28 29 Hydraulic diptych and other stories. Some conversations with Frank Westerman Leonardo Merlini The hotel window overlooks the Lagoon. The first thing I hear, when I open it, is the background sound that in a certain sense defines the essence of Venice: the movement of the waves, the oscillations of the pontoons, the rippling of the boats, some warning sirens. The sky is gray, the water thick like a blanket anxious to hide secrets, someone drags a trolley onto the Riva Schiavoni, hidden by a light yellow umbrella. It rains. It is 8:33 a.m. on November 22, 2022, the tide at 160 cm is expected in just over an hour; an exceptional, dangerous, potentially devastating tide. My daughter is still sleeping sleeping in the next room. The blanket of the Lagoon now looks threatening to me, though still beautiful. The bulletin of the Municipality of Venice informs me that all MOSE lines have been activated. On November 1st, 2021, when the forecast of high water "only" reached 130 cm, the barrier built over many years to the sound of billions and scandals had really contained water and, as the Dutch reporter and writer Frank Westerman wrote, «Moses divided the Adriatic Sea in two». MOSE was working, at least for the big tides, and it worked today too. Let's rewind the tape. After all, this is but the end of the story. An end that, despite the wind and the driving rain, has been happy: Venice overcame the crisis without serious consequences, the Acqua Granda has been, to quote the writer Ben Lerner, a storm that never happened thanks to MOSE. But Westerman – one who has made journalism a form of high-level literature and who, on the island of San Servolo, got to know directly the fragile lagoonal reality of the city – told about those times when the storms really arrived, in 2019 in Venice and, with all the horror of an announced tragedy, in Vajont in October 1963. He did it in a small book, Dittico idraulico (transl. Hydraulic Diptych, 2022), released by the Venetian publishing house Wetlands; and he did it through his style of reporter, of investigator in first person of that mysterious thing we call reality. Before continuing to write, I inhale the smell of this moment, which is brackish and humid. I think it's the right smell to try to move forward, the right smell to let the words gradually overwhelm me like the Lagoon growing, and growing, and growing. Inside me, the sentimental image of it becomes enormous, inescapable. Venice is the city. Venice is water. And this is a story about waters. Entr’acte #01: large-scale hydraulic works have marked the history of humankind and its civilization. The Roman aqueducts today still stand as a warning in front of my traveller’s eyes, a warning that can also sounds sinister if I think of the theme – indeed, of the hyperobject, in the words of the philosopher Timothy Morton – of climate change. The port of Carthage compared to that of Rotterdam, and its hypercontemporary architecture; the dams on the Nile and the boats of the ancient Egyptians; those lighthouses that stood literally at end of the world, as if they were in Edgar Allan Poe's head, present as bastions of our involuntary memories. «Facts are inorganic, they are not alive, they are dead matter. On the other hand, stories are alive», Westerman told me one day in Ferrara. «We must whisper, breathe life into facts», and then, raising his voice, almost as a matter of urgency: «Stories multiply, they change, they evolve. And I'm not talking about the novels, but about the reports, the essays. I don't invent anything, but as a writer I try to bring facts to life». And facts in this case are intertwined, united by the story of some witnesses, by returning to the places, by trying to reconstruct the different forms of mythology – historical, political, interpretative and even judicial – which are inevitably accompanied by the recomposition of a catastrophic fact such as the collapse of the dam that swept away Longarone, but also of the periodic Venetian floods, that inexhaustible return of the Sea which gradually submerges the city and, with it, our collective imaginary regarding one of the most famous places in the world, known by millions and millions of people. Even though, how many of these really walked on the wooden walkways in Piazza San Marco, during the evenings of high water? How many have actually seen houses flooding or doors disappearing? How many have heard the silence, one moment before the disaster? «The zero point of high and low water in Venice – Westerman wrote in his story made of two stories, between the Lagoon and Vajont – is the mean sea level, measured in 1897. On the Punta della Salute, at the mouth of the Grand Canal, this tidal zero is indicated with a horizontal line, around which a monitoring station has been built bringing to mind a latrine. Inside, a vertical cylindrical roller slowly turns, covered with squared paper. A mechanical pen, connected to a float in the water, draws the waves of low and high tide to the rhythm of the position of the sun and the moon». Not much happens in this passage, but it's nice to hear the voice of the engineer (some say agricultural, others, perhaps under suggestion, even say hydraulic) that Westerman was before becoming, as the flap of the book states, «one of the most important contemporary Dutch writers». A voice with an analytical approach, but also with the posture of the narrator, of the observer. I like to think, as if I was playing identification, also of the reporter. I have often stopped on that Punta in recent