Authors: Donna Leon
‘And so?’ Brunetti prodded.
‘So, in the end, they were forced to sell everything they had, turn it into gold or stones or into foreign currency, into something they thought they could carry out of the country with them.’
‘This is going to take a long time to explain, Guido,’ Lele said, almost apologetically.
‘All right. It worked, at least many times, it worked like this. They contacted the agents, many of whom were antiquarians, either here or in one of the big cities. Some of the big collectors even tried to deal with Germans, men like Haberstock in Berlin. The word had got around that Prince Farnese in Rome had managed to sell a lot of things through him. But, anyway, people contacted the agents, who came and had a look at what they had to sell, and then they offered to buy what they liked or thought they could sell.’ Again, Lele stopped.
Puzzled about what in all of this could have turned Lele pyrotechnic, Brunetti prompted. ‘And?’
‘And they’d offer a fraction of what the objects were worth and say that’s all they could expect to get for them.’ Even before Brunetti could ask the obvious question, Lele explained. ‘Everyone knew it wasn’t worth the trouble to contact anyone else. They’d formed a cartel, and as soon as one of them gave prices, he’d tell all the others what the prices were, and none of them would offer more.’
‘But what about men like your father? Couldn’t people contact him?’
‘By then my father was in prison.’ Lele’s voice was like ice.
‘On what charge?’
‘Who knows? What does it matter? He was reported to have made defeatist remarks. Of course he did. Everyone knew we had no chance of winning the war. But he made those remarks only at home, only with us. It was the other agents. They gave his name and the police came around and took him away, and it was made clear to him while he was being questioned that he should no longer work as an agent.’
‘For people who wanted to leave the country?’
‘Among others. He was never told just whom he shouldn’t deal with, but he didn’t have to be, did he? My father got the message. By the third beating, he got the message. So when they let him go, and he came home, he no longer attempted to help those people.’
‘Jews?’ Brunetti asked.
‘Primarily, yes. But also non-Jewish families. Your father-in-law’s, for example.’
‘Are you serious, Lele?’ Brunetti asked, unable to disguise his astonishment.
‘This is a subject about which I do not joke, Guido,’ Lele said with unusual asperity. ‘Your father-in-law’s father had to leave the country, and he came to my father and asked if he would handle the sale of certain items for him.’
‘And did he?’
‘He took them. I think there were thirty-four paintings and a large collection of Manutius first editions.’
‘He wasn’t afraid of the warning he’d just had?’
‘He didn’t sell them. He gave the Count a certain sum of money and told him he’d keep the paintings and books for him until he came back to Venice.’
‘The family, including your father-in-law, went overland to Portugal and then to England. They were among the lucky ones.’
‘And the things your father had?’
‘He put them in a safe place, and when the Count and his family came back after the war, he returned all of them.’
‘Where did he keep them?’ Brunetti asked, not because it made any difference but because the historian in him needed to know.
‘I had an aunt who was a Dominican abbess, in the convent over by the Miracoli. She put all of them under her bed.’ Brunetti was too amazed to say anything, but Lele explained, anyway.
, there was a large space beneath the floor of the abbess’s bedroom, and she placed her bed directly over the entrance to it. I never thought it polite to ask what an abbess would want to hide there, so I don’t know what its original purpose was.’
‘We can but hope,’ Brunetti observed, recalling childhood tales of the misbehaviour between priests and nuns.
‘Indeed. At any rate, it all stayed there until the war was over and the Faliers came home, when my father gave everything back. The Count gave him the money. He also gave him a small Carpaccio, the one that’s now in our bedroom.’
After considering all of this, Brunetti said, ‘I’ve never heard about this, not in all the time I’ve known him.’
‘Orazio doesn’t talk about what happened during the war.’
Surprised that Lele should speak so familiarly of a man Brunetti had never addressed, not in more than two decades, by his first name, he asked, ‘But how do you know about it? From your father?’
