Q: Is there someone who served as the model for Commissario Brunetti, or is he just a figure of your imagination?
LEON: He is a figure of the imagination. I found him when I was working on my first novel. I needed a policeman, who had to appear at the scene of the first crime. And when he climbed out of the boatsince he came via a boat, we are in Venice after all-- he was simply there, and I knew everything about him
Q: You say he is simply a figure of the imagination. Is he something of an incarnation of the Italian male or a male whom you might find attractive? Or is he simply interesting?
LEON: Yes, for me he is an interesting man. He is an intellectual and also emotionally interesting. But he is a completely normal man. I think that there are many men like Brunetti, who are intelligent and sensible, who love their family and have the desire to do well in their job.
Q: Have you attempted, while writing your books, to portray him as sympathetic, or to present him as a type of idol?
LEON: No, no, because when I wrote the first book, I did not even think of a second or third, or fourth or tenth book. I just wanted to prove to myself that I am capable of writing a book. I described him like I imagined a Commissario to be. I did not have the intention to make him better than a completely normal human being.
Q: Can you tell me something about Venice as a city, as a microcosm? What is Venice like? What are the people there like?
LEON: They are no different than people everywhere. And, I believe that is one of the reasons for the success of the books. Because Venice is so extraordinarily beautiful, people believe probably subconsciously that this city must be something extraordinary in every respect. That is indeed so, whenever a human being, whether a man or a woman, is extraordinarily beautiful. One tends to believe in that case, that they had to be more interesting, better and smarter, than they are in reality. And thus it is with Venice. It is extraordinarily beautiful, but people there also go shopping, carry water upstairs, pay their electric bill. It is a completely normal place.
Life in Venice carries on in a way no different from other cities. Venice has only 70,000 inhabitants. It is a very small city, "un paese nel Veneto." But people insist on seeing something special in this town, because of its beauty. And therefore they have a difficult time to accept this dissonance between the completely common everyday life in Venice and the extraordinary beauty of this city.
Q: Somehow I have gathered the impression from your books that Venice is something like a "closed society." When one goes from one point to another, there is more of a possibility than anywhere else on earth to run into someone whom one knows.
LEON: Indeed, that is wonderful. I believe that that is one of the reasons why living in Venice is so fabulous. One steps outdoors, and wherever one goes, you see someone you know. And even when you dont know the person, you have seen this person for the last ten years. So now and then you say "good morning." You dont know who he is, whether a mailman or a construction worker, or whether he sells meat at the end of town. But you know him. You observe that he is getting older, you see him with his children and his wife. And it is nice that everyone knows everything about everyone else. There are no secrets, that is exactly like in the smallest village somewhere high in the mountains. And there is much gossip. Somehow everyone gets to know everything. That is nice.
Q: You like it when people talk about each other?
LEON: Yes, it is a form of human contact that we dont have anymore in larger cities. One gets into a taxi, a bus or into a car. But in Venice you are forced to get to know your neighbors. Thats the way it was everywhere--until 50 years ago.
Q: It is interesting in your books that the criminal cases, as a rule, take place in the highest social milieu. Is that typical for Italy?
LEON: I dont think so. I would like to return once more to what I said about beautiful people. We believe that because they are beautiful they have to be good people as well. Because they are important or powerful, they simply have to be virtuous also. But history has taught us again and again, that it does not depend how rich or famous or how successful or powerful a human being is. He can just as well be an evil person like others. But only few haveI hesitate to say, the courage, that would be presumptuousbut only few say it openly. I believe, however, that it is so.
Q: When you write about Brunetti, do you like to add new aspects to his character and try to make him even more alive than he already is?
LEON: Yes, that is funny. There are things in him, which I did not know existed before. It happens frequently that I arrive at a certain passage or scene in the book and suddenly it occurs to me: "He did that, or he knows that already, or he still wants to investigate that." Or I discover how he thinks about certain things, what he feels. I feel very sure of that because he is the person in my books I know best of all.
Q: Do you have a theory what makes your books so successful?
LEON: I think it is in part the paradox of the juxtaposition of Venice, the beautiful Venice and a criminal story with common, criminal characters. The readers dont expect this sequence of brutal reality in life on the one hand and this paradise on the other.
Q: What do you think of the film versions of your books?
LEON: I like what I have seen. Venice looks fantastic. That is a strange thing about Venice. In a film, the city looks even more beautiful. It is so photogenic. I met Krol, and he seemed very plausible as Brunetti. And I have great confidence in Katharina Trebitsch. I have seen a number of her films and have known her for years. I have complete confidence in her talent, her taste and her good judgment.
Donna Leon was born in New Jersey in 1942. She left America at the age of 23 in order to continue her studies in Perugia and Siena. Afterwards she worked as a travel guide in Rome, as an advertisement text writer in London and as a teacher in American schools in Switzerland, Iran, China and Saudi-Arabia. In 1981 she quit her life as a nomad and settled in her chosen home, Italy. Since then she has called Venice her home, the city she loves so fervently. She is a professor for English and American literature at a university near the city of lagunes.
Her first crime novel with the figure of Commissario Brunetti appeared in 1993, and she was awarded the Japanese Suntory prize for it. She was inspired for this first novel because of her passion for opera. During a rehearsal in the Venetian opera house "La Fenice" a friend of hers sputtered "I could kill the conductor." She decided to have his wish come truein a novel, to be sure. Thus was born the idea of the "Venetian Finale". But she still needed a commissario, in order to catch the fictive murderer of the conductor. She once answered the question whether there had been a real model for Commissario Guido Brunetti in Venice by saying, "No, I saw him in my mind getting out of a boat. And there he was. We are in Italy, thus Brunetti has a family. He is a commissario, has studied law, and is a man with a good education and training. Thats the reason his wife Paola does not work in a bar: she is a professor for English literature, which gives me the opportunity to tell about a world, via Paola, which I know very well."
A crime psychologist commented about the soul of Brunetti in the following way, "We dont learn much about him. The author provides the reader only with some scanty dates. That is exactly what makes for tension, what is so extremely interesting. Leon leaves much open so that one may find in Brunetti parts of ones own self. What we see about him is like the external wall of a beautiful medieval castle. What the interior looks like is up to the reader to imagine."
Her first novel was followed by numerous others, which are all set in Venice and clearly display a socially critical undertone. The harmonious family idyll of the melancholy fanatic for justice, Brunetti, is juxtaposed with a world that is dominated by corruption, bribery, violence and Mafia structures.