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Book Review: Acqua Alta by Donna Leon

The water is rising in one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Dark, cold and contaminated, they engulf palazzos and storied statues. This is a beautiful city that is difficult to live in; this we learn from Commissario Brunetti in another mystery set in Venice. We also get a lesson in art forgeries, Chinese porcelains and the diversity of lifestyles of the international set.

Recently I reviewed an earlier Brunetti mystery. I was intrigued by the process of writing formula mysteries, as well as liking the book. Here the book takes precedence as I settle into the comfort of characters already known to me, who I like and who will only become better known.

The American-born Donna Leon, who now lives in Venice, provides yet another pleasant ride into danger with the good Commissario Brunetti on the trail of art forgers and collectors and in the company of a hostile lesbian opera star and her “significant other”. (There lies a lame euphemism for lover or companion.) The inspector appears to have had previous relationships with them and tensions bounce off the walls as he begins to unravel both the mystery and a web of chicanery in the art world.

Throughout the mystery and the human drama we learn more about the life of Venice, of modern Italy and of the international art world. Italy may be even more corrupt than Mexico, difficult as that may be to accept. It is, however, the home of the Mafia, the Cosa Nostra. Violent battles have engulfed the country in its fight against organized crime. The facts, as Ms. Leon presents them, may also include (like Mexico) the widespread, cultural acceptance of corruption and crime as a part of the daily life of society. It is a level of corruption tacitly acceptable to the population that is difficult for others to understand. It is not, as in America, the dark sides of people who are the exceptions and whose actions may lead them to be found out by the forces of honesty and goodness (enter a Frank Capra movie or a western where the sheriff finally prevails over the bad guys).

In Italy the day-to-day presence of corruption is shown most vividly in the scene where the art expert, who has been beaten badly by unknown men, draws Inspector Brunetti to the hospital to visit her bedside.

A nurse with a pile of sheets in her arms came into the room without knocking and asked him to leave while she bathed the patient and changed the linen. Obviously, Signora Pettelli had been at work on the hospital staff seeing that the little envelopes, bustarelle, were delivered into the proper hands. In the absence of those ‘gifts,’ even the most basic services wouldn’t be performed for patients in this hospital, and even in their presence, it often fell to the family to feed and bathe the patient.

Throughout Acqua Alta (High Water) the waters of Venice are rising from the combined forces of season, storm and tides. The streets are falling prey to the waters and plans, even plans for police work and rescues, are made around the rising waters. The neighborhoods that are being inundated, the routes and schedules elaborately planned to avoid them and living in a city where gondolas, speedboats, and water taxis are the reality of the work day world makes the exotic more real.

This is the feeling we get for Venice in the Leon series. It is a real city with real neighborhoods and jobs and relationships. It has its own character above and beyond the character of the tourist-flooded world heritage city. To the people who live there it may be of equal or greater beauty but it is also made of dark, cold flood waters, corrupt business and government practices and the innumerable, petty problems of life.

Living on the shore of a Mexican lagoon of great beauty in a Mayan village, we would appear to live in paradise. It is, to the visitor, an exotic, Caribbean destination. To us it is home. To the tourist a cheerful, happy land of Margaritas and lazy days in a hammock. To us it is a known place of dangers and unending corruption, of food shopping and visits to the new mall.

From Donna Leon the most exotic city in the world is shown from the point of view of the people who live there. The workings of the office heating system, the schedules of water taxis and the rising waters can take precedence over the beauty of the great squares, palaces and museums.

At times, Brunetti felt that Venice had been turned into a whore forced to choose between different johns: first the city was offered a face from a Phoenician glass earring, saw the poster reproduced a thousand times, then that was quickly replaced by a portrait by Titian, which in turn was driven out by Andy Warhol, himself then quickly banished by a Celtic silver deer as the museums covered every available surface of the city and vied endlessly for the attention and box-office receipts of the passing tourists. What would come next, he wondered, Leonardo T-shirts? No, they already had them in Florence. He’d seen enough posters for art shows to last a lifetime in hell.

It is pleasant to journey off to Venice with the inspector, his sidekick, and bright, gentle wife and learn about tourists waltzing by in shorts and ice cream cones. My little Mayan village is being over-run suddenly by bus-loads of cruise ship passengers, Mexican vacationers and confident, American families walking down the center of the street slurping ice cream cones. It is pleasant to stop for a visit with the Dottore solve some mysteries, see some action and danger and learn what life would be like if we lived someplace really exotic.

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