‘Yes, at least part of it. Orazio told me the rest.’
‘I didn’t know you knew him that well, Lele.’
‘We fought together with the Partisans for two years.’
‘But he said he was only a boy when they left Venice.’
‘That was in 1939. Three years later, he was a young man. A very dangerous young man. He was one of the best. Or worst, I suppose, if you were a German.’
‘Where were you?’ Brunetti asked.
‘Up near Asiago, in the mountains,’ Lele said, paused, and then added, ‘Anything else you want to know about this, I think you better ask your father-in-law.’
Taking that as the command it so clearly was, Brunetti went back to the subject at hand. ‘Tell me more about your father, before he was arrested.’
‘Before that, he’d taken only his ten per cent, and he’d done his best to try to get as much as he could for the things his clients had to sell. And, for whatever it’s worth, he never bought anything from them. No matter how good the price they offered him, and no matter how much he wanted to own the object, he refused to buy anything for himself.’
‘And Guzzardi?’ Brunetti asked, bringing the story back where he wanted it to be.
‘They were a perfect team. The father was the money man and the son was the artist.’ Lele’s voice dribbled acid on the word. ‘They got into the antiques business almost by accident. They must have smelled how much money they could make at it. People like that always do. At the beginning, they hired someone to work as an appraiser for them, and because both of them were senior Party members, they had no trouble in getting themselves into the cartel. And before you knew it, people here, and in Padova and Treviso, who wanted to sell things and needed to do it fast, well, they ended up dealing with the Guzzardis. And they sold. The Guzzardis sucked up everything. Like sharks.’
‘Did they have anything to do with your father’s arrest?’
Lele said, cautious as always, given his belief that all phone conversations were monitored by some agency of the state, ‘It’s always wise business procedure to eliminate the competition.’
‘Did they buy only for themselves or also for clients?’
‘When they started out – because neither of them had any taste at all – they bought for clients, people who might have heard that a certain collection was for sale and who didn’t want to get their hands dirty by being seen to buy things openly. This happened more and more, the closer it got to the end of the war. People wanted the art works, but they didn’t want it to be seen that they’d bought them.’
‘And the Guzzardis?’ Brunetti asked.
‘Toward the end, they are said to have bought only for themselves. By then Luca had developed a fairly good eye. Even my father admitted that. He wasn’t stupid, Luca, not at all.’
‘What sort of things?’
‘The father bought paintings; Luca was interested in drawings and etchings.’
‘Is that what Luca was good at?’
‘Not particularly, no, I don’t think so. But they’re very portable, and because there’s always more than one etching and because very often painters made a few sketches or drawings before a painting, it’s harder to trace them than if they were unique. And they’re very easy to hide.’
‘I had no idea any of this went on,’ Brunetti said
it seemed that Lele had finished speaking.
‘Few people do. And even fewer want to know anything about it. That’s what we did, right after Liberation: we all decided that we’d forget what had happened during the last decade, especially in the years since the beginning of the war. Besides, we finished on the winning side, so it was even easier to forget. That’s what we’ve had since then, the politics of amnesia. It’s what we wanted and it’s what we’ve got.’
Brunetti had seldom heard it better named. ‘Anything else?’ he asked.
‘I could fill a history book with what went on during those years. Then, as soon as the war ended, things went back to business as usual, just like in Germany. Well, no, it took a little longer there because they had to go through all that de-Nazification stuff, not that it served for much. But these pigs, these agents, had their snouts back in the trough almost as soon as the war was over.’
‘You make it sound like you know them.’
‘Of course I do. A few of them are still alive. One of them even has a portfolio of Old Master drawings in a bank vault, has had it there since he acquired it in 1944.’
Lele gave a snort of contempt. ‘If someone is in fear of his life and sells something, signs a bill of sale – and the Guzzardis were always careful to get them – then the sale’s still legal. But if someone were to steal those drawings from the bank vault and give them back to the original owner, I’m sure that would be illegal.’ Lele allowed a long pause to
out from that remark before he said abruptly, ‘I’ll call you if I think of anything,’ and then his voice was gone.
