Book Review: “Willful Behavior” by Donna Leon

Willful Behavior (2002) by Donna Leon

On this US holiday, let’s take break from all the Turkey’s out there, crypto-Turkeys, quantum Turkeys, DinoTurkeys, and all,

Instead, I’ll continue my look back at Comissario Brunetti’s career.

Willful Behavior (2002) is an interesting and somewhat pivotal novel.

As I noted earlier, Leon’s Venice is a magical city, where time seems suspended. As I noted before, somehow his teenage children circa 1992 are just entering university in this story (2002) (and apparently not finished yet in 2017).

On the other hand, even the magic city of Venice cannot hold off the twenty first century.


We find some more history of mobile phone use. By 2002, Brunetti has a telefonino, but often leaves it at home or the office, but increasingly has difficulty finding a public phone. Younger officers carry theirs, but Paola seems not to have one at all. And Brunetti’s children want phones, but only the older boy (probably 18 years old) is allowed to have one.

Within a few years, no one would imagine living in a city without a mobile phone, and most parents would not allow their children out of the house without one. Times have changed.

It is interesting to see that the Internet is fully in bloom, at least for searching and emailing—and hacking. Leon displays a cavalier attitude toward white-hat hacking, which levels the playing field and cuts through bureaucracy and official secrecy. This attitude seems adolescent and rather dangerous today.


In Venice one is surrounded by deep history, and also the willful amnesia about the catastrophes of the twentieth century. In Willful Behavior and other stories, there are somehow still veterans and war criminals around, as well as their children, though nobody talks about the reality of the Mussolini years. Leon has Brunetti despair at the erasure of the war years, which inevitably leads to resurgence of fascist mythology among the young.

In 2002 Brunetti encounters waves of immigrants, with Africans displacing Easter Europeans. He also encounters rising anti-immigrant sentiment, and neo-fascist politics. These events continue today, and have come to dominate Italian and European politics.

As always, Brunetti’s Venice and Italy are awash in corruption and public mismanagement. In Willful Behavior he even advises a friend to pay a bribe, and emperils his own ethics by suggesting a quid pro quo for his own help. These views of cronyism and misrule are all the more salient in post-Obama America.

Far right immigrant bashing plus incompetence plus official extortion—where have I heard about that, in 2017?


But to me the most important part of this book is that it is the follow up to Signorina Elettra’s disastrous adventure in Troubled Waters. In her unofficial undercover role, she suffered physical and emotional trauma above and beyond her official role as “secretary”.

In Willful Behavior, she is back in the office and apparently fully recovered. Leon offers little insight into this miracle, though we are all pleased to see it.

Finding her office filled with fresh flowers, Brunetti muses,

How he had prayed in the last months that she be returned to her shameless depredation of the city’s finances by claiming these exploding bouquets as ordinary office supplies. Every bud, every blossom was rich with the odour of the misappropriation of public funds. Burnetti breathed in deeply and sighed with relief.” ([1], p. 110)

This is the extent of what we are told about her recovery.

Elettra seems undaunted by the experience, cheerfully commanding men and the Internet to do her bidding, just as before.

I would note, though, that in subsequent stories she does not seem to take on such personal risks, either for police work or in her love life.

Just like Brunetti and his family, Elettra seems to stay the same age and attitude for another decade and a half. She does not marry, and seems not to have a significant relationship. How ever much I like her, this seems rather magically implausible.


This, then, is Leon’s Venice. Caught in the past which few actually remember, timeless, yet flooded by the twenty first century. Unreal, but beautiful.

That’s kind of the whole point, no?


  1.  Donna Leon, Willful Behavior, New York, Penguin, 2002.

 

Sunday Thursday Book Reviews

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