Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Donna Leon, Through a Glass Darkly

I've just heard, rather than read, Donna Leon's fairly recent Through a Glass Darkly, her novel of the Murano glass factories near Venice. I've always done better with adaptations of Leon's novels, particularly the entertaining German television versions (though it's a bit strange to hear Commissario Brunetti et. al. speaking German). I enjoyed the audio version of Through a Glass Darkly, in any case, more than others of Leon's novels I've read or heard. I've never been sure what it is about Leon's novels that I've found irritating, but this audio version helped me clarify my problem. Her narrative is curiously static, a series of "blackouts," staged encounters among the characters involved in the mystery and in Brunetti's conflicted relationships with his superiors and bureaucrats in general. These encounters move the story forward, but within each set-piece, not much happens except for conversation that is more or less indirect in relation to the murder at the center of the story. This method works very well to edge the reader toward Leon's famous inconclusive endings (her murderers rarely seem to go to jail, protected by family, by conspiracies of silence, and by the powers that be in Venice). But the novels are hardly thrillers, and there's frequently not much going on. In the case of Through the Glass Darkly, a lot of these scenes are quite funny, in satirical and ironic dialogues that Brunetti has with his wife, with the estimable Signorina Elettra, with his boss the Vice Questore, and with various workers and their families on the island of Murano. There are also, of course, numerous grotesqueries regarding the murder, but curiously, a gruesome death draws little comic interplay among the presumably hardened cops--most of whom flee the scene retching. In an American novel or movie, there would have been much banter regarding "crispy critters," or some such. Perhaps the Venetian police are less hard-hearted. In any case, the story concerns pollution from both large and small industry, as well as the environmental and human disasters that flow from them--a large subject brought down to very human specifics in this novel. All in all an involving and entertaining book--though still with one irritating aspect: the characters seem to be limited to a single expletive, though they use that one word a great deal ("bastard"). I've never met or hear an Italian who so severly limited his cursing to a single word, much less that one--they're language in the scatalogical vein is usually much more colorful and creative. And I also have one quibble wiht the audio version, as read by David Collacci: his voice is fine, his tone excellent, but for all the dialogue, he gives the characters stagey Italian accents. Why would they speak to one another with an accent--they're speaking Italian to one another, except when they are pointedly speaking the local Venetian dialect. Why should an English translation of what they're saying be delivered with an Italian accent?

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