Donna Leon

A Sea of Troubles

for Rudolf C. Bettschart and Daniel Keel

Soave sia il vento Tranquilla sia Vonda Ed ogni elemento Benigno risponda Ai vostri desir.

Gentle be the breeze,

calm be the waves,

and every element respond kindly

to your desires.

Cost fan tutte


A Sea of Troubles

Donna Leon has lived in Venice for many years and previously lived in Switzerland, Iran, Saudi Arabia and China, where she worked as a teacher. Her previous novels featuring Commissario Brunetti have all been highly acclaimed, most recently A Noble Radiance, Fatal Remedies and Friends in High Places, which won the 2000 Crime Writers' Association Silver Dagger for Fiction.

By the same author

Death at La Fenice

Death in a Strange Country

The Anonymous Venetian

A Venetian Reckoning

Acqua Alta

The Death of Faith

A Noble Radiance

Fatal Remedies

Friends in High Places


Pellestrina is a long, narrow peninsula of sand that has, over the course of the centuries, been turned into habitable ground. Running north and south from San Pietro in Volta to Ca' Roman, Pellestrina is about ten kilometres long, but never more than a couple of hundred metres wide. To the east, it faces the Adriatic, a sea not known for the sweetness of its temper, but the west side rests in the Lagoon of Venice and is thus protected from wind, storm and wave. The earth is sandy and infertile, so the people of Pellestrina, though they sow, are able to reap little. This makes small difference to them; indeed, most of them would no doubt scoff at the very idea of earning a living, however rich, from the earth, for the people of

Pellestrina have always taken theirs from the sea.

Many stories are told about the men of Pellestrina, the endurance and strength that have been forced upon them in their attempt to wrest a living from the sea. Old people in Venice remember a time when the men of Pellestrina were said to spend the nights, winter or summer, sleeping on the dirt floors of their cottages instead of in their beds so as to more easily push themselves out into the early morning and make the tide that would carry them into the Adriatic and thus to the fish. Like most stories that are told about how much tougher people were in the olden days, this is probably apocryphal. What is true, however, is the fact that most people who hear it, if they are Venetian, believe it, just as they would believe any tale that spoke of the toughness of the men of Pellestrina or of their indifference to pain or suffering, their own or that of others.

During the summer Pellestrina comes alive, as tourists arrive from Venice and its Lido or across from Chioggia on the mainland to eat fresh seafood and drink the crisp white wine, just short of sparkling, that is served in the bars and restaurants. Instead of bread, they are served bussolai, hard oval pretzels whose name, perhaps, comes from the bussola, or compass, that has the same shape. Along with the bussolai there is fish, often so fresh it was still alive when the tourists set out to make the long and inconvenient trip to Pellestrina. As the tourists

pulled themselves from their hotel beds, the gills of the orate still fought against the alien element, the air; as the tourists filed on to an early morning vaporetto at Rialto, the sardelle still thrashed in the nets; as they climbed down from the vaporetto and crossed Piazzale Santa Maria Elisabetta, looking for the bus that would take them to Malamocco and the Alberoni, the cefalo was just being hauled out of the sea. The tourists often leave the bus for a while at Malamocco or the Alberoni, have a coffee, then walk on the sandy beach for a while and look at the enormous jetties that stretch out into the waters of the Adriatic in an attempt to prevent the waters from sweeping into the laguna.

The fish are all dead by then, though the tourists could not be expected to know that, or much care, so they get back on the bus, sit in it for the short ferry ride across the narrow canal, then continue by bus or on foot down toward Pellestrina and their lunch.

In winter things are vastly different. Too often the wind tears across the Adriatic from the former Yugoslavia, carrying before it rain or light snow, biting into the bones of anyone who tries to stay out in it for any length of time. The crowded restaurants of the summer are closed and will remain that way until late spring, leaving the tourists to fend for and feed themselves.

What remain unchanged, lined up in long rows on the inner side of the thin peninsula, are scores of vongolari, the clam-fishing boats that work all year, regardless of tourists, rain, cold and heat, regardless too of all the legends told about the noble, hard-working men of Pellestrina and their constant battle to win a living for their wives and children from the merciless sea. Their names sing out: Concordia, Serena, Assunta. They sit there, fat and high-nosed, looking very much like the boats painted in picture books for children. One longs, walking past in the bright summer sun, to reach up and pat them, stroke their noses, as it were, just as one would with a particularly winsome pony or an especially endearing Labrador.

To the unschooled eye the boats all look much the same, with their iron masts and the metal scoop at the prow that protrudes up into the air when the boat is docked. Rectangular and framed, these scoops all have the same grade of what looks like chicken wire strung across them, though it is far stronger than any chicken wire ever made, as it has to resist the pressure of rocks dug up on the seabed or chance encounters with the heavy and unforeseen obstacles that litter the bottom of the laguna. They also have, of course, to resist the seabed itself as they ram into and then under the nesting clams, dragging along the sea bottom and then to the surface kilos of shells, large and small, trapped within the rectangular tray, water and sand cascading out and back into the laguna.

The observable differences between the boats are insignificant: a clam scoop smaller or larger than that on the next boat; life buoys in need of paint or shining bright and smooth; decks so clean they gleam in the sunlight or stained with rust in the corners, where they touch the sides of the boat. The Pellestrina boats, during the day, ride in pleasant promiscuity one beside the next; their owners live in similar propinquity in the low houses that stretch from one side of the village to the other, from the laguna to the sea.

At about 3.30 on a morning in early May, a small fire broke out in the cabin of one of these boats, the Squallus, owned and captained by Giulio Bottin, resident at number 242 Via Santa Giustina. The men of Pellestrina are no longer solely dependent upon the power of the tides and winds and thus are no longer obliged to sail only when they are favourable, but the habits of centuries die hard, and so most fishermen rise and sail at dawn, as if the early morning breezes still made some difference to their speed. There remained two hours before the fishermen of Pellestrina - who now sleep in their homes and in their beds - had to get up, so they were at their deepest point of sleep when the fire broke out on the Squallus. The flames moved, at quite a leisurely pace, along the floor of the boat's cabin to the wooden sides and the teak control panel at the front. Teak, a hard wood, burns slowly, but it also burns at a higher temperature than softer woods, and so the fire that spread up the control panel and from it to the roof of the cabin and out on to the deck moved with frightening speed once it reached those softer woods. The fire burned a hole in the deck of the cabin, and burning

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