A promising new (to me) publisher is always cause for celebration, so take a bow Dalkey Archive, a US press which has recently set up a UK outpost, making its titles available here. It describes itself as not-for-profit, which strikes me as a handy policy that many small presses might adopt, to avoid tears later, but there’s some background to them here. Dalkey Archive takes its name from Flann O’Brien’s last novel, a cavalcade of unusual ideas, and so is entirely appropriate for a publisher which specialises in books others might quail from. They also, not incidentally, have beautiful covers, which as an added bonus, are as matching-decoratively acceptable on my bedside table as Sea of Poppies was in our hallway. The covers, as a close examination below will reveal, are unfortunately of a texture designed to attract fingerprint smudges; but I’m sure they’re working on that.
Olivier Rolin’s Hotel Crystal was an irresistible introduction to Dalkey Archive for me, sounding like a cross between Nabokov and Calvino – specifically, Pale Fire meets Invisible Cities. It’s inspired – another tempter – by Georges Perec, who wrote, “I have an exceptional – I believe fairly prodigious even – memory of all the places I have slept in.” This is the springboard for Hotel Crystal, which comprises individual chapters describing in minute detail forty-two hotel rooms which Rolin has slept in. He does not disappoint.
The room measures about 4 x 5 metres. A partition with a 2.5 x 1 metres opening in the middle divides it into two parts (in the manner of an iconostasis): a narrow entryway about one metre wide along the entire width of the bedroom; then, behind the partition, the room itself. The door is painted white, the hall khaki, and the frame of the entryway to the room forms a white arch. Brown baseboards run along the…
So far so Nicholson Baker. But this barking mad proposition takes place in a world where Olivier Rolin has gone missing (“under well known circumstances”), and these room descriptions are all that we – and the ‘editors’ of this volume – have to go on. As he describes each room, Rolin veers off into memories of what happened here. This Olivier Rolin leads a double life, where he associates with humanity at its most exotic: “I call Crook, a former MI6 man fired for compulsive lying and drug abuse … [who] knows the upper tiers of the international cutthroat sect” … “my old Master Louis Althusser … got it into his head to steal an atomic submarine” … “I’m talking with Grigor Ilyuchinsk, a kind of Russian mafioso.”
Rolin himself, it turns out, fits in well with such underworld figures:
Unsheathing the sharpened (and ricin-tipped) sword concealed in my umbrella, I spun around and ran it through the man in the crepe-soled shoes. Stabbed through the heart, he fell without a sound (though in a pool of blood). It wasn’t Antonomarenko, as far as I could tell – it was some priest. I admit to having acted somewhat hastily, but with characters like Antonomarenko, survival often comes at such a price: it’s them or you (actually, as far as Antonomarenko’s concerned, he won’t be bothering anyone anymore: it seems he’s hanged himself in Buenos Aires). I briskly pushed the cleric over the parapet. His small stature made the job easier. All told, things could have been worse.
Names recur, and we begin to piece together a story of international espionage, terrorism and hostage-taking, and of love for the mysterious Mélanie Melbourne. There is a tremendous temptation to reorder the story, to place Rolin’s hotels in chronological order and try to get to the heart of a more linear mystery – and also to discover why the one room he claims to be unable to recall is in Hotel Crystal, “the empty centre of our impossible life together.”
I think however that such attempts would be in vain. The pleasure of Hotel Crystal is in the fragmented, disordered narrative it presents to the reader, of two worlds – or two perceptions of the world – in alignment. Here, the hotel room, meticulously described by the metre, is the banal anonymous box occupied and ignored by businessmen the world over; but it is also the exotic location of movie and pulp literature, where the same anonymity means that anything, from meaningful death to meaningless sex, can take place without consequences. The latter is particularly evident as Rolin, with vanity disguised as lack of vanity, portrays himself as a sexual predator (“I can’t help ogling some of the graceful girls, fine bones like spun glass”), such as in a disturbing and funny scene where the hotel maid comes in to service his room while he is in the bath. Inevitably, “we fuck – or, it would be more accurate to say: I fuck her.” Afterwards:
She gets back up, dresses, her mind elsewhere. She removes the sheets she just put on the bed, stuffs them into the canvas bag, and goes out into the hallway to get a new pair. She spreads them out, tucks them in, lays out the bedspread, patting it to smooth down the wrinkles. Not knowing what to do with myself, I return to the bathroom and get back into the tub. She follows me into the bathroom, changes the soaps and towels. At one point, I wonder if she’s going to unplug the drain, empty the bath water, scrub down the tub and toss me out with the dirty towels. But she doesn’t, and is soon on her way.
The juxtapositions of sex and violence with mind-numbing minutiae recall the scenes in American Psycho where Patrick Bateman would extol the virtues of Huey Lewis and the News at great length immediately after a stomach-turning depiction of rape or murder. Rolin’s prose though, is capable of moments of great elegance, as in a scene where “clouds of starlings merge and disperse acrobatically above the Vatican (like a shattered heart)”. Here the parenthesis seems to be a stage-whispering of the image, as though to acknowledge and defuse its ostentation.
All in all, Hotel Crystal is both playful and stimulating, full of hullabaloo and Oulipo, an homage both to pulp fiction and to postmodern literary trickery, a detective and mystery story itself as much as it reflects the tropes of detective and mystery stories. It defangs the promotional puffery of hotels even as it adds something more dramatically romantic in their place. Perfect – dare one say it? – holiday reading, or as a holiday from reading your usual sort of thing.