An American In Venice

The Rialto Bridge in Venice.
The Rialto Bridge in Venice. "Unless you go out in nature and go for a walk in the Alps, there are few places where everything you see is beautiful," Donna Leon says of her adopted home. (Copyright Richard Gunion)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 20, 2006

VENICE -- It's just another church in a city full of churches, and the name doesn't register at first. You're walking down the Via Garibaldi on a warm spring day, reveling in the street life on the unusually broad avenue and in the relative absence of tourists here in the outer reaches of the Castello district, where native Venetians still outnumber interlopers like you.

Then you look up and think: San Francesco di Paola! Didn't Tassini, the night watchman in "Through a Glass Darkly," live opposite the church of San Francesco di Paola? Didn't Brunetti walk down here from the Questura , the police station, to meet him in that bar that draws little swirling hearts with cappuccino foam?

And just like that, you've entered the Venice of Donna Leon.

As it happens, you've gotten a bit obsessed with Leon's Venetian mysteries ("Through a Glass Darkly," just published in the United States by Grove Atlantic, is her 15th). All feature Commissario Guido Brunetti, tenacious detective and devoted family man, whose unblinkered humanity you've come to admire. More to the point, perhaps, for someone with just a few days to spend here, reading Leon has fueled a fantasy common to visitors in this secretive, surreally beautiful city: that somehow, despite your total lack of local credentials, you'll be invited through what writer John Berendt calls "the invisible door" between the tourist's Venice and the one where actual Venetians live.

Pretty to think so. Won't happen.

But in Leon moments like this one, you come about as close as you're going to get. A minute ago you were an outsider with zero language skills and too little time. Now you're an intimate of Guido Brunetti, who has come to this very spot to meet a man who works in a glass factory (a fornace ) on the island of Murano.

Something sinister is unfolding on the glassblowers' island that your good friend the commissario does not yet understand.

* * *

Donna Leon's Venice is so popular in Europe, where her books are bestsellers, that specially organized tours bring fans from Austria, Germany and Switzerland to follow Commissario Brunetti's footsteps through the calles (lanes) and campos (public squares) of her adopted home. She's less well-known in the United States, but Grove Atlantic is working on that: It has brought her to Washington this week to commune with booksellers at the gargantuan annual publishing convention, BookExpo America.

Venice is so much Leon's element, though, that you've been hoping to encounter her in it first. With luck, she'll make it back from a trip to Zurich in time. But in case she doesn't -- well, why not take a Brunetti tour?

This one is given by Leon's old friend Toni Sepeda, another expatriate American with a home in Venice. The two met while teaching U.S. servicemen at European bases -- on contract with the University of Maryland -- which Sepeda still does but which Leon's writing career has rendered unnecessary.

Sepeda is a diminutive, gray-haired Henry James fanatic with a completely un-James-like directness and an infectious energy belying her sixty-something years. She meets you in front of the reborn opera house, La Fenice, which seems doubly appropriate.

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