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Donna Leon's Venice: A Tale Of Two Cities

Aug 20, 2007 (Morning Edition)

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Graffiti on the wooden doors of the old studios on the Rialto Bridge in Venice, Italy. The Rialto bridge is the oldest bridge on the Canal Grande. According to Italian media reports, the incidence of graffiti on buildings and monuments in Venice is on to rise. Donna Leon visits her neighborhood cafe. A quiet canal. Tourists crowded in St. Mark's Square. Donna Leon visits an outdoor market. Groceries are sold from a barge.

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Venice is a seductive city that has bewitched artists from all over the world. One writer who has settled in "the city on stilts" is the American author Donna Leon. The sinking Renaissance jewel is the backdrop of her "Commissario Brunetti" detective stories. Leon recently gave a visiting reporter a tour of her Venice. The story is part of a series, Crime in the City, about crime novelists and the places they and their characters inhabit.

Fifteen years ago — a decade after she made Venice her home — Donna 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.

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."

"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."

The narrow alleys and wide squares of the Cannaregio district, where Leon lives, are also the world of Commissario Guido Brunetti. Happily married to a university professor of English literature (who is also a great chef), the fictional police detective is an intellectual and reflective man who visits museums and buys out-of-print books.

"He has a kind of love-irritation relationship with the city," Leon says of her main character. "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 about anyone in the city. He leads a Venetian life. He leads a civilized, beautiful life."

It's 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.

One has quiet campielli (squares) and barges that deliver fruits and vegetables; that Venice belongs to Brunetti and its 60,000 other residents.

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 describes a "Bermuda Triangle" of San Marco-Accademia-Rialto.

"Most tourists spend the major part of their time in that triangle," she says. "That's where it's very, very unpleasant to be at almost any daylight hour, at almost any time of the year," she says.

Even during Acqua Alta — the high waters that flood Venice in the winter.

Leon laments the disappearance of shops catering to residents — those that do 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 daily invasion by an average 150,000 tourists.

While doing errands in San Bortolo, she runs into an old friend she hasn't seen in years.

In this Venice, social interaction is intense.

"You cannot walk past someone you know like this and pretend not to see them," Leon says, "unless you're willing to suffer some sort of rupture in your relationship with them."

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

"There are a lot of people here that I know that I don't know. 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."

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.

"The Italians that I know are pretty cynical about any chance of justice in this country," Leon says. "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 things are. And I think they are very realistic in accepting that."

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

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

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.

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

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

"This is the real Venice. Venetian is music to me," she says. "I always feel very strongly at home when I come back and hear veneziano on the boats."

When we part, and she walks back home, it's clear 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.

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Read Excerpts from 'Commissario Brunetti' Novels by Donna Leon

Reporter's Notebook

Food was on Sylvia Poggioli's mind when she went to Venice recently to interview Donna Leon. After all, Leon's "Commissario Brunetti" mysteries always have a few passages dedicated to the culinary specialties of the lagoon city.

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