It started out harmlessly. A friend in London knew a man who’d lived in Venice. He told her about Brunetti. Brunetti is a native Venetian. Rare, any more. A really good guy, too.
Don’t worry – my husband knows. He’s a little tired of Brunetti’s opinions, I think. But, then, I don’t care for the opinions of Brunetti’s wife. Or his insufferable daughter. In fact, as the year has gone on — 2020 being insufferable in its own right — I like Brunetti himself a little less than the first time we met. But I still like him enough to follow him around.
Just about a year ago, my old friend in London and I were comparing notes. We’ve both been travelers; it’s how we met, working on cruise ships, “when we were young and cute.” She traveled longer than I did, and to different places. She actually lived in Istanbul. I only traveled there, for example.
But I lived in Italy. And I adored Venice. From the first time I saw it, on a cold, rainy, winter morning in 1974.
When I lived in Tuscany in the 90s, I was an “illegal alien,” and since it was before the open borders of the EU, I had to leave the country periodically over the year and a half, to keep up the appearance of being a “guest.” I was working in Tuscany, milking sheep, making cheese, and catering to real tourists, but this isn’t that story.
I always went to eastern Europe, because it was close, and cheaper than Switzerland. I eventually spent 7 months there, but this isn’t that story, either. I always made it a point to go stay in Venice on at least one leg of the trip to Koper, or Budapest, or Lastavo, getting my in and out stamps in my passport. “Yes, I am a tourist. No. I can’t explain why I smell like hay.”
I’d stop at the tourist kiosk outside the train station, and they’d find me the cheapest room on the islands. Sometimes I even got a little balcony over a canal. All I wanted was to walk the streets of Venice as much as possible. It is one of the few truly timeless places — especially if you can walk those streets at night. It’s a lot like Charleston in that regard. Just a thousand years older.
I’ve even written an unfinished series of supernatural romances which take place in Venice. Who hasn’t?! The saying that something has a certain “je ne sais quoi” quality is La Serenissima in a nutshell.
But it is also a city where real people still live, in the same buildings people lived in a thousand years ago.
Guido Brunetti is a fictional police “commissario” who’s also a native Venetian, married into Venetian aristocracy. The author, Donna Leon, lived in Venice herself for over 30 years. My old friend’s friend evidently knew her casually, so his corner newstand in Venice would alert him whenever she published a new book.
Suffice it to say, it sounded like a good prospect.
Yes, I know, oh boy, do I know, that Venice has changed since my first, and even my 90s visits. When we were there in 2007, it was hard to see any locals at all. I saw no small old ladies in long skirts with their rolling carts. Not a single school child riding the vaporettos, much less groups of them. The service class seemed to be entirely Philippino, and all the pizzerias were owned by Albanians.
But the city itself is still there. And it still has its own aura. And the books are so Venetian, Leon won’t even allow them to be translated into Italian! (They are translated into every other language, though, and the Germans even made a TV series of some of them.)
So when “Death at La Fenice” turned up in paperback at the Habitat Re-Store early last December, I thought it a little providential that it was my “free” book (#10 in a store that often gives you 2 if you buy 1!) and that it turned out to be the first in the series, to boot.
By the middle of December, I had ordered the next one from Amazon.
But by early January, I had found Thriftbooks (I try not to make Jeff Bezos any richer than he already is.)
By the middle of January, I already knew about the Chinese virus from reading the Epoch Times. So escape to Venice every night was becoming more and more appealing, even if it did involve murder and duplicity.
I’ve listened to hundreds and hundreds of books. I listened to them when I painted 40 hours a week, and I listened to them while I drove all over the country to sell those paintings.
But I like to actually read the printed page, on paper. Especially at night. It is the one surefire way to get to sleep. For me. Even if I’m reading about crime and corruption. And Italy is so corrupt. And full of communists, since the time of real Bolsheviks. Still, it was an escape on many levels, and became my dopamine, selenium, whatever.
But I’d think about them, too. The next day. I’d think about the crazy crap going on this year, all over the world, and how inured the Italians are to corruption and lack of consequences, after generations of it. When you can trace the innate secretiveness and duplicity of Venetians back to their seafaring merchant and world-conquering ancestors, it can keep even a year like 2020 in some kind of perspective.
Venice as microcosm, with idiosyncrasies.
So Guido and Paola and their children, Chiara and Raffi, took me into their kitchen and their living room, and we sat on the terrace. Sometimes Paola’s patrician family opened their doors, and we sat looking over the Grand Canal.
More often though, I stood at the cafe bars with Brunetti and Vianelli, reading Il Gazzettino, and drinking coffee. I knew exactly the feeling when Brunetti said he couldn’t drink another one. Or imagined walking into the casino with Griffoni, a commissario herself, dressed to kill. I felt the coolness of the narrow alleys, and the wind off the Adriatic — especially that, having sailed up and down the other side a good bit! Definitely my kind of escape.
So, when I had read every one of the 27* — I just started again. They are extremely well-written books, much more than the mere mysteries that unfold. And this stupid year wasn’t getting any better, so….
I’m almost at the end again, and I find that I don’t like Brunetti quite as much, as a person, as I did the first time around. He’s still a really good guy, but I missed some of his flaws when I was reading for clues to the crime. I’ve never formed a very good imaginary picture of him either, though I have pictured everyone else.
But I like Signorina Elettra even more. I found her wry sense of humor more appealing, as I realized more layers to her. And Vianelli and Puccheti, and the serious EM, Rizzardi.
The second time, I also skipped a couple books that I didn’t like as much the first time, like the one where Brunetti’s wife throws a brick through the window of a travel agency that sells sexual tourism to Thailand. I understand how she feels about it, but it was just idiotic, and annoying. Childish. But she’s in love with Henry James, so, emotional outbursts…
I highly recommend Commissario Brunetti. I hope that Donna Leon has finished her newest, and that it will take place in Venice during the Great Reset. It must have been very weird back in February and March when Venetians weren’t allowed to stand at the bar to drink their coffees. It’s hard to overstate how important that is to Italians. It is not the same as sitting at a table in a coffee shop, at all.
Plus, their city was empty.
They are probably happy the cruise ships are gone, even if the big shipbuilding yard, Fincantiari, must also be closed down.
I’m sure that money loss is the only reason any of them missed the tourists, too. But, Venice, like Charleston, is inhabited by more people “from away,” now than ever before, so maybe not. When the EU made it easier to own real estate in other countries, the landrush was on. Palazzi were getting bought by rich Germans and Brits, like the Yankees knocking on the doors south of Broad. So they probably don’t need the tourists as much as the native population once did. But people still need to make a living.
Certainly retail does. And that changes. Brunetti watched as the little grocers and flower merchants give way to Chinese gondolas and masks, over the years. Maybe the shopkeepers are gone now for good, and you have to go to the mainland for groceries. It’s been almost 14 years since I saw the old belle of the Adriatic in person.
But Brunetti will always be there, so go have a coffee with him. Ask him about Patta. See what Signorina Elettra is wearing today. And what Paola is cooking for dinner. Ask about the case of wine the Conte sent over. I guarantee that once you visit with them, you’ll keep going back.
Tell them a woman in the Lowcountry sent you. The one following them through the stone streets every night. Listening in, trying to understand Vianelli’s Castello dialect.
- (The 2020 book isn’t out in paperback yet, and I want to keep my collection consistent, even if the books cost only $2 to $4 each. LOL. I’ve got another series in the wings for 2021. But I kind of hate to leave Venice, right now…)