Scipio is another unloved child, dangerously living out his fantasies. Before long the fragile security of this little band comes under threat from adults, particularly the detective hired to find Prosper and Bo. Victor Getz catches up with them just when Scipio accepts a commission for a daring robbery, and the plot, which has been gradually slipping the surly bonds of earth, becomes fully airborne. For despite the apparent dirty realism, this is actually magic realism as it has traditionally flourished, unnoticed, in children’s books: vigorous, compassionate, funny and deeply serious by turns. The children are not abused victims or feral delinquents; within the family they have forged they are loyal, kind, generous and, paradoxically, good. There is no simplistic suggestion that all adults are the Enemy or that childhood en-compasses all the virtues; every character has to be accepted on his or her terms. The only real heavy is the fence, Barbarossa, and he is more ludicrous than evil; even his red beard comes out of a bottle. Getz becomes an ally and Ida Spavento, the target of Scipio’s intended robbery, a co-conspirator. As a presiding genius over all this stands the winged lion, totem of the city, on his column in the Piazza San Marco and as a figure on a fabulous long-lost round about in a convent orphanage. It is the aborted robbery that brings Scipio, the child who would be a man, face to face with adults seeking to recover their lost childhood, and ultimately delivers an ambiguous retribution to Barbarossa and the heartless aunt. To say more would give away the plot – hectic, labyrinthine and at once logical and preposterous in its antic examination of childhood and adulthood. The humane and masterly work of this German writer and her scrupulous respect for her readers show up much of our home-grown fantasy for the derivative, manipulative dross that it is becoming.· Jan Mark’s novels include The Eclipse of the Century (Scholastic)

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