The novel opens on a cold Sunday morning with the protagonist traveling by boat to shoot ducks along a partially frozen lagoon near Venice. He assists the boatman in poling through the ice and offers to help place decoys, becoming somewhat angry at the surly boatman’s responses. Taking his place in a partially submerged barrel that serves as a blind, Colonel Richard Cantwell skillfully brings down the first two ducks that fly within range.
The narrative returns in a flashback to a physical examination that the colonel took three days earlier, when a skeptical army surgeon allowed him to pass, even though both men knew the colonel to be dying of heart disease. With Jackson, his driver, the colonel sets out from Trieste, recalling along the way sites where he fought and was wounded during World War I. Arriving in Venice, he goes by boat to the Gritti Palace Hotel and, once settled there, dines with his young mistress, Countess Renata. Afterward they make love in a gondola on the way to Renata’s home.
The following morning, the colonel leaves the hotel to walk through the market in the brisk winter air, returning in time for breakfast with his mistress. In his room he begins to tell her how he lost his regiment in the Hurtgen Forest. Although she finds portions of the account confusing, she listens as if knowing that it is important for him to share the experience. Even after the countess has fallen asleep, he continues his discourse—at times through an interior dialogue, at times addressing a portrait that Renata gave him.
They go to a jewelry shop where he buys Renata a moor’s head brooch that she admired; he informs her that the heirloom emeralds that she gave him have been deposited for her in the hotel safe. After martinis at Harry’s Bar, they return to the hotel for lunch, where the colonel and the...
(The entire section is 755 words.)