Coincidentally, I read John Barth’s debut novel, The Floating Opera, just before reading this winner of the Icelandic Literary Prize. Both books, as it turns out, are preoccupied with Hamlet’s universal and perennial question: “To be or not to be” (this question, incidentally, is a great way to remember how to avoid split infinitives). Barth’s and Ólafsdóttir’s protagonists open their narratives with the decision to commit suicide—not to be. And both characters keep a cool-headed disposition that invites us to consider such a morbid determination without revulsion. But whereas Barth’s book toys with timeline and perspective and, in general, expresses his signature zest for language, Hotel Silence is a straight-forward rush of a story, told in the first-person present, that threatens to vanish as quickly as it appears if one doesn’t slow down.
For a book dealing with such heavy matters, with a brooding and sensitive former philosophy student as protagonist, the prose is exceptionally lean. The pace of the story unfolds in an equally clipped manner, resulting in a quick read that can easily stifle intimacy and empathy with the characters. For this reason I think it best, as a reader, to deliberately slow down. There are powerful statements and images neatly spread throughout the novel, the impact of which could be diminished if one allows the thrust of the book to rush one onward. The author has shorn the text of the ornamentation and detail found in big books, focusing instead on highly concentrated quality.
There is a mythology of skin (flesh, organs, blood, scars, tattoos) that unfolds, beginning with the belly button as a sort of primordial scar that connects us to the mother and continues on through that which drives all our interactions (“…flesh is the beginning and end of all the most important things in my life…”). On the surface, as it were, of this philosophy of skin is the reflection of the superficiality of the modern experience. Jónas is not suffering from any physical malady or mental aberration or haunting past; he is suffering from what could be termed “fatal ennui”: a complete loss of interest in the experiences of life because of the perception that everything worth experiencing has already been experienced. Sure, we are brought through the standard woe-is-me, anthropocentric mewlings of man’s feelings of insignificance in the world, but it is the “fatal ennui” that is particularly barbed.
In a way, the leanness of the prose mirrors one of the major points of the story: the importance of communication. Jónas is detached to the point of seldom talking and assigning emotions—at one point he shocks himself by uttering a full sentence, something he cannot remember doing for weeks. Yet it isn’t a matter of communication with just anyone (his friend Svanur communicates with him but does not meet the same outcome). Concomitantly, in addition to the mythology of skin, there is a sort of mysticism of the number 5 that ends in a prophetic fulfillment and illuminates the concept of destiny.
Ólafsdóttir contrasts the disposition of a person from a peaceful country (Iceland) to that of a war-torn country (we are not explicitly given the name of the country, but we are given clues). On the one side, we have a man who knows nothing of true hardship and suffering (Job-type suffering) and is enmeshed in a mental despair to the point of suicide. On the other hand, we have characters from a war-torn country doing the best they can to cope, stay optimistic, and work together to forge a better life. And it is the need and appreciation of the latter that redeems the former. This is the most beautiful and poetic element of Silent Hotel.
Standing back and taking inventory, Silent Hotel has a little bit of everything. Clean, crisp prose that tells a story with writerly authority but isn’t afraid to dip into the philosophical. There are passages, especially about the human heart, that remind me of Karl Ove Knausgård’s ruminations throughout Min Kamp. There is droll gallows humor that mixes in just the right amount of levity (“Since I’m not dying today, I need to eat”). And we are taken on a journey of the human mind, body, and soul as it struggles to evolve in the face of an utter loss of will. While not blind to the very real issues that drive us to Halmet’s ultimate question, Silent House ironically betrays its very title and offers hope.