Tag Archives: tourism

Grand Hotel Europa: Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer

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

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The Travel Writer by Jeff Soloway

“I’m a travel writer, and corrupt as they come. I’d sell my journalistic principles for two nights at the Four Seasons with a free meal and a massage.”

Jeff Solway’s debut novel, The Travel Writer, the first in a new series, is for those who enjoy reading mysteries set in exotic locations. This is a modest little book, and as I write this, it’s being offered for the modest sum of $2.99 on Amazon US. I’m mentioning this because The Travel Writer probably won’t get a great deal of attention when compared to the GIANT blockbuster novel I just read: Joel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair–a novel which overreached and failed. The Travel Writer, in comparison, is a novel that accomplished what it set out to achieve, but that shouldn’t be too surprising as the author was an editor and writer for travel guides.

the travel writerThe self-imagined hero and narrator of The Travel Writer is Jacob Smalls, a man who scrapes together, barely, a marginal living as a travel writer. This isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds–at least not at Jacob’s bargain basement level. He has a matchbox sized studio apartment in Queens which he shares with an amphibian turtle. If you think about it, both Jacob and his turtle live in their own tanks:

At home in my tiny studio apartment in Queens I cook massive meatless stews and freeze the leftovers or, when I’m feeling flush, order pan-Asian takeout by the pint. But when I’m working I live like a vacationing CEO, eating for free at multi-Michelin star restaurants and staying for free at hotels that charge two months of my rent per night. Some travel writers call themselves journalists; I refuse to debase the term. Just that morning I’d been trying to book another fact-finding trip for my yet hypothetical Ritziest Ritz series. Whether or not I could sell the thing hardly mattered.

The novel begins with a press conference given by a Bolivian luxury hotel’s PR agent, Pilar Rojas. The press conference is supposed to help satisfy the media frenzy surrounding the disappearance of New York based travel editor, Hilary Pearson. Hilary, young and attractive, vanished without a trace from the prestigious Hotel Matamoros, “the Xanadu of the Andes, the super resort that had risen up like Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome.”  Local police, and even the FBI have failed to find even the smallest clue about Hilary, and it’s feared that she’s been kidnapped and murdered. Pilar, who has a past romantic history with Jacob, asks him to come to Peru and help her find the missing woman. There’s a great deal at stake here as Bolivia’s entire tourist industry is threatened by Hilary’s disappearance. Pilar offers Jacob free plane tickets and a week’s stay at the Hotel Matamoros, and she hints that she’s in danger.

Jacob, who after all, lives for free trips, takes the bait, and under the guise of writing a puff piece for the Hotel Matamoros, flies to La Paz. Stringing along is the uninvited 26 year-old Kenny, another work acquaintance of Hilary who’s nursing a giant crush for the missing woman.

I read The Travel Writer before knowing that it’s the first in an intended series of novels. As the first of a series, this is a good start, so if you like light-hearted mysteries with a touch of humor, set in exotic locations, this series should appeal. Jacob Smalls makes a humble interesting hero. He leaves New York with images of being a prize winning journalist, saving Hilary (a woman he’s never met but knows through e-mails), and winning back Pilar, and while those are all, perhaps, fairly predictable daydreams, the author injects a fresh aspect to the storyline by sticking Jacob with Kenny. Jacob has a tendency to patronize and pity Kenny, and once down in Bolivia, Jacob, who’s a seasoned traveler, can very easily dominate the relationship. But there are a couple of moments when, through his relationship with Kenny, Jacob realizes that he’s being unkind, and there’s not such a huge difference between the two men after all. Since he views Kenny as a pathetic loser, it’s an uncomfortable realisation for Jacob, and one that makes him a better human being.

As for the location, readers get a tourist’s view of La Paz and its marketplace as well as the hungry tourist industry desperate for an injection of foreign money. The magnificent Hotel Matamoros, which will be to expanded with new branches deeper in the jungle, is a vital concern for Bolivia’s tourist industry, and the fact that an American travel writer has gone missing while staying there just isn’t good for business. According to another hotel owner, “Matamoros was all built on narcotrafficking money,” and Jacob discovers that Hilary’s disappearance is a topic of concern for a Bolivian political group.

The novel, built on the idea of tourism, takes a insider’s skeptical view of the industry, and while the issue is never overworked, the idea of a ‘genuine’ tourist experience is lampooned through scenes with the Kallawaya and mention of the “handful of Amazonian medicine men” hired by the hotel for a “splash of color.” The novel takes the position that tourism is a artificial construct, and that by its very nature has built in voyeurism and paranoia. There are moments of shameful self-revelation for Jacob when he realizes his life of privilege is based on freebies from Bolivians who live on pennies a day. Jacob’s character was a little fuzzy at times–a little too Walter Mittyish at the beginning with his fantasies of heroism, but I liked the framework of a small-time travel writer leveraging freebies through hints about glowing articles.

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