A VENETIAN RECKONING by DONNA LEON

I had owned up here, publicly, in a review a couple of weeks ago about having only recently discovered the wonderful Commissario Brunetti series, written by the talented Donna Leon.  Having got addicted, I am now binge-reading this series of gripping detective novels, set in Venice.  Catching up on the lost years, as it were.

In “A Venetian Reckoning” Donna Leon once again enchants us with her palpable love for Venice, a city which is as much a character, a presence in these books, and every bit as essential as the humans.

We re-meet, with great pleasure, Brunett’s intellectual wife, Paola, his affectionate daughter Chitra, fast morphing in front of our eyes into an adolescent.  We reconnect with his police colleagues – dependable, faithful Vianello, Brunetti’s impossibly conceited boss Vice-Questore Patta, as well as the latter’s delightful secretary, the organised, resourceful and beautiful Signorina Elettra, who likes to fill her office with fresh flowers and who manages to dazzle Brunetti by her computer knowledge and her vast network of contacts.

Against the backdrop of Venice, in all its beauty, Ms Leon shows us yet more of the sordid underbelly of La Serenissima.  In this case, it is human trafficking and prostitution, and as Brunetti tries to solve a series of murders of some of the city’s respectable and respected citizens, he is led ever deeper into a world of exploitation and despair.

But even when he is investigating death, Venice never ceases to take Brunetti’s breath away:

”Few people were out, and those who were all seemed lifted to joy by the unexpected sun and warmth.  Who would believe that, only yesterday, the city had been wrapped in fog and the vapourers forced to use their radar for the short ride  out to the Lido?  Yet here he was, wishing for sunglasses and a lighter suit, and when he walked out to the waterside, he was momentarily blinded by the reflected light that came flashing up from the water.  Opposite him, Brunetti could see the dome and tower of SAN Giorgio – yesterday they hadn’t been there- looking as though they had somehow crept into the city.”

The Venice we see through Brunetti’s eyes is essentially the Venice of Venetians, not that of the tourist hoards.  But occasionally, tourists do cross Brunetti’s path and on the day in question, lulled by the wonderful spring weather, he feels no rancour towards the visitors who otherwise seem to irritate most native-born Venetians:

”He turned right and walked up towards the Piazza, and Brunetti found himself, to his own vast surprise, looking kindly upon the tourists who strolled past him, mouths agape and steps slowed down by wonder.  She could still knock them down, this old whore of a city, and Brunetti, her true son, protective of her in her age, felt a surge of mingled pride and delight and hoped that those people who walked by would see him and somehow know him for a Venetian and, in that, part heir to and part owner of all of this.

The pigeons, usually stupid and hateful, appeared almost charming to him as they bobbed up and down at the feet of their many admirers.  Suddenly, for no reason, hundreds of them flocked up, swirled around, and settled back right where they had been, to continue with their bobbing and pecking.”

Venice, on a warm spring morning, in all her glory, and we the reader come to love the city as much as Brunetti.

One of the wonderful things about these Brunetti novels is his family life, which is (most of the time) a welcome haven for him, to de-stress from the horrors he sees during his working day.  Sometimes, of course, family life for the good Commissario involves the same kind of negotiation and manoeuvring that dealing with his unreasonable boss does.

In this bartering session with his young teenaged daughter Chiara, Brunetti wants her to go down and buy some wine for lunch:

“But why should I go?

Because I work hard to support you all.

Mamma works, too.

Yes, but my money pays for the house and everything we buy for it.

She set her book face down on the bed. “Mamma says thats capitalistic blackmail and I don’t have to listen to you when you do it.”

“Chiara,” he said, speaking very softly, “your mother is a troublemaker, a malcontent, and an agitator.

Then how come you always tell me I have to do as she says?”

Family banter like this with his adored daughter takes on a deeper significance for Brunetti, when he later asks Chiara to help him ferret out some information for him, via one of her school friends, a decision he will bitterly regret.  In the sordid world he is investigating, where young women are being forced into prostitution, the innocence of his own child is shattered by things she learns of the world around her.

