Donna Leon on Venice's Dark Future

Posted on 6th April 2017 by Martha Greengrass

'The books will probably continue to grow darker in tone as the city, like a bee being sucked dry by Varroa mites, is drained of its remaining life.'

As Donna Leon publishes the 26th novel in her bestselling Venetian crime series, Earthly Remains, she paints a bitterly vivid picture of a city and a people under threat of extinction.
Photo: Venice at Night - juniorbonnerphotography

The darkening tone of the recent Brunetti novels has been called to my attention by some readers of the books.  Well, yes, but the books are set in Venice, aren’t they?  What do they expect: optimism that the tourists will stop coming?  Or that they’ll come in much reduced numbers and somehow manage to leave more money?  That the city government will change faith and begin to worship at the shrine of Ecology rather than at that of Mammon?  Or that the heavens will part, and Michelangelo’s extended, pointing hand will come down through the clouds again, touch the MOSE project, currently listed as a more than seven billion Euro boondoggle, and transmute it into a thriving, well-run project that will indeed prevent the waters of the Laguna from engulfing the city?

Until that point, the books will probably continue to grow darker in tone as the city, like a bee being sucked dry by Varroa mites, is drained of its remaining life. Brunetti was born in Venice: I was not.  He still lives there: I don’t, at least not more than a week a month, and not during the summer, when the numerical odds are stacked against the pursuit of normal life, and it becomes far more pleasant to walk in the Swiss Alps than to push one’s way through the migrating wildebeests.

For a person unwilling to become a troglodyte or those without afflictions that forbid their being out of doors during the hours of daylight, the city is, for much of the year, unbearable.  Livable, of course, but unbearable during the day. Two numbers have slipped into current use, unnoticed by me, ever busy gazing at the stars in childlike unconcern.  There used to be six billion people on the earth, but now it’s seven.  When did that happen: how’d they slip that one past us?

And there used to be general agreement (arrived at, one knew not by which means) that thirty million tourists visited Venice each year.  But now they’re talking – the people who talk – about thirty-three million.  This is in a city of 58,000 residents.  (Morelli Pharmacy in Campo San Bortolo has the official number registered at the city’s Ufficio Anagrafo displayed in their left window.)

Find an apartment to rent or buy: try to remain in the city where your parents lived and your grandparents are buried.  Do this in a city where there is no official number of the apartments being used as bed and breakfasts - a word that now exists in Italian - and where the average rent of a two bedroom apartment is more than the average Italian takes home in a month.  Find a job in something other than the tourist industry.  (The daughter of a friend of mine, with a degree in industrial chemistry, is currently working as an apprentice in a chemical laboratory: after taxes, she earns two Euros an hour.)  

The nine-tiered cruise ships come and go up and down the Giudecca Canal: windows tremble and cracks open up in the walls of the houses lining the canal.  The city administration insists that the ships do no damage.  Black clouds rise from their smokestacks, and the citizens are assured their motors are off when they enter and leave.  Their immense hulls shove through the waters, and the same elected protectors proclaim that the laws of physics have been suspended and no water is displaced to crash against the sides of the canal.

Venice, however, does have a future.  There are still more bakeries that can be turned into restaurants, more shops selling tools and paint that can make way for made-in-China masks, more public buildings that can be converted into seven-star hotels.  The declining population will surely lead to the closing of schools, so they can be sold off, too.  

Brunetti, as well as most of my friends, grew up in a vastly different city.  They swam in the canals, had fathers who worked in the city, knew they would grow up and have jobs in the city and watch their kids swim in the canals.  But there are no more jobs, and you’d be mad to swim in a canal.  Thus it is the Brunetti’s vision has grown darker as he has grown older and watched the city he loves be transformed into an entertainment center and an outdoor shopping mall, filled with non-Venetians, selling things of interest only to non-Venetians, and made by non-Venetian hands. The books are likely to follow him on this trajectory.

Donna Leon - 2008 - Copyright © Regine Mosimann - Diogenes Verlag AG Zürich


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Article is exactly right! My wife spent a fabulous few days in Venice last year enjoying all the great aspects of the city but that article reflects all we heard when we managed to speak to people who actually lived there - and who feared for their own futures and those of their children. It was clear that one day there would be no inhabitants of the city, just tour guides and police who "opened up the theme park" every morning . . . So beautiful, so sad! View more

25th April 2017
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