Unknowingly Reading a Novel for the Times
I haven’t picked up The Plague or A Journal of the Plague Year, let alone a contemporary dystopian novel. What I wanted in the Year of Covid was escapism. But having found comfort (and laughter) in the timeless fiction of the peerless P. G. Wodehouse, I was ready to move on. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice caught my attention as I scanned my bookshelves.
All I knew about Mann’s Death in Venice—and Visconti’s film—was that a distinguished artist (Gustav Mahler?) is vacationing in Venice when he becomes infatuated with a boy visiting from another country. Soon I was swept away, and Michael Henry Heim’s brilliant English translation played no small role in providing another kind of escape from 2020. Not for long, though. I almost fell off my chair when I realized why the locals in early twentieth-century Venice don’t want to tell the protagonist (an author, not a composer) that their city is in trouble.
There’s an epidemic—a cholera epidemic, in fact, “emanating from the humid marshes of the Ganges Delta”—and though people are dying in Venice, officials are in denial. Even as the news spreads, causing increasing anxiety in the malodorous city, Venetians hide the facts from the tourists. It’s the oppressive heat, the sirocco—and there’s nothing to worry about, they say, their lies making the city as menacing as the disease threatening it. The author finally hears the truth from another foreigner, but it’s too late.
“The epidemic even seemed to be undergoing a revitalization; the tenacity and fertility of its pathogens appeared to have redoubled,” Mann writes.
More than a century has passed since Mann wrote this gripping novel. Sadly, we humans continue to make the same mistakes, and as this literary classic reminds us, some blind spots may never disappear.
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. 1983.
Reviewer bio: Murali Kamma’s Not Native: Short Stories of Immigrant Life in an In-Between World won the 2020 Bronze Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) for multicultural fiction.
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