Review: “Grand Hotel Europa,” by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer
GRAND HOTEL EUROPA, by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer | Translated by Michele Hutchison
A middle-aged Dutch writer checks into a hotel in a named Italian city, trying to recover from a failed love affair and “regain control of my mind.” Then begins “Grand Hotel Europa”, the sprawling new autofiction of Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, a Dutch novelist, poet and scholar who has lived in Italy for a long time.
The narrator, also called Ilja Pfeijffer, has arrived at the “lavish … and once magnificent hotel” to try to alchemize his affair with Clio – an art historian from an aristocratic family – into a novel. The hotel’s cast of eccentric characters includes a North African piccolo with a painful refugee past; a scholar and philosophical scholar; a “militant feminist” poet; the new Chinese owner, dedicated to modernizing the place for Asian tourists; and the mysterious, Miss Havisham-like former owner, enclosed in a room Ilya cannot find, “alone with her art and memories.”
The hotel evokes the manliness and beauty of pre-modern European life, its gilded frames and Chesterfield armchairs that move the narrator to a dizzying flashback. But his enchantment is undermined by his great preoccupation and bugbear – “the phenomenon of mass tourism,” in all its manifold dismay. “Grand Hotel Europa” depicts a Europe overrun by hordes of visitors who consume a parody of the past and turn the continent into their “wonderful historical park.” The narrator himself is an incarnated traveler, but his peregrines are presented as a push towards enlightenment; in contrast, the tourist’s relentless search for a unique experience – and impressive social media posts – leads to obscenity and farce, as when a tour operator celebrates night orienteering in Cambodia and asks Ilja if he is looking for “Vietnam, Napalm, Tour of Duty, the type of thing. “
One can not help but be impressed by how many narrative balls Pfeijffer holds in the air. The novel combines a behavioral comedy with travel journalism, political and cultural commentary and reflections on European identity. Oh, plus an art-heist mystery (centered on the last days and the paintings of Caravaggio). And that love story. Pfeijffer’s prose, boldly translated by Michele Hutchison, is as diverse as the novel itself – now elegant and baroque, now mildly reportage, now eerie (some readers may crawl from his merry descriptions of sexual encounters). What to do with a style reminiscent of Nabokov, Tom Wolfe, Baudrillard, Umberto Eco, Wes Anderson and a UNESCO position paper? The novel mercilessly mixes the erotic and the esoteric, the funny and the hectic, the ancient and the academic.
Pfeijffer’s characters tend to squirt lectures: on immigration policy, on the inequalities caused by Airbnb and the sharing economy, on George Steiner’s concept of Europeanism. The sporadic longueur is relieved by a lively, even virtuoso invective, pointed out by tourists who “fill in all their idleness… as cholesterol which inhibits the city’s circulation and causes infarctions”. A merry misanthropy animates the novel’s academic reflections, while Ilja entertains florid fantasies about alleviating the tourist abundance via terrorist attacks or medieval torture methods – and at one point a German tourist throws out of Rialto and into the Grand Canal of Venice.
Pfeijffer’s autofictional gambits begin with a scene in which the narrator promises his publisher a novel about tourism, and then includes the author’s own itineraries, such as his trip to Skopje, Macedonia, for a literary festival. A conference Clio organizes about the future of museums, with the real art historians Eike Schmidt and Jean Clair. Pfeijffer mixes these everyday realities with the fictional and fantastic. Clio is, of course, the muse of history; As for the identity of the hotel’s mysterious ex-owner, it is clear in a spectacular resolution involving what can be called a funeral for Europe.
There is an eerie quality to the novel that suggests that an author takes all the crops to his desk and sews them together with metafictional and autofictional threads. Not everything works, but in the end, “Grand Hotel Europa” as its jarring narrator is, whose mistakes and excesses you easily forgive because you like his company. Not even the book’s corrosive and at times gloomy views of contemporary European realities can dampen its incorrigible mood.
Rand Richard’s Cooper is the author of two works of fiction and a co-editor of Commonweal.
GRAND HOTEL EUROPA | By Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer | Translated by Michele Hutchison | 560 pp. | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | $ 30