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Friday, May 18, 2012 1:35 PM
Even if you’ve never dreamed of being a writer, you can’t deny that American novelist Donna Leon has an enviable existence: born and raised in the US state of New Jersey, she moved 25 years ago to Venice, the tourist-swarmed city where she has since written and set each installment of her incomparable Commissario Guido Brunetti series.
In Beastly Things, the 21st Brunetti novel, Leon points her pen with customary adroitness at a variety of themes, from infidelity to 21st-century agribusiness and the ramifications of the crushed Italian economy.
And her astonishingly elegant prose can turn even a description of a corpse into a thing of beauty. Brunetti first observes the body on the pathologist’s table, where it has been brought after being fished from Venice’s watery depths. The clinical manner of the as-yet-unidentified man’s killing – after being stabbed three times, he was flung into a canal to bleed out through a severed major artery – is less informative, from the investigators’ point of view, than the strange disfigurement of his upper body. His torso and neck are grossly inflated by fat deposits caused by the rare Madelung’s disease, creating a barrel-like appearance.
This odd physique triggers Brunetti’s visual memory; the man had been present during a farmers’ protest on the autostrada the previous year, though he was not one of the objectors. That detail, and the expensive shoes sported by the corpse, cinch the identification of one Doctor Andrea Nava, a local veterinarian who was moonlighting as an inspector at a macello (slaughterhouse) outside of Venice.
Though we never meet Nava in life, he’s one of the novel’s most affecting characters. Described by those who saw him shortly before his death as “sad” and “worried”, and suffering for the mistakes he made in his marriage, he floats around the edges of the narrative like a spectre, and though Brunetti is far too experienced to fall prey to sentimentality, there is something in his determination to solve the crime that goes beyond the purely professional.
The other compelling – if inscrutable – character is Venice herself, dogged by corruption and unprotected from the eurozone’s economic quagmire. The endless influx of tourists offers a fiscal boost, but also constitutes a constant re-colonization that is bemoaned by Venetians as constantly as traffic and property prices are by Aucklanders. That crime isn’t on the rise is due more to luck than good management. A policeman who meets with success in combating crime, particularly of a Mafia-related type, will shortly find himself handling cases of public drunkenness in a small town.
Through Leon’s lens we see what these problems can mean for everyday Italians, especially the younger population who, no matter how intelligent, well-educated and ambitious, cannot seek out jobs that don’t exist (Brunetti shakes his head at one pursuing a degree in art administration). All the while, the government is cooking the books to disguise the true rate of unemployment.
Leon’s storytelling is so satisfying in part because she respects her reader’s intelligence, and because she knows what makes Brunetti so mesmerizing. Thus, she shows us nearly as much of his private life as his professional tasks. Once again, with a death in Venice, the commissario and his creator triumph.
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