Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Donna Leon: Wilful Behavior

You think Donna Leon is writing about one thing, and then you discover it is about something else entirely. It seems to happen often in that line of work – you see the same thing on Law and Order, and Cold Case, and The Wire – what initially seems like a straightforward crime had depths and switch-backs unfathomable from the initial crime scene.

In Wilful Behavior, Paula, Brunetti’s wife, has just about had it with her university level students. They have no yearning for knowledge and insight, they are rife with materialism, she is feeling burned out and cynical. One student, who bucks the trend, comes to talk with her, and then Brunetti about the possibility of a post-mortem clearing of a person’s name, but she won’t give the name of the person or the crime that person committed. Before Commissario Brunetti has begun to plumb these depths – the student is murdered.

It’s always depressing when a young person dies. You can’t help but think of how treasured they were, how full of potential, and all that is gone now, wasted. A light in the world has gone out, and you grieve for how brightly that light might have shown. Brunetti and his wife only knew the murdered girl briefly, but her murder strikes them deeply.

Here is an excerpt from Brunetti’s discussion with the student before she was killed:

“I didn’t know young people even knew who Il Duce was.” Brunetti said, exaggerating, but not by much, and mindful of the almost total amnesia he had discovered in the minds of anyone, of whatever age, with whom he had attempted to discuss the war or its causes. Or worse, the sort of cock-eyed, retouched history that protrayed the friendly, generously disposed Italians led astray by their wicked Teutonic neighbors to the north.

The girl’s voice drew him back from these reflections. “Most of them don’t. This is old people I’m talking about. You’d think they’d know or remember what things were like then, what he was like.” She shook her head in another sign of exasperation. “But no, all I hear is that nonsense about the trains being on time and no trouble from the Mafia and how happy the Ethiopians were to see our brave soldiers.” She paused as if assessing just how far to go with this conservatively dressed man with the kind eyes; whatever she saw seemed to reassure her, for she continued. “Our brave soldiers come with their poison gas and machine guns to show them the wonders of Fascism.”

So young and yet so cynical, he thought, and how tired she must be already of having people point this out to her. “I’m surprised you aren’t enrolled in the history faculty,” he said.

“Oh, I was, for a year. But I couldn’t stand it, all the lies and dishonest books and the refusal to take a stand about anything that’s happened in the last hundred years.”

“And so?”

“I changed to English Literature. The worst they can do is make us listen to all their idiotic theories about the meaning of literature or whether the text exists or not.” Hearing her, Brunetti had the strange sensation of listening to Paula in one of her wilder moments. “But they can’t change the texts themselves. It’s not like what the people in power do when they remove embarassing documents from the State Archives. They can’t do that to Dante or Manzoni, can they?” she asked speculatively, a question that really asked for an answer.

“No,” Brunetti agreed. “But is suspect that’s only because there are standard editions of the basic texts. Otherwise, I’m sure they’d try, if they thought they could get away with it.” He saw that he had her interest, so he added, “I’ve always been afraid of people in possession of what they believe is the truth. They’ll do anything to see that the facts are changed and whipped into shape to agree with it.”

And, as it turns out, in the persistent corruption of Venetian bureaucracy, that is exactly what this murder is all about – the theft and possession of art during WWII, and how the ramifications are still trickling down today. How people are willing to kill to keep the past safely in the past, and to hang on to their treasured and priceless possessions.

Donna Leon continues to be one of my favorites because she is never formulaic – she has ISSUES, and she uses her Brunetti novels to educate her readers. As we become educated, we continue to experience Venice through all the senses, the smell of the veal cooking for dinner, the taste of the tiny espressos in the corner cafe meeting places, the gruesome murder sites, the sound of the waves in the canals, whipped up by the prevailing winds . . .you read Donna Leon, you become Venetian.


September 22, 2007 - Posted by | Arts & Handicrafts, Books, Detective/Mystery, Fiction, Political Issues, Social Issues, Venice

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