Donna Leon: thirty years of dark corners of Venice | Elementary

Donna Leon in London in 2004.
Donna Leon in London in 2004.Photo by Bruno Vincent / Getty Images

Venice has survived everything – the tourists, the sea, the saltpeter, the fake carnival masks, the floods, its decline as a Mediterranean power, the bad restaurants in a place that has exquisite gastronomy – and remains as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Italo Calvino imagined in The invisible cities a dialogue in which Marco Polo recounted his travels around the world to Kublai Khan. As the days and conversations go by, the emperor discovers that there is a city that he never talks about (or perhaps he always talks about without naming it): his. “Perhaps I am afraid of Venice that I will lose it all at once if I talk about it. Or perhaps speaking of other cities I have lost it little by little ”, explains Marco Polo.

An American writer has been writing about Venice, her adopted city, for almost 30 years, not only showing its friendly and touristy face, but also the secrets that are hidden in the canals and palaces. Donna Leon (New Jersey, USA, 78 years old) created Commissioner Brunetti in 1992, when he published Death at the Fenice, the first installment of a series that has just reach 30 books with Slaves of desire (It has been edited entirely by Seix Barral). However, perhaps because he forgot Marco Polo’s advice, in the end Leon has ended up being defeated by the city.

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“About a year ago I left Venice,” explains Donna Leon in a videoconference interview. “I decided that it was impossible to live there because of the tourists, because every time I went out to buy a newspaper or some cheese or whatever, every time I left my house, it was the Ramblas at two in the afternoon on Sunday. . No. The city of today is not a place where you want to live. I go once a month for a week or two, but I no longer have an apartment. “

Donna Leon is gone, but Brunetti remains. The curator (and his family, his wife Paola and their two children, Raffi and Chiara, who are important supporting characters) has grown old, although he remains an intuitive and persistent researcher. The Venice he grew up in has been swallowed up by mass tourism. The curator knows every inch, land and water, of the city, which is a real labyrinth, and describes how it has changed over the years. However, there are some things that remain and one of them is organized crime. In one of the first books in the series, Commissioner Brunetti already came across a network of illegal trafficking in women, a theme that reappears in this installment.

The cloak of respectability

“It is something that happens in view of the whole world, but that we do not see,” explains Donna Leon. “When I was writing the book, I realized that it was a topic that I had already covered about 20 years ago. Everything was the same, except then the women came from Europe. It is something that we see, but that we do not see, although it is everywhere. It continues to exist, but everyone pretends it is not there. Nothing has changed in these years ”.

A cruise in Venice, on June 3.
A cruise in Venice, on June 3.MIGUEL MEDINA / Getty Images

As in other of his books, criminals are dyed with a layer of respectability, they are not gangsters who barely know how to write, who spend years hiding in a shack near Corleone, but people who belong to high society. “They no longer have to live that way or hide because their children go to college. They go to business school. They go to Harvard. They have risen in society because they have a lot of money. And now they are as respectable as any of our neighbors.

I decided that it was impossible to live there because of the tourists, because every time I went out to buy a newspaper or some cheese or whatever, every time I left my house, it was the Ramblas at two in the afternoon on Sunday.

Brunetti has become a more thoughtful guy, who thinks more and more before acting. He is not cynical – he still believes in justice – but the years have made him more disbelieving and also aware of his shortcomings. At one point in the book, he feels terrible (he even loses his appetite) when he realizes that he has been condescending and a bit classist with a Naples police, whom he appreciates, just for the fact that she is from the south. Like its author, she has more and more problems finding restaurants in Venice where to eat good local food and, like her creator, she is increasingly concerned with the environment, one of Donna Leon’s obsessions that are becoming increasingly relevant in her books. “I’m about to become the crazy white-haired woman who stands on the corner of the street and says to those who pass by: turn off the air conditioning, stop driving, change your life. That is the only real problem we have, ”he explains.

Donna Leon has given up Venice, but not one of her main hobbies: classical music. It financially supports the baroque orchestra Il Pomo d’Oro, which has had a very hard time because they have hardly had concerts and most of the musicians are freelance. It is something that has happened to many other musical groups in the world during the pandemic. He has missed opera very much – the first book in the series brought together his two obsessions: music and the detective novel – but he has had time to write a new book, number 31 in the series. As long as Brunetti is active, a part of Venice will survive with him.