As Brunetti investigates the murders, he confronts moral and philosophical issues, such as the logic of jailing someone for theft in a country where the political class is largely assumed to be corrupt and looting the public coffers for themselves.

“Brunetti knew this mood and almost feared it, this recurring certainty of the futility of everything he did.  Why bother to put the boy who broke into a house in gaol when the man who stole billions from the health system was named ambassador to the country to which he had been sending the money for years?”

It is this grappling with the larger issues of life, being able to rise above the horrors of his job and squabble good-naturedly with his children, and his total compassion for the marginalised people he encounters in the course of his investigations, that make Guido Brunetti such a likeable detective, and a fitting hero for these wonderful books.

Oh yes.

Of course.

How could I forget?

Food.

There is always wonderful Italian food in Donna Leon’s books:

“He brought his attention back to the table, and their plates of fettuccine, glistening with the sheen of butter.  The owner came back, carrying a small truffle on a white plate in one hand, a metal grater in the other.  He bent over della Corte’s plate and shaved at the truffle, rose, and bent over Brunetti’s plate and did the same. The woody, musty odour wafted up from the still-steaming fettuccine, enveloping not only the three men, but the entire are around them.”

“A Venetian Reckoning” is every bit as enthralling as the earlier books in the series, with its skilful blending of crime, family, food and the dramatic beauty of La Serenissima.

If you  would like to read this book, it couldn’t be easier.

Here’s the link.   You all know what to do.

THE ANONYMOUS VENETIAN by Donna Leon

At times, it’s almost embarrassing how late I come to some parties.

Like the Donna Leon party.

How on earth did I miss Ms Leon’s utterly wonderful detective novels, set in Venice?  Where was I all the years that everyone else was reading and raving about Donna Leon’s wonderful writing, brilliant scene-setting and palpable love for Venice?

Luckily I have a ferociously well-read sister, who mentioned these books to me when we were all in Venice last year for her daughter’s wedding, and now I am binge-reading them.

Which is kind of wonderful as well, rather than reading and then having to wait a year…

“The Anonymous Venetian”, the 3rd in the Commissario Brunetti series brings us back into the world of this family-minded, decent Venetian detective.

We walk the streets with him, we travel along the canals by boat with him, we suffer through the stiflingly hot summer with him, somewhat relieved by chilled white wine and fresh figs.

Ms Leon loves Venice, and knows it in intimate detail, and her writing brings this stunning city to life.  The food, the markets, the regular, non touristy neighbourhoods, the under-belly –  for, sadly, every beautiful place has its less desirable side.

In this book, the under-belly involves murder and money, a fairly classic combination.

Ms Leon tells a gripping detective tale, woven through with the sights and smells and sounds of the city of Venice that is inhabited and frequented by Venetians, and not by the tourist throngs.

We can almost taste the food that Brunetti’s lovely, intelligent and long-suffering wife Paola prepares while quizzing him on the latest developments in the murder case he is investigating:

“She took some basil leaves, ran them under cold water for a moment, and chopped them into tiny pieces.  She sprinkled them on top of the tomato and mozzarella, added salt, and then poured olive oil generously over the top of everything.”

All this whilst discussing murder.

One of the many reasons that Commissario Brunetti is such a likeable man, is his compassionate nature.  Crime and exposure to violent death have not hardened him.

Here he goes to interview a suspect, and encounters the man’s bigoted “portiere” who is vulgarly voluble about his dislike of gays.

“Brunetti sighed tiredly.  Why couldn’t people learn to be more discriminating in whom they chose to hate, a bit more selective? Perhaps even a bit more intelligent?  Why not hate the Christian Democrats?  Or the Socialists? Or why not hate people who hated homosexuals?”

Amidst the murder, and attempted murder, amidst the oppressive summer heat and the depressing industrial areas of Venice that the Commissario must tramp in search of clues, there are however, moments of humour.  Brunetti calls a journalist and asks him about the self-styled title he has given himself on his answering machine.  The journalist agrees he should perhaps update his answering machine:

“It takes me forever to change the message.  So many buttons to push.  The first time I did it, I recorded myself swearing at the machine.  No one left a message for a week, until I thought the thing wasn’t working and called myself from a phone booth.   Shocking, the language the machine used.   I dashed home and changed the message immediately.  But it’s still very confusing.”

