By Ian G. Wilson
The titles of Donna Leon’s books are always evocative, but her latest mystery, The Waters of Eternal Youth, has a particularly fascinating one. Nothing in the novel points to a Fountain of Youth, where drinking replenishes one’s physical beauty. The waters here are those of a Venetian canal, out of which the victim, Manuela, was pulled, on the point of death, fifteen years ago. Now thirty, she is indeed beautiful, but she was oxygen deprived for so long that she was left with the mind of a child of seven. So Leon’s title is not a comment on bodily regeneration, but on the devastating effects of near drowning.
The book, the twenty-fifth installment of Leon’s popular Commissario Guido Brunetti series, follows up the question of whether Manuela was pushed or merely fell into the canal. Her grandmother thinks that she can’t have fallen as the girl had a profound phobia of water and took elaborate precautions to avoid going near it. The only witness to the event, though, is the drunken man who dived in and saved her, and he appears to have no clear memory of the incident. So, much of the story concerns the search for evidence and follows Brunetti and his fellow-detective, Claudia Griffoni, as they check old hospital records, interview people who know Manuela, and visit the horse farm where the girl used to ride. There seems little hope of a resolution until Manuela’s habitually intoxicated rescuer turns up with his throat slashed open.
Venice, the setting of Leon’s novel, is well known as a center of tourism, fine art, cuisine, and architecture. Many know of its history as a republic when it held a virtual monopoly on silk, spices, and salt coming from the east. There were hard times, too: episodes of the plague, occupation by Napoleon and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and gradual subsidence into the lagoon leaving the city vulnerable to high tides. Despite this, the city retains a mystique, with its green canals and narrow stone streets, its beautiful palazzi and churches, and its famous bridges and gondolas.
Then there is the unromantic Venice. The city where tourist traffic can be so heavy that movement in the streets is hampered, where massive cruise liners mar the views, where housing prices are so high that young Venetians are being driven out of the town in favor of wealthy foreigners, and where petrochemical pollution from the other cities around the lagoon is poisoning the seafood and choking the air.
Leon’s Brunetti mysteries are an exploration of both the good and the bad sides of Venice. Her protagonist, a clever police detective with a literary taste for ancient Greek historians, is a native Venetian, the son of a fisherman. He grew up in the town and knows it intimately, being able to find residences and businesses strictly from local landmarks (house numbering in Venice is evidently so complex as to render it practically useless) and having the timetables for the vaporetti (water buses) in his head. He recognizes the trials that the city faces and yet seems to have no desire to live anywhere else. He is an old-style police worker, who would prefer to question people in a bar over lunch than use e-mail or cell phones, and though, over time, he has come to recognize the value of computers, he prefers to leave the technological ferreting to his superior’s secretary, the redoubtable Signorina Elettra.
Brunetti is not one to keep his investigations to himself. His wife, Paola, is his confidante, and her insights often supply him with the fresh perspective he needs. He is devoted to his family, and descriptions of their conversations around the dinner table appear in all of Leon’s work. Through them, we see a picture of what it is to live in this remarkable city of Venice, the day to day life of children accosted by panhandlers as they come out of school, the purchase of fresh fish and vegetables at the local market, the inanity of Venetian television and the pettiness of the local newspapers, and the frequent inconvenience of acqua alta when the streets are covered by water at high tide.
Readers also see how an outsider views Venice in the person of Griffoni. She is Neapolitan and was transferred to Venice. She remains surprised by the relative lack of severity of the crimes, baffled by the Veneziano language which remains in use among many of the city’s natives, and mystified by Brunetti’s ability to find his way around a city that seems to have grown up organically without any particular order to where things were built or streets laid out. She says of her new home:
“’Other times I see how strange it all is. Everyone in my building is very friendly if we meet on the stairs, but no one’s invited me into their home, not even for a coffee, and I’ve been there for several years. The young people call me tu, but the old ones never will. I find the food insipid. I’ve almost died from every one of the pizzas I’ve tried to eat here. And I know the sun is going to disappear in two months and we won’t see it again until March, except for a one-week break in January, usually about the end of the first week.’”
It is hard to say whether Donna Leon herself is on the inside or the outside. Born in New Jersey, she lived in Venice for thirty years, and now spends most of her time in a little village in Switzerland. Though clearly a foreigner, thirty years’ time in a city is plenty of opportunity to get to know it intimately. She writes her books in English and they are translated into many different languages, but not Italian, at her own request. Why this is, I’m not sure, as her works are enormously popular in many countries. It is true that not all of what she has to say about her adopted city is favorable—some indeed is downright cynical—corruption of public officials is taken for granted by her characters, for example. Indeed, one of her subplots in The Waters of Eternal Youth has to do with Lieutenant Scarpa’s attempts to illicitly undermine his superiors’ authority. Scarpa, Brunetti’s nemesis in many of the books, is the stereotypical “bad cop,” mean-spirited, brutal, egotistical, and unethical. That his name is similar to Scarpia, the villainous policeman in Puccini’s Tosca is probably no accident, as Leon is a noted opera fan.
I’ve read the Brunetti series for years and have become a fan of Leon’s work over that time. Though she is not a particularly “literary” writer, tending to eschew figurative language, nonlinear plots, and other devices that often are associated with that genre, she is an intelligent one who has a good command of dialog, character, and description, which is certainly necessary for a successful series in a setting as rich as Venice. As an example of her unornamented prose, take a look at this description of the dead man’s apartment. There is nothing particularly flowery here, but her words nonetheless develop a strong picture:
“It smelled of cigarettes, of decades, of eternities of the presence of a heavy smoker. It was a small room. Sofa, low table, facing them a television, all part of a shrine to the flat-faced god. This one was as enormous as it was old. As deep as it was wide, it was turned low but was still audible and was currently giving a blonde young woman in a pink angora sweater the chance to look adoringly at an elderly man in an expensive suit who sat opposite her as he lectured her never-dimming smile.”
Readers who are not familiar with Leon’s titles may be a little confused by some of the recurring characters as they are not always introduced with a lot of background; there is some assumption that one has read at least a few of the other books in the series. Nonetheless, I would have no hesitation in recommending The Waters of Eternal Youth to those who like a well told, clever mystery that tugs at the heart strings.
The Waters of Eternal Youth was published in 2016 by Atlantic Monthly Press and is available now at Greenville Public Library, both in print form and as an audiobook.