Donna Leon The Jewels of Paradise
Arrow Books 2013 (2012)
Biographers are akin to stalkers: they remorselessly research the background to their victims, obsessively familiarise themselves with their subjects’ feats and foibles, and lurk around in their vicinity hoping to pick up tidbits of information to feed their fascination. So do historical researchers, and so do fiction writers — but with one major difference. When the subject is deceased, or even imaginary, they are not harmed, nor is their personal privacy invaded or their equanimity threatened.
In The Jewels of Paradise musicologist Caterina Pellegrini finds herself drawn back to her native Venice by the promise of research into the papers left by a mysterious Baroque composer who, she subsequently discovers, is one Agostino Steffani. But that’s not all that’s mysterious about her job. Who are the strange Venetian cousins, Stievani and Scapenelli, who have hired her for this hush-hush job, and what role does the equally opaque lawyer Andrea Moretti have to play in all this? And who is that man following her one evening?
This novel combines two of the author’s own great passions, the city of Venice and Baroque music; and much of the strength of this work draws from her insider knowledge of La Serenissima and the known facts about Steffani (1654 – 1728). As the fictional Dottoressa Pellegrini (Italian pellegrino means ‘pilgrim’) delves deeper into the chests containing documents, supplementing her search in the Biblioteca Marciana and online, she finds that the mists shrouding the life of Steffani are equal to those obscuring her understanding of what exactly the cousins and the lawyer have to gain from this exercise. And then one day she finds that she herself is being stalked by a man as she travels by foot and vaporetto through Venice, an incident that naturally shakes her to the core.
A past mistress of the thriller, Leon expertly shifts from mundane to murky. The tedious aspects of research alternate with the excitement of uncovering new and surprising information, the everyday tasks of wining, dining and walking are broken up by revelations that the grounds of Caterina’s professional and personal life may be shifting from under her. I was unaware of Steffani before this, but now find that he wrote more than passable music (he even influenced Handel) as well as combining that with diplomatic missions and ecclesiastical duties largely of an unspecified kind. He was also somehow mixed up or associated with a disputed assassination and may even have been a castrato chorister if — as Pellegrino/Leon suspects — the Abbé’s description as a musico means exactly that. And what is the nature of the Jewels of Paradise that the cousins and lawyers appear to believe the documents in the chests will lead to?
This was such a delightful read. The reader gets to see everything was Caterina’s point of view, and what a superb creation she is, one we may suspect may have a lot of the author residing in her. Caterina’s relationships with her family (especially with her sister Cristina, a conversation conducted entirely by email) and even with Roseanna, the Acting Director of the impecunious Fondazione Musicale Italo-Tedesca which appoints Caterina for the research, are credible and engaging. And all the research — the process, the details discovered, the music evoked and the time spent in the Marciana library — is calculated to appeal to the nerdy reader with a penchant for classical music generally, the Baroque period particularly and maybe even the convoluted byways of establishment religion: though I’m afraid that if you have a reverential attitude towards Holy Mother the Church this may put an uncomfortable twist in your cassock.
Ah, yes, the Jewels of Paradise: you will have to read this novel if you want to find the secret of this particular holy grail.