A Tale Of Two Cities: Donna Leon's Venice

Jul 13, 2012
Originally published on July 17, 2012 10:18 am



MORNING EDITION's Crime in the City series takes us, next, to one of the most distinctive cities in the world. Venice is all but a city at sea, built on islands in a lagoon crosshatched with canals with buildings so low that sometimes high water flows right in the doors. It's a city that inspires writers and artists, including the American author Donna Leon. Venice is the backdrop of her "Commissario Brunetti" detective stories. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has this encore presentation from our series.


SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Fifteen years ago - a decade after she made Venice her home - Leon began killing people. In Leon's Venice, the violence usually occurs at dawn. The first victim was in the dressing room of the opera house, La Fenice.


POGGIOLI: While the body of the second victim floated face down in the murky water of the canal. Close by, the bells of the church chimed four in the morning.

DONNA LEON: (Reading) These were the hours when, for Brunetti, the city became most beautiful, just as they were the same hours when he, Venetian to the bone, sensed some of her past glory.

POGGIOLI: Donna Leon reads the passage at her neighborhood cafe. The narrow alleys and wide squares of Cannaregio are also the world of Commissario Guido Brunetti. Happily married to a university professor of English literature, who's also a great chef, the fictional police detective is an intellectual and reflective man who visits museums and buys out-of-print books.

LEON: He has a kind of love-irritation relationship with the city. His family's been here ever since ever since ever since ever. He knows the city. He has it imprinted in his head. He knows who to ask to find out about anyone in the city. He leads a Venetian life. He leads a civilized, beautiful life.

POGGIOLI: The same life Leon leads. She sought refuge in the city of canals and bridges after having taught English literature in Iran, China and Saudi Arabia. Translated into 20 languages, her books are international best sellers. There's even a German "Commissario Brunetti" TV series. Leon stresses there are two separate Venices. The one with the quiet campielli and barges that deliver fruits and vegetables that belongs to Brunetti and the 60,000 residents.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (speaking in foreign language)

POGGIOLI: The other Venice is filled with the booming voices of tour guides with microphones and attracts up to 20 million tourists a year. Leon agrees with Henry James' observation more than a century ago, that in Venice, there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.

LEON: There's the Bermuda Triangle of San Marco, Accademia, Rialto. Most tourists spend the major part of their time in that triangle. That's where it's very, very unpleasant to be at almost any daylight hour, at almost any time of the year.

POGGIOLI: Even during Acqua Alta, the high waters that flood Venice in the winter. Leon laments the disappearance of shops catering to residents - shoe repair, zippers and buttons. And she feels the steady encroachment of their replacements - top-name designers like Dolce Gabbana and Prada, and shops selling tourist kitsch - plastic gondolas, jester hats and masks made in Taiwan.

The creator of "Commissario Brunetti" sticks closely to the outskirts of the triangle, shunning its average daily invasion by 150,000 tourists. Here, she's doing errands in San Bortolo.

LEON: Luca(ph). An old friend that I haven't seen for years.

POGGIOLI: In this Venice, social interaction is intense.

LEON: You can drive past someone you know and pretend you're looking at the traffic light or pretend you're adjusting something on the radio in your car. You cannot walk past someone you know like this and pretend not to see them, unless you're willing to suffer some sort of rupture in your relationship with them.

POGGIOLI: In a city where everyone walks, there are very few secrets.

LEON: There are a lot of people here that I know that I don't know, but I've seen them get older. I've them seen marry. I've seen them re-marry. I've seen them break legs, and then watched them walk again a year later. So many of these people I do know, but I don't know who they are.

POGGIOLI: These ordinary Venetians populate Brunetti's world. Leon devours Italian newspapers and fills her books with serious topical issues: a toxic waste cover-up, industrial pollution, the sex slave trade, illegal adoptions, blood diamonds and corruption in the Catholic Church.

The plots reflect her scorn for officialdom, and often end ambiguously, with the guilty not brought to justice. She says this also reflects the society in which she lives.

LEON: The Italians that I know are pretty cynical about any chance of justice in this country. People in other countries are surprised when people do bad things and get away with it. Italians aren't surprised at all. This is the way -this is the way things are. And they are, I think, are very realistic in accepting that.

POGGIOLI: Another characteristic of her adopted society, she says, is that this is a country without footnotes.

LEON: A story begins, and it always passes from the subjunctive to the declarative. And Italians don't seem to care about making a fine distinction between that which is speculation and that which is fact.

POGGIOLI: In her first book, "Death at La Fenice," Leon describes Venice as a provincial town where gossip was the real cult and where - had it not been at least a nominally Christian city - the reigning deity would surely have been rumor. Leon's books have brought her fame and wealth, but she insists they'll never be translated here in Italy during her lifetime.

LEON: I do not take any pleasure whatsoever in being a famous person. The tenor of my life would change if these books were translated into Italian, because I'm completely anonymous here.


POGGIOLI: At the outdoor market at the foot of the Rialto, the woman known only as a longtime American resident is warmly greeted in the local dialect.

LEON: This is real Venice. Venetian is music to me. I always feel very strongly at home when I come back after a trip and hear veneziano on the boats.


POGGIOLI: When we part, and she walks back home, it's clear Donna Leon has the seaman's gait that Brunetti and all Venetians have - a gait acquired with the knowledge of centuries that the ground may be sinking below their feet. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And we're keeping this series afloat all summer long. On Monday we'll visit Providence, Rhode Island, where the crime writing of author Bruce DeSilva draws on his former life as a reporter.

BRUCE DESILVA: Logan's job is to uncover corruption but he sees nothing wrong with, or even inconsistent with, placing a bet with his bookie or paying a small bribe to keep his decrepit car on the road.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renée Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.