I’m a sucker for books set in hotels (and boarding houses) and can easily rattle off some favourites, so when I saw Grand Hotel Europa from Dutch author, IIja Leonard Pfeijffer, I had high hopes. The book starts off strongly with a middle-aged Dutch writer checking into the Grand Hotel Europa located in an unspecified Italian city. It may have been grand at one time, but it’s seen better days. Long-term staff remain in place and there’s a new Chinese owner, Mr. Wang, who is eager to revitalize his investment. The writer, also named Ilja Pfeijffer is there, it seems to recover from a love affair. The stages of this love affair, which we know has failed, unroll as the writer recalls his relationship with art historian Clio. He met Clio in Genoa, and her introduction to the writer (and the reader) is a long strident, bitch session which, considering how privileged she is, made her an extremely annoying character to read about. Unfortunately, the writer falls in love. When Clio gets a job in Venice, which she announces shortly after they meet, the Dutch writer sees no alternative but to move to Venice to be with the woman he loves.
The staff and guests at the hotel are a diverse crew, and everyone seems to have an opinion: a North African Bellboy, Mr Montebello, the maître d’hotel, and a “militant feminist,” guest. Scenes in the hotel are amusing and surreal at times, and the writer notes that his room is loaded with objects:
objects that looked like they’d simply washed up in the suite–old books, a copper bell, a large ashtray in the shape of half a globe borne on the shoulders of Atlas, the skull of a mouse, various writing utensils, a monocle in a case, a stuffed barn owl, a cigar cutter, a compass, a Jews’ harp, a shadow puppet, a brass vase containing peacock feathers, a spray bottle and a wooden monk that turned out to be a nutcracker. It wasn’t clear whether they were intended as part of a decorative concept, or indeed of different, divergent ideas about furnishings that, over the course of time, had been half-heartedly implemented without anyone taking the trouble to remove the results of previous attempts; or whether they were things that had been forgotten by earlier travelers, after which the chambermaids–in the philosophical conviction that history, through the scattered and irreversible depositing of random sediments shaped the present–had refused to erase the traces.
The dated hotel and the weird guests evoke the idea of people, possibly dead people, waiting in the afterworld for whatever, if anything, is next. Many of the characters spout lectures or strong opinions, and the tone of the novel, rife with cultural observations and hard slams against mass tourism, can bludgeon at times.
There are some sex scenes which are rather crude and coarse. I’m not a prude, and I’m not a writer. Sex scenes unless it’s that sort of book frequently seem gratuitous or even boring. Here they were tasteless. The book has a lot of energy and there are some funny sections relating to the indefatigable demands of the tourist and mass tourism, but reading it was wearying at times.
Translated by Michele Hutchinson