Perhaps he would watch the boy Major once more . . .

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TODAY we bring you an exclusive extract from Illness in Venice, the classic novel by Thomas Mann . . .

Venice was nearly empty. Apart from the usual crowds of tourists, of course. But otherwise, to all intents and purposes, it was empty. Every morning, as Heselstein walked down from the hotel to the waterfront, he bumped into nobody he knew. Nobody at all. Where had they all got to?

'Where has everyone got to?' he asked the hotel clerk one day.

'They have gone to their villas, Herr Heselstein,' said the clerk. 'Many of them have villas in the north of Cyprus, where they go at this season of the year.'

'But we have no diplomatic relations with that part of Cyprus,' said Heselstein, frowning. The clerk shrugged. He was only a hotel clerk. Diplomatic relations meant only one thing to him - a good crop of tips at the end of the season.

'There is a letter for you, Herr Heselstein,' said the clerk.

Herr Heselstein also felt, as he took the letter, that he, too, should be moving on. It had been spring when he arrived in Venice, and the cool breezes on the lagoon were refreshing. Now it was high summer, and the smells from the canals could no longer be ignored. Yet while the boy stayed, he was unable to move. He could not get the boy out of his mind.

The boy appeared in public every day with what Heselstein assumed to be his parents, or guardians. He was young. There was a certain solemnness in everything he did, which Heselstein did not associate with the young. Every day the boy went down with his parents, or perhaps his guardians, and played on the Lido. One day Heselstein got close enough to hear the boy's name. Major. That was his name. Major. On some mornings Heselstein came close enough to the boy to hear what was being said between him and the one who seemed to be in charge of his lessons.

'Another thing, Major,' said the guardian. 'You must try to avoid the expression 'Everything is now in place for a recovery.' '

'Why?' said the boy called

Major.

'Because that is what your friend Norman kept saying, and look what happened to him,' said the guardian.

Major pouted and said nothing. Heselstein wondered what had happened to the friend called Norman. Meanwhile, every day was hotter and hotter. People said there was illness in Venice. They were unclear about what it was. Cholera? Typhoid? Hay fever? Nobody seemed to know. But everyone who could leave Venice was leaving Venice.

Heselstein's hotel seemed, now, almost as empty as it had been when he arrived. Then, he had simply come here for the rest. He had been working too hard in his own country. But now he felt he should be moving north out of the sun. Perhaps he would watch the boy Major once more, and then leave . . .

He wished he could explain what it was about the boy that appealed to him. Was it that touchingly grave innocence? The protectiveness that it induced in Heselstein? The feeling that Heselstein wanted to put his arm around the boy's shoulder and say: 'Relax] Leave it all to me] I will take over] I can do it better than you can]'?

That morning he went down to the waterfront to see Major for one last time. After that, he had decided, he would pack and go home. He felt brighter at having made this decision. Yes, he would become his own master again. Yes, he would not be a slave to a vision. But all this was forgotten when, at the waterfront, there was no sign of Major. He had gone. Where?

'Denmark?' said a surly boatman. 'I believe I heard they were going to a meeting in Copenhagen. Something like that. Of course, you've heard about the illness that's going round. Maybe they went to Denmark to escape it. Everyone else has gone away . . . .'

Heselstein fled back to his hotel room. While he was taking his jacket off, he found the letter the clerk had given him two days previously. He opened it. It was from a political party at home.

'Dear Party Supporter,' it said. 'As you know, we are always short of funds to continue our work, and if you could see your way to letting us have the odd million or two . . . Quite anonymously, of course] We wouldn't tell a soul that you were a contributor. PS: If you are a foreign government, we would have to put it through a special account . . .'

Heselstein suddenly felt ill. He sat down. But the feeling wouldn't go away . . .

Comments