Transporting a body can have complications. Especially when it means chugging it to the airport, hauling it onto a plane, and checking it into Ólafsdóttir’s Hotel Silence. Sometimes it writhes in the turbulence, birthing false hopes. It’s even more infuriating when the body isn’t dead. Jónas Ebeneser is 49 years old. 6 feet tall. 84 kilogrammes. White. Handyman. Heterosexual. His mother describes him as an open wound. His wife has just left him, pronouncing that her 26-year-old daughter, Gudrún Waterlily, isn’t his. Jónas’ mother, ex-wife, and daughter all share the same name, Gudrún. He tattoos a water lily onto his heart, and consigns himself to suicide. He takes his body far away from his Icelandic family to a place where he can discreetly kill himself. Where none of the Gudrúns will be bothered with the cleaning-up. He’s into a respectable suicide; a decent way to do the self-die. Now he’s just following through with the necessary, before dissolving into his flesh.
Unlike other existential novels, Hotel Silence doesn’t meander in the avenues of futility. It’s not packed with crippling, gripping solitude. There’s no claustrophobic agony, but a clement quest to self-discovery. The quest is water coloured, tender, and humane. It’s this warm humanity, this gracious embrace, that distinguishes the story from other existential novels. And so Jónas isn’t rushed. He slouches onwards as he weighs the best way to die. He visits his mother at the nursing home, who can’t engage his suffering. Empties his apartment. Rummages through old diaries. Researches ways to dispose of himself. There’s a sluggishness to Jónas, not an anxious, grating dread, but a benign complacency and familiarity with suffering. A man retired from desire and self-autonomy. He’s not compelled to die either, there’s no impulsive, immediate need, but something else that has been long accumulating, finally culminating. He handles the business of his suicide remarkably well. We can forget he’s talking about killing himself. It’s as matter of factual as turning up at a doctor’s appointment. There’s a logical and dependable practicality to him.
He looks up a far-flung location, Hotel Silence, at the centre of a recent ceasefire in a war-torn country, tidies up his home affairs, and travels with a toolbox and nine personal items. He brings his drill to affix a hook to hang himself with. It’s the perfect graveyard, a decrepit hotel mushroomed by mines, patrolled by militias, in a town of missing limbs and emptied of colour – a sanctuary for those trying to be forgotten. For the longest time, Jónas simply does what the three Gudrúns ask. “If someone asks me why I do what I do, I answer that a woman asked me to.” But now he’s lost this. He’s lost his purpose.
Jónas repeatedly announces that he’s on vacation. Townspeople wonder if he’s on a special mission. He searches for ancient murals buried beneath the hotel, which pushes him into closer and more intimate relations with the hotel’s staff. He’s confronted by a shooting wall where people were lined up and shot during the war. The mixing of images is effective; we are transported from the quiet, controlled minimalism of Jónas’ Icelandic life, to his lyrical diaries, to a vision of post-modern warfare in a bombed out town, with aching limbs, covered in greyness. A town visited by mercenaries, who are harvesting it, excavating it for profit. Amongst all these people who are there for self-gain, Jónas’ presence is questioned, is he the real deal, what’s his angle? Everyone there has an angle. The very neighbours turned against each other when the fighting started. The town feels like it can be the site of any recent genocide in Europe. In the ruins, Jónas begins gluing the town back to together, fixing showerheads, floorboards, and doors.
Jónas seeks wombs. He’s afflicted by a habitual dependence, unable to absorb suffering, he passes it onto mother figures around him. As we learn from his relationship with his ex-wife, “I passed on suffering to her; she assigned me chores”. But he must overcome the assurance of the void. In the background of the story, there’s a chorus of Heidegger, Paul Celan, and Nietzsche. Then there’s Jónas writing vividly about flesh. The novel is written on flesh’s parchment. Within this ectodermal tissue, there’s a story stretched over an intestinal number of layers.
With the emotional metabolism of an elephant, Jónas isn’t quick to react. Ólafsdóttir reveals the volume and weightiness of Jónas. His awkward mannerisms around women. His self-contained silence. His lurking sensitivity. His handiness. His aged maleness. His functionalism. His concealment of vulnerability and pain. His impeccable manners. We glimpse his younger self from diary entries – a passionate lover, an avid reader of Nietzsche, a sensitive observer, and a chronicler of women and of flesh. But it appears that his sensitivity is without an outlet. It’s only in Hotel Silence, where the bullets are now quiet, where the war is just around the corner, that Jónas finds another kind of life affirmation.
There’s something miserable and repressed about Jónas’ interactions with the women in his life, he appears more sensitively attuned. This is testament to Ólafsdóttir’s ability, being able to so convincingly convey how men feel about women, more importantly, how men experience women. The things they focus on. The intimacies and sensitivities they seek without articulating. Jónas reflects, “Men don’t give any thought to knees, they don’t think about women in parts, but in overall pictures.”
Ólafsdóttir’s captures Jónas’ lack of desire. He carries his drill like a phallus around the town, fixing small things around the hotel, helping the women in need. The drill appears as an extension of his dormant desire. There’s certainly a brilliant symbol at play here, how a man needs to find something to fix, to be in control, to use some kind of phallus or apparatus, to stay occupied. Jónas’ offers his drill to women, but it’s unavailable to the men. There’s a poignant accusation by the owner of Restaurant Limbo, “There are also men in this world who need help.”
At no point are we airlifted out from the story, Ólafsdóttir sticks to the narrative, and isn’t tempted to break or to punish it. This isn’t a novel with a quirky structure. It isn’t unnecessarily explosive or experimental; it’s just a ferociously intriguing story, progressing linearly from beginning to end. We aren’t disoriented by the form or the medium, only entranced by the narrative and seduced by its possibilities. There’s no wastage in description, there’s no excess, there’s no leading. The story is direct, every encounter, every situation, every scene is deliberated, and there’s a sense that when someone is getting ready to die, only the most important aspects are visible, everything else is fuss and nonsense.
Ólafsdóttir is soft-spoken, light handed. She portrays the quiet. Even the suffering in the story is dilute, detached, never fully absorbed into the vortex of despair. There’s a gentle touch that keeps suffering at bay, without allowing it to accelerate. Redemption is always a finger-touch away. Ólafsdóttir captures the stirrings of desire and its origin in intimacy, the awakened body, the movement of skin, its history, its voice, and its inescapable flesh-like personality. Amongst its investigations into intimacy, desire, and existence, Hotel Silence receives its perfect visitor, “On my way to the room it occurs to me that from now on I don’t have to say any more words than I want to, that I could shut up until the end of the world.”
Hotel Silence Author: Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Translated by: Brian FitzGibbon
Publisher: Pushkin Press