And it’s moments like that, by the way, that ever so slightly, but only ever so slightly, date the books.  But they do not impact the pleasure or the storyline whatsoever, those non existent mobile phones…not one little bit.

Another light-hearted moment (and one which struck a chord) is on the subject of the ugliest Baby Jesus search Brunetti and his wife have going:

“Then, a little to the left of the fireplace, a Madonna, clearly Florentine and probably fifteenth-century, looking adoringly down at yet another ugly baby. One of the secrets Paola and Brunetti never revealed to anyone was their decades-long search for the ugliest Christ Child in western art.  At the moment, the title was held by a particularly bilious infant in Room 13 of the Pinacoteca di Siena.  Though the baby in front of Brunetti was no beauty, Siena’s title was not at risk.”

It is this combination of a gripping plot happy, set against the backdrop of a normal family life, food, and the sheer breath-taking beauty of Venice that never ceases to astound Brunetti and through him we, the reader, that makes “The Anonymous Venetian” such a great read.

Hugely enjoyable, and I can already tell that this series is going to be completely addictive.

If you would like to buy “The Anonymous Venetian”, it couldn’t be easier.

Here you go.

THE ENGLISH SPY by Daniel Silva

Yes, indeed, I am still very immersed in the world of the master Israeli spy and assassin Gabriel Allon, and, as ever, am in awe of the amazingly topical plots and their totally unpredictable twists and turns, in the hands of the master, Daniel Silva.

Gabriel Allon and his world have been my non-stop summer reading and to my horror, I have only one book in the series left to read, and am already going into depression at the thought.  I started out in the early days of our brutal Delhi summer with Book 1, and have read them all, in order, finishing the excellent “The English Spy” just now, on a hot September afternoon here in Delhi.

I said just now that the plots are topical.  They are, of course. That goes without saying.  But Mr. Silva seems to be prescient, too, and it is this uncanny ability to have his pulse not only on the contemporary world scene but also almost see into the future, that makes his books so riveting.

“The English Spy” sees Gabriel Allon at work in Ireland, as he tries to defeat his old nemesis from earlier novels…but I really can’t tell you much more without being a complete spoil sport, so I won’t.

One of the leitmotifs that run through this totally absorbing and clever series is that of art.  Jewish Gabriel is an art restorer of world renown, one of the world’s top restorers of Christian art, often undertaking commissions directly for the Vatican and for the Catholic churches of his beloved Venice.  This unlikely pairing of violence and art, of Judaism and Catholicism, of killing and healing, is just one of the clever devices Mr. Silva uses to weave stories that draw you into them on so many different levels.

Gabriel is a hero like no other, one of fiction’s most decent, honourable men. He is modest, an Israeli who is not in the least bit religious.  A man who loves Europe and the world of churches and art and history.  A man who adores his drop-dead gorgeous wife, and who cherishes his first wife…oh dear, if anyone is reading this and doesn’t know the earlier books, I do hope I’m not spoiling things for you…

Gabriel is also, yet another contradiction in his psyche, a killer who has great compassion, as illustrated in his reaction when he sees a victim of a bomb attack:

img_7559

img_7560

Nearly all of the major characters who form Gabriel’s world make an appearance in the novel, including the wonderful Ari Shamron, who assumes almost Biblical stature in this description:

img_7609

Sad to say, Israel and Israelis are often not the world’s favourite people, and so it is refreshing to be treated to the total decency and honesty and probity of Gabriel and his team.  Speaking personally, here in India, we usually meet the aggressive young Israelis who flock to places like Ladakh and Himachal, and are, sadly, very often rude and unfriendly.  Huge generalisation, I know, I know, but there were a couple of bruising encounters with hard-eyed unsmiling Israelis in Leh last time I was there.  Sad.

