Jonathan Walker


On his book Pistols! Treason! Murder! The Rise and Fall of a Master Spy

Cover Interview of February 03, 2010


The conventions of professional historiography require abstraction, restraint, and decorum.  Gerolamo Vano has no place within this regime, just as he had no place within the official rhetoric of political culture in seventeenth-century Venice.  Vano demands instead exemplification, excess, and vulgarity.  By exemplification, I mean that the way the story is told becomes a commentary on its subject, so that the form of the presentation itself embodies the argument.  By excess, I mean that the presentation borrows Vano’s contagious enthusiasm, and echoes his violent disregard of all conventional pieties.  By vulgarity, I mean a willingness to cross the divide between high and low culture, a divide that Vano also ignored. Hence, allegorical comic strips; hence, three exclamation marks in the title; etc., etc.

Several reviewers have responded to this approach with bafflement or irritation.  Why can’t I just write a normal history book?  The point is that the normal protocols of interpretation do not work when applied to Vano’s reports; nor will his fragmentary story fit within the bounds of a conventional narrative.

In response to these difficulties, we might simply conclude that the endeavour is impossible, and choose another subject.  But an alternative course of action is to try to make the difficulties a compelling part of the story.  When words fail, silence is not the only alternative.  We can use pictures instead, or invite the participation of other voices through dialogue, or foreground gaps in the record by jump-cutting.

Pistols! Treason! Murder! is not, therefore, just the story of Gerolamo Vano, a Venetian spy, although Vano is certainly a uniquely interesting individual; nor is it simply an attempt to place Vano within a particular historical context, although that context is certainly of unique importance.  It is also an attempt to test the limits of historical representation, and to ask what happens if we deliberately transgress those limits.

© 2010 Jonathan Walker