Earlier this year, Donna Leon published the umpteenth Comissario Brunetti story, set as always in the dreamy timelessness of Venice. These stories have appeared over the last twenty five years, and have their own timeless qualities that seems to match the city itself.
This summer, I took an opportunity to look back across the years, sampling stories through the years. My sample today is Death at La Fenece (1992), A Sea of Troubles (2001), and Earthly Remains (2017).
Death at La Fenece (1992)
The first book featuring Venice Comissario Brunetti is amazingly fresh and just as good as the more recent works more than two decades later.
The first book is a sudden death of a famous conductor at the even more famous opera house.
As in all the Brunetti stories, the city of Venice is lovingly portrayed, a mixture of small town gossip, absurdly fine food, and centuries old decay.
Brunetti follows his now familiar process, talking and listening carefully, along with some psychological tricks aimed at eliciting truth from witnesses and cooperation from colleagues.
In other words, Leon’s work was great from the first.
A Sea of Troubles (2001)
This story visits the outer island, inhabited by fishing families and tourists. This story further develops the bright young “secretary”, Elettra. Under her elegant façade and insulting job title, she is a canny operator, and knows how to make both men and the Internet do what she wants.
The islands are an inbred village culture that is dying out, as so many parts of Venice are. They are a home to smuggling, illegal fishing, and illegal waste dumping—and not necessarily friendly to the police.
The face of Italy and Venice continue to change. Brunetti learns about the decrepit state of Italy’s public health system, and the ugly mess facing immigrants from Eastern Europe.
Earthly Remains (2017)
Leon’s most recent Brunetti novel visits another remote part of the lagoon, taking Brunetti back to his boyhood. Recuperating from a health scare, he investigates the death of an old man, which requires uncovering.
By now Signorina Elettra is supplemented by detective Claudia Griffoni, who displays an alarming acting ability and an acute sense of psychology. Like Brunetti, she knows ways to lead people to reveal the truth.
Venice is changing. The city is overrun by tourists and gigantic cruise ships. The shops are filled with shoddy fakes from China, and run by immigrants from Africa (who seem to have pushed out the East Europeans). Venice is becoming a theme park, with little room for Venetians.
Brunetti himself is sagging into despair over the dysfunctional political and judicial system (which is he is a part of), and the grinding anxiety about environmental degradation. As the lagoon and the sea dies, can Venice survive? Can humanity survive?
Can anything be more symbolic than the giant floating barrier, intended to hold back the rising sea. Preposterously expensive, logically suspect, behind schedule, and, of course, under investigation for corruption.
Or the skyscraper cruise ships that absurdly and insanely plow the ancient canals, threatening the foundations of the city. Literally.
Over the Years
First: Leon is a great writer, and the Brunetti books have been consistently fine from the very start. That hasn’t changed.
Second, the city of Venice as Leon knows and loves it has always been a main character in the stories. Much of Brunetti’s story makes little sense except as a foil for Leon’s love of life in Venice. He and his family embody what Leon treasures about the city, and exemplifies how she would want life to be. Like the imagined city of Venice, this too has not changed.
There have been, of course, some changes over the years.
In 1992, there was no Internet. To find things out, Brunetti relies on his old fashioned social network, friends of friends, and family connections.
In 1992, he has no mobile phone, but by 2001 all the police had them. (I haven’t identified exactly when Guido gets his first telefonino, in the mid-90s sometime.) This makes a huge difference for police procedures, because once everyone has a mobile, the Commissario is never out of communication for long, and does not have to return to his office to catch up or check on his family. This is connectivity is good and bad, given the unhelpful kibitzing of his bosses.
The city of Venice is, of course, ageless. But Leon’s unvarnished eye sees the decay and environmental degradation, as well as the tourist menace. These things were evident back in 1992, and have only grown worse over the years.
Brunetti’s (and Leon’s) despair is the same, even as the details evolve.
Leon also seems to “enjoy” Italian politics and social follies. 1992 is pre-Burilisconi, but the story is pretty much the same in his reign, and now after it. In more recent stories. Paola adds in a despairing view of academic politics, and his children display a bitter realism about prospects for a future in Venice, in Italy, or anywhere on Earth. Italy is Italy, Venice is Venice.
There are some peculiarities in the story telling.
Leon has had to deal with the age of her character. Like Christie’s Poirot and Marple, Leon’s protagonist is middle aged in the first story. Over the ensuing 25 years, he surely must be ready to retire or move on, but never does. He doesn’t seem to age very much, either.
His wife Paola’s parents are very old in 1992, and seem to get younger through the years. Equally inexplicably, his children are teenagers in 1992, and are just preparing for college in 2001, and are at University in 2017—and still living at home.
I realize that young people have a tough time finding work in Italy, but no matter how magical Venice may be, it cannot keep children young forever. Brunetti’s offspring should be middle-aged parents by now—but they are still in college.
Brunetti and his family, like the city of Venice itself, do not seem to age. Throughout all the stories, there is a hazy golden glow, and time passes slowly, allowing Brunetti to amble through his cases, untangling the true story and bringing his own justice to the world.
This is not the real world, but the real world of corruption and decay is seen, and the ageless and very fortunate Brunetti despairs for the future, though the future does not seem to be in a hurry to arrive.
In a sense, this is what we expect from the magical city of Venice, reasonably or not. More to the point, this is what we expect from Donna Leon. This is a charming fantasy, and very Venetian.
This probably isn’t what life is really like in Venice or anywhere, but it is a beautiful vision, and I would like it to be real.
I think I’ll keep reading as long as she keeps writing.
- Donna Leon, Death at La Fenece, New York, HarperCollins, 1992.
- Donna Leon, A Sea of Troubles, New York, Penguin, 2001.
- Donna Leon, Earthly Remains, New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017.
Sunday Friday Book Reviews