BRUNETTI HAD THE
entire afternoon to muse upon what Lele had told him. He’d read little of the history of the last war, but certainly other centuries provided sufficient examples of plundering and profiteering to illustrate all that Lele had said. The sack of Rome, the sack of Constantinople: hadn’t both of them been followed by vast transfers of wealth and art and by the collateral destruction of even more? Rome had been left in ruins, and Byzantium smouldered for weeks as the victors devoted themselves to looting. Indeed, the bronze horses that pranced above the entrance of the Basilica had been part of the loot the Venetians brought home. Certainly the defeat of those cities must have been preceded by hysteria on the part of those desperate to escape. In the end, no matter
beautiful or precious, what object had any value in comparison to life? Some years ago he had read an account by a French crusader who had been present at the siege and sack of Constantinople: he’d written that ‘so much booty had never been gained in any city since the creation of the world’. But what did that count in the face of the loss of so many lives?
Shortly after seven he pulled himself free from these reflections, moved some paper idly from one side of his desk to the other so as to give the appearance that he had done something that afternoon other than try to make sense of human history, and went home.
He found Paola, predictably, in her study, where he joined her, flopping down on the battered sofa she refused to part with. ‘You never told me about your father,’ he said by way of introduction.
‘Never told you what about my father?’ she asked. Judging by both his tone and his manner that this would be a long conversation, she abandoned the notes she was preparing.
‘About the war. And what he did.’
‘You make it sound as if you’d discovered he’s a war criminal,’ she observed.
‘Hardly,’ Brunetti conceded. ‘But someone told me today that he fought with the Partisans up near Asiago.’
She smiled. ‘So now you know as much as I know.’
‘Absolutely. I know that he fought and that he
very young when he was there, but he has never chosen to talk to me about it, and I’ve never had the courage to ask my mother about it.’
‘From her tone and the way she reacted whenever I brought the subject up, as I did when I was younger, I realized that it was not something she wanted to talk about and that I shouldn’t ask him, either. So I didn’t, and then I suppose I got out of the habit of being curious about it or wanting to know exactly what he did.’ Before Brunetti could respond to this, she added, ‘Just like you with your father. All you’ve ever told me is that he came back from Africa, went off on the Russian campaign and was gone for years, and when he came back everyone who knew him said he wasn’t the same person who had marched away. But you’ve never told me more than that. And your mother, when she talked about it, never said anything more than that he had been gone for five years.’
Brunetti’s childhood had been scarred by the results of those five years, for his father had been a man much given to fits of violence that came upon him for no apparent reason. A chance word, a gesture, a book lying on the kitchen table: any of these could set him off into a rage from which only Brunetti’s mother could free him. As if possessed of the power of the saints themselves, she could do this merely by placing a hand upon his arm: even the lightest touch sufficed to pull him back from whatever hell he had slipped into.
When not in the grip of these sudden, spectacular moods, he was a quiet man, much
to silence and solitude. Repeatedly wounded in the war, he had been granted a military pension, on which the family tried to live. Brunetti had never understood him and, in a certain sense, had never known him, for his wife always insisted that the real man was the one who marched off to war and not the one who came home. She, by the grace of God or love, or both, loved both of them.
Only once had Brunetti seen evidence of the man his father must have been, the day he came home to announce that he was the only student in his class to have been accepted into the Liceo Classico. When he told his parents, doing his best to hide his bursting pride and fearful how his father would take this news, the older man pushed himself up from the table, where he was helping his wife shell peas, and came to stand beside his son. Placing his hand on Brunetti’s cheek, he said, ‘You make me a man again, Guido. Thank you.’ The memory of his father’s smile was enough to call down the stars, and for the first time since his childhood Brunetti had felt himself melt with love for this gentle, decent man.