Sunday, April 12, 2009

Brunetti 18

Malcolm's year is marked by certain inevitabilities, far more significant than most birthdays (including his own) or public holidays.

One such is the annual delight of a new Donna Leon. Now, Malcolm had to postpone his reading of About Face until he had completed Pynchon's Against the Day (for the "plot" of which, three weeks and 1100 pages later, he is little the wiser).

First things first: a book deserves to be well-presented; and Heinemann does just that. The dust-jackets for this sequence (as published in the UK) consistently achieve an atmospheric moodiness. These books are a delight to have, even on the shelf.

Inside the cover we expect, and get, the line map of Venice that we may plot Brunetti's movements:
He loved the campo, had loved it since he was a boy, for its trees and its sense of openness: SS Giovanni e Paolo was too small, the statue in the way, and soccer balls were prone to end in the canal; Santa Margharita was oddly shaped, and he'd always found it too noisy, even more so now that it had become so fashionable. Perhaps it was the lack of commercialization that made him love Campo San Polo, for only two sides of it held shops, the others having resisted the lure of Mammon. The church, of course, had succumbed and now charged people to enter, having discovered that beauty brought more income than grace. Not that there was all that much to see inside: a few Tintorettos, those Tiepolo Stations of the Cross, bit of this and that.

Relish that: a few Tintorettos ... bit of this and that. Wow! or as Alexander Pope said, more felicitously than Malcolm's gasped apostrophe:
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.

Beyond that lies the real mystery: is this a mystery story, a 'teccie, at all? Is not Leon something more than another writer of formulaic crime novels?

On one level, Leon is individual, but predictable. She keeps faith with the genre, while subtly subverting those conventions. The last-but-one chapter shoot-out happens -- but Brunetti is not a direct participant therein. There is no gathering of suspects in the drawing room (though, in this case, the genteel moment of disclosure happens -- but it is an obverse of the Dame Agatha variety). Brunetti rarely breaks sweat as he grinds towards his solution, which -- as is Leon's predictable dénouement -- is an unsatisfactory compromise with the Italian bureaucracies and entrenched interests. In About Face, no arrests and arraignments take place. Loose ends are, as in real life, left untied. In the end, Malcolm heard the echo of Prince Escalus, concluding Romeo and Juliet:
all are punish'd.

Yet, therein lies the satisfaction for Malcolm. Leon uses the Italian stereotypes (corruption, bureaucracy, procrastination) to point universal lessons. In About Face (another of her poignant and telling titles) we have the "EcoMafia". Any visitor to Venice will recognise the context and have an instant appreciation: inland from La Serenissima, the Queen of the Adriatic, loom the smoke-stacks and effluent (and, in a westerly breeze) the smells of Marghera:
The shipbuilding works and the petrochemical and other factories littering the landscape of Marghera had exercised a fascination over Brunetti's imagination ever since he was a boy ... for some years his father kept in contact with some of his fellow workers from the factory. Brunetti could still remember these men and their stories of work and each other, their rough good humour, their jokes, and their endless patience with his volatile father. Cancer had taken them all, as it had, over the years, taken so many of the people who worked in the other factories that sprang up on the edge of the laguna, with its welcoming and oh-so-unprotected waters.

Brunetti deals with the nastinesses and obscenities of life; yet he rises above them. He has his professorial wife, Paolo, with her Henry James specialism. His children grow organically with each episode in his continuing career. Paolo is the last of the Falier dynasty:
"... my father has the ichor of capitalism flowing in his veins, Guido. Because, for hundreds of years, to be a Falier has been to be a merchant, and to be a merchant is to make money."
"This," Brunetti observed, "from a professor of literature who maintains she has no interest in money."
"That's because I'm the end of the line, Guido. I'm the last person in our family who will carry the name: our children have yours." Her steps slowed, as did her voice, but she did not stop, "My father has made money all his life, thus permitting me, and our children, the luxury of not having to take an interest in making it."

This is not just a convenient conceit, allowing Brunetti to move, chapter-by-chapter, between a palazzo on the Grand Canal and industrial squalor. It allows Leon, without being didactic, to debate a changing society, the end of the era, as Venice slips into the mud from which those generations of merchants lifted her. And words like "ichor" make sense only through Brunetti's own cultured interests (in this book, he has been re-reading Cicero).

We make our regular passing acquaintance in About Face with the expected supporting characters: apart from Brunetti's own family, there are the bovine Patta, his superior, and the all-competent enigma of Signorina Elettra, whose introduction this time is the novel's introductory nudge-in-the-ribs:
To enter Signorina Elettra's office was to be reminded that it was Tuesday. An enormous vase of pink French tulips stood on a desk in front of her window. The computer which she had allowed a generous and grateful Questura to supply her with some months before -- consisting of nothing more than an anorexic screen and a black keyboard -- left ample room on her desk for an equally large bouquet of white roses. The coloured wrapping lay neatly folded in the bin used only for paper, and woe to the member of staff who forgot and stuffed paper carelessly in the regular garbage.

One appreciates that even better at a second reading: one of the threads, the wastefulness of the consumer society, is put later into the mouth of the Conte, Brunetti's father-in-law:
"... all those things I was just talking about that we don't want any more: telefonini, computers, fax machines, answering machines ... Most desirable model one year; the next year, useless junk.

"That's the secret, Guido: new model one year, junk the next. Because there are so many of us and because we consume so much junk and throw away so much junk, someone has to be around and pick it up and dispose of it for us."

With that, Donna Leon has made each and every one of us complicit in the greater crimes that are solved, and unresolved -- because in our economy they are beyond any remedy that is publicly-acceptable.

For that reason, Malcolm regards this as something more, something greater than just another well-plotted mystery. And why he hopes to meet a successor, number nineteen, this time next year. Sphere: Related Content


Dewi Harries said...

Zen I like for Italian detectives.....but no one beats Arkady Renko...Poirot eat your heart out...

Malcolm Redfellow said...

Alas: Aurelio Zen, never no more. That used to be a regular alternate-Autumns. Funnily enough, I never took to Dibden's other books quite so readily.

After Brunetti I'm onto Andrew Martin's new "Jim Stringer" story. Hope I can't tell this book by its cover: not up to the scratch of the previous ones in the series.

The bad news is there's no Sansom [Shardlake series, or a Winter in Madrid] in sight, and the next Jasper fforde's promised for 2010.

What's a girl to do?

Sigh.... It's back to the history stuff, I suppose.

Dewi Harries said...

Strange - I didn't quite get Winter in Madrid....for the hardcore Hieronymus Bosch good value...the moral voice of LA. ..Anyway 4 months 2 letters - get weaving mun Malcolm!

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