This time I’ve chosen two novels linked by the theme of communities.
Firstly, Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (2016 trans. Brian FitzGibbon 2018) published by Pushkin Press. I wrote about Butterflies in Novemberby this author in my previous post, explaining that I’d also enjoyed Miss Iceland. Unlike both these novels, Hotel Silence features a male narrator and is set away from Iceland.
Jónas Ebeneser is just shy of 50 and his wife has left him, telling him that his daughter, Gudrun Waterlily, is not his. His elderly mother has dementia and is fixated on war. All this has prompted a significant crisis:
“Will the world miss me? No. Will the world be any poorer without me? No. Will the world survive without me? Yes. Is the world a better place than when I came into it? No. What have I done to improve it? Nothing.”
So he decides to end his life. But because he doesn’t want Gudrun Waterlily to find his body, he decides to do so in another country. He flies to an unnamed country that has just seen the end of conflict:
“The situation is said to be precarious, and it is unclear whether the ceasefire will hold. It seems ideal”
The first section, Flesh ends with his arrival at the titular hotel. The second part, Scars, forms the rest of the book, in which Jónas finds his skills as a handyman in great demand as an entire generation of men has been wiped out.
He helps May and Fifi, the young siblings who run the hotel, and gets roped in to making western saloon doors for the nearby Restaurant Limbo where he takes his meals. Word spreads, and Jónas begins to heal, albeit with scar tissue – not a return to what was before.
“My unhappiness is at best inane when compared to the ruins and dust that lie outside my window.”
He also assists with healing in others, as he helps May and Fifi rebuild their hotel. There is a mosaic of cultural significance somewhere in the building, but also more prosaically rooms that need rewiring and painting. The brother and sister hope to see tourists back soon, although to a very different hotel than before the war, as the uncovered shop postcards attest:
“What strikes me are the bright colours, the vibrant blue sky and golden sand; the world was still in colour back then and people didn’t know what was in store, they’re alive, both their legs are of the same length, they have plans for the future, maybe they’re going to change cars or kitchen units or take a trip abroad.”
Hotel Silence shows the power of community to heal both collectively and for the individuals within it. It is about how hope doesn’t mean a diminishment of pain, but a way to live alongside it. And it’s about how both hope and healing can be found in the most unexpected places, if we can find the strength to stay open to such possibilities.
Secondly, Esperanza Street by Niyati Keni (2015) published by AndOtherStories, a not-for-profit publisher whose website explains: “And Other Stories publishes some of the best in contemporary writing, including many translations. We aim to push people’s reading limits and help them discover authors of adventurous and inspiring writing.”
They are a publisher I really enjoy, one where I’ll pick up a novel simply because it’s one of theirs, which is exactly what I did with Esperanza Street. The story is one of a community in a port town in the Philippines, told by Joseph, an eight-year old houseboy: “Esperanza, one of the oldest streets in Puerto, its heartbeat made up of a thousand smaller pulses, lulled us with its apparent constancy.”
Joseph’s mother has died, and shortly before this his father takes him to Mary Morelos’ house to work. Mary is kind but exacting, and Joseph gets to know her sons, good-looking mechanic Dub and artistic Benny as well as the cook America.
We follow Joseph and the inhabitants of the street through the next few years, beginning in 1981 with the Marcos’ in power. It’s a poor but busy area with food stalls, coffee shops and beauty parlours, and I thought Keni achieved a good balance of evoking the environment without indulging in poverty porn:
“from the gate, I watched the street turn to velvet and everything become rich, convivial. In a line stretching from the brow of the hill down to the jetty, the lamps came on in clusters, their yellow light seeping through the smoke that layered upwards from the braziers.”
The threat of redevelopment hangs over Esperanza Street. Local gangster Eddie Casama has left the area behind through his accumulation of wealth – though his mistress lives in the area – and he has an interest in seeing the area change. “he looked like the kind of man who’d let his kids ride on his back at weekends.” Yet his potential for violence and disregard for others is never in doubt.
There isn’t a huge amount of plot to Esperanza Street, though there several strands that we watch unfold. The inhabitants of the street are subject to their own passions and also to external forces of politics and money, all of which determine their fates. Joseph is an intelligent boy and both Mary and his father are anxious that he finishes school, but there will be events that loom large in his life along the way.
“I read with the hope something would finally arrive that would illuminate everything, a single piece of knowledge that would show how my life would unfold.”
Keni grew up in London though she has travelled a lot in the Philippines, so I would be interested to know how accurate her portrayal of the area is. It’s certainly a fully realised fictional portrait, which I found very evocative.
To end, a song named after a street near where I live: