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In a story about a murder, a black man comes to Italy's ancient city of canals and palaces, pursues his career somewhat successfully, and finds his benevolence answered with hatred and violence. This is Shakespeare's OTHELLO, THE MOOR OF VENICE, but also Donna Leon's newest Guido Brunetti mystery, BLOOD FROM A STONE.
Like the Shakespeare play, BLOOD FROM A STONE makes some cogent points about difference and hatred whilst also creating an uncomfortable aura of exoticism around foreign characters. Leon's recurring protagonist, police detective Brunetti, searches for the murderer of one of the city's 'vu cumpras' -- sub-Saharan African illegal immigrant street hawkers.
This is a difficult case, because although everyone in Venice sees these men, no one outside their community knows their names, or interacts with them as friends. Brunetti wants justice for the nameless victim. He is a good, dedicated cop, and his adolescent daughter's casual racism makes it even more imperative that he bring the guilty to justice. Unfortunately, Brunetti's corrupt superior has told him to avoid solving the case, for reasons of safety.
It's a little odd that whilst Brunetti lectures his fellow Venetians on their tendencies to alienate the vu cumpras, Leon's narration exoticises much of Brunetti's world, in part by leaving words untranslated when their meaning or context can be easily inferred. A mobile phone is a telefonino; the famous laguna retains its final syllable.
I haven't read in ages a novel that lingered so often on the details of what the characters are eating, over a long succession of meals. For one meal, Brunetti and his family eat 'a pasticcio made of layers of polenta, ragu, and parmigiano', followed by 'only roasted radicchio smothered in stracchino'. Later, it's fettucine with black truffles. Interestingly, the food found in the house of the vu cumpra is called merely flour, salt, and rice -- not their Italian equivalents.
Those readers who, like me, don't know what 'stracchino' is may become conscious of seeing Brunetti and his community through the lens of mystery with which he views the vu cumpras. For example, he marvels at their complexions, especially in the early descriptive passages. His wife Paola, a university lecturer and descendant of the very old and powerful (and sometime treasonous) Faliero dynasty, prides herself on not being a racist, but facilely homogenises the vu cumpras. "How beautiful they are," she exclaims, about the Africans in general. "They're beautiful men, tall and straight and in perfect shape, and some of them have the sort of faces you see on carvings."
Leon applies her alienation technique effectively, getting readers to think about issues relevant in anglophone countries by examining them against a Venetian backdrop. "To the public administration, these people were problems, while to Don Alvise" -- a benevolent former priest, the impromptu social worker among the city's vu cumpras -- "they are problems", Brunetti realises. That's a scathingly accurate analysis of attitudes towards immigrants prevalent in the United Kingdom and, as the recent May Day protests confronted, in the US.
I wished that some details had been worked out as carefully as the menus. Illogically, Brunetti and another character have a conversation about doing something highly illegal, and being paranoid about it -- in a bar. I was a little amazed that Brunetti's wife, a university lecturer, has an amazing amount of leisure time. Having briefly guest-taught at an Italian university, I can conclude that this isn't a cultural difference. The lecturers there seemed as busy as those of my home department.
I had to look up the literal translation of 'vu cumpra', too, as it's not provided in the book. I must admit that I stopped halfway through to look this up, as it seemed a more intriguing and nagging mystery than the murder. As it turns out, a 'vu cumpra' translates literally as a solicitous vendor: it's a corruption of an African-accented pronunciation of the question 'vuoi comprare?' which means 'will you buy?' According to one internet forum, in Italy, it's widely considered racist, as it both mocks African-Italian dialect and suggests that the question is the total extent of the sellers' Italian vocabulary. This would seem to complicate Brunetti's constant usage of it, but Leon neither translates the phrase nor explores the conflict.
The cleverly-chosen epigraph, from the libretto of THE MAGIC FLUE, suggestively echoes a monologue from THE MERCHANT OF VENICE and didactically criticises racism: 'Thus a Blackmoor is considered ugly. / Didn't I receive a heart as well? / Aren't I made of flesh and blood.' However, the answer to that question that Leon provides, ultimately, is far from affirmative. The victim never emerges as a fully-defined character, nor do any of the other vu cumpras. They might have hearts, but they have no names, nor any voices.
Consequently, I felt that I should find the book a page-turner, but I didn't. The victim's blankness and the ordinariness of the perfect detective Brunetti and his perfect wife made them difficult to latch onto. I suppose that, were I a dedicated fan of the Brunetti series, I would think differently, so if you are a fan, you'll probably enjoy BLOOD FROM A STONE. It does make for a nice virtual trip to Venice, and a far more richly detailed one than OTHELLO.
Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, May 2006
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