Donna Leon's book explores another Venice, a complex city of intrigue and corruption.
Through a Glass Darkly; Donna Leon, William Heinemann, $32.95.
ASKED why she did not want to have her extremely famous novels translated into Italian, Donna Leon, does not hesitate in answering: "I don't want to be famous. I don't like being famous and I don't want to be famous where I live. I have enough. I don't care. I don't care if the books get published in America. I don't care if they get published. I'm not interested — the idea of more has no importance to me."
I happened to pick up her recent book Through a Glass Darkly on my way to Venice. Only this time, when I picked up this mystery novel, I realised that underlying this throbbing city lay a complex layer of intrigue and corruption and the idleness and stagnation of its officialdom. Donna Leon has lived in Venice for the last two decades and has located a number of her fascinating novels in its mysterious ambience. For instance, Leon does not have to conceive of the hero, Brunetti's, house; you get to actually see the site in Venice. She explains where it is located and it is pleasurable trying to find it when one is here. Comradeship and animosity exist side by side in a world as perfidious as the canals and the black gondolas that slither stealthily along the dark waterways of this antique land. Donna Leon's Uniform Justice, for instance, is a dark tale of vengeance and murder. A Venetian Reckoning (Death and Judgment) is another fine novel set in Venice. In Through a Glass Darkly, Ispettore Vanello's friend, Marco Ribetti, an engineer ideologically belonging to the green party, is arrested for taking part in the agitation against the chemical pollution of the Venetian lagoon. With the help of Commissario Guido Brunetti, he is released, but soon after a man is found dead outside a glass foundry on the island of Murano, home of Venice's legendary glass. Marco's father Giovanni De Cal, a ruthless businessman provoked by environmentalists, is suspected both by his daughter, Marco's wife and the detective Brunetti. Fortunately the inquiry becomes authorised with the discovery of the singed body of the night watchman. The Venice that surfaces in the novel metamorphosises into the antithesis of a romantic tourist city, mysterious and violent where it is hard to decide if politics and practicality will ever allow justice to prevail.
Politics and culture
Brunetti's inquisitiveness is goaded by these proceedings, which compel him to get to the bottom of the mystery. A hint left near the dead man body in his annotated copy of Dante's Inferno might have the answer to the killer's identity and that of the culprit who contaminates the lagoon. Politics and culture juxtapose to unravel a world of tourism and the seething violence and corruption subterraneously and silently hovering in the air. The novel takes on the complexion of a political commentary as well as a tract on conviction and commitment. And more than anything, it leads to the recognition that there is truly no justice anywhere. As Leon explains in a recent interview: "I don't think it is peculiar to Italy. At least in Italy, people have no illusions about it. They know that all politicians are corrupt; they know that all institutions are corrupt and they never pretend that they are any thing but that. Italians know about human nature — they understand human nature perhaps better than anyone else does. They know that people are weak and greedy and lazy and dishonest and they just try to make the best of it; to work around it."