So, hopefully without sounding too naive, to immerse oneself in the world of Gabriel Allon, is to restore one’s faith in a country and its people.  Everyone in Gabriel’s ambit is passionate about Israel, but without being overtly religious.  The love for their country shines through, as does their commitment to making sure the world does not forget the horrors of the Holocaust.  The sights and sounds and light of Israel, the food and the wine and the sunsets, the dangers and the fear and the constant threats are just one of the many joys of these books.  And, as I said, they restore one’s view of the country and its people.

JEFF IN VENICE, DEATH IN VARANASI by GEOFF DYER

Reading this funny, clever book about Venice and Varanasi, the two ultimate water-based dramatic, atmospheric, crumbling cities, whilst sitting in Varanasi made the whole experience that much more fun.  If not a little bizarre.

Well, to be honest, I read the Venice section in Varanasi, and the Varanasi section once I was back home in Delhi, and by then able to say “Ah yes, the Ganges View Hotel” and ” Of course, Assi Ghat,” having just visited them.

Adding to the deliciousness of it all, having literally just read the incident in the Venice section about real life African sellers of knock-off Prada handbags actually being part of an art installation, we arrived at Assi ghat on our first morning to find a Bollywood shoot in full flow.

So the question remains – were the completely OTT, utterly fabulous, wildly photogenic saddhus and holy men for real, or were they from casting central ?  Whatever the outcome, it was a suitable metaphor for this hilarious, entertaining book.

“Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi” is clever, screamingly funny in parts, with the Venice part definitely funnier than the Varanasi part.

There are two definite stories, one taking place in a dramatic, picturesque, crumbling waterside town, and the other taking place in a dramatic, picturesque, crumbling waterside town.

But are the two stories connected ?  Ah, that is for you, dear reader, to determine.

The Venice story is certainly funnier and more obviously dazzling, writing-wise. I laughed out loud several times reading the Venice part in Varanasi (oh dear, is this getting too interwoven ?)

In the Venice story we meet Jeff, a middle aged jaded, freelance writer going on what is basically a junket to the Biennale in Venice. There, he meets the gorgeous Laura who is young and beautiful and irreverent and mysterious, and they embark on a 3 day fling. Copious amounts of booze, lines of coke and mammoth –  nay epic – sex sessions are the order of the day, and then she leaves Venice, and the novella ends with Jeff alone and downcast.

Cut to the Varanasi section.

Here we see the town through the eyes of an un-named middle-aged, world weary, freelance journalist. Who may or may not be Jeff. We are never told.  But there are enough clever links and references to nudge you into thinking it may well be.

But if you don’t feel that it is Jeff, it doesn’t alter the story in the slightest.

Our narrator goes to Varanasi to write a story for a British newspaper, and just stays on.  He doesn’t make a conscious decision to stay on, just sort of drifts into it, and drifts through his life there, and towards what is possibly his death.

To my delight, when reading this second half of the book, having just watched a Bollywood movie being shot on the ghats, we see that our narrator….yes, you’ve guessed….he also watched a Bollywood movie being shot on the ghats.

So many delicious worlds within worlds.

There are lots of clever little references linking the two halves of the book, be it a dream or bananas (you’ll see why) or a lovely woman whose name begins with L.

As a fellow Brit, I loved Mr.Dyer’s acerbic observations on our country and countrymen.

Here he is describing a sour-tempered Indian shopkeeper in London :

 

 

Or Jeff”s hilarious reaction to his own somewhat unexpected use of the clipped word “Quite” :

 

 

His power of language is so sublime that a waiter, whom we meet for one fleeting second and never again, has an over-powering personality :

 

And as for this description of Venice –  well, after all that possible film within a film feeling in Varansi, with possible saddhus posing for the Bollywood cameras, this seemed to sum up perfectly the deliciously clever mood of this fun, entertaining, clever but ultimately sad book :

 

 

Published by Random House India, the Indian hardback costs Rs 395.  (I have no idea how much the Venice edition sells for…)

To buy the book, simply click on the link below. What could be simpler ?