Atlantic Hotel by João Gilberto Noll

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Today is a sunny afternoon at Centennial Beach, where I am sitting with my son intermittently watching the teenagers dive off the high board and reading this interesting little novel.

It’s a bit hard to make sense of it all, and whether that’s because it’s often difficult for me to fully comprehend Spanish literature, or that Noll is a particularly obtuse writer, I cannot say. Certainly the unnamed character in Atlantic Hotel is an enigma to me.

“Just like that, the guy was offering me a complete itinerary, something I wasn’t used to contemplating. But then there was the way his attitude made me suspicious – he seemed at least as cunning as everybody else in the bar put together. But, on the other hand, what was I sticking around for? Somebody is offering to be my oarsman across this river, I thought with relief.”

It certainly seems that he, the central character,  is in need of a guide. Or, at least some direction. He has random sex with the receptionist in the first hotel he frequents, one in which a dead body is being taken out on a gurney as he is entering the building. He befriends an American archeologist named Susan on a bus going from Rio to Florianópolis, who has overdosed on all kinds of pills in the night and put on sunglasses to hide her dilated eyes. He is aimlessly, it appears to me, traveling through Brazil from Copacabana to Santa Carina and beyond.

The bar tender’s brother, who has offered to give him a ride, proves to be a dangerous man who is hiding something. So our narrator slips away down a dirt road to end up at a monastery, in a small town named Viçoso, with exceptionally white sheets and walls. He sleeps in a bed, under a crucifix, wears a soutane while his own clothes are being washed, and administers last rites to an old, dying woman; it’s the third death he’s encountered in the last three or four days.

When he wakes in Arraiol in Rio Grande do Sul, after continuing on his journey, he discovers that he has undergone a terrible surgery, one which will leave him forever handicapped.

I scratch my head over the meaning of all this, the journey this poor man has taken without seeming to get anywhere, the dreamlike sequence of events, until I come to this line:

I found the world rather sad.

Yes.

Maybe this is what it all comes down to. Noll’s spare writing, portraying these bitter events, can point to this truth: The world is sad. And perhaps our journey through it does not differ very much from this nameless character, this man who has found no peace in the world, nor within his own body.

I curled up in the way I liked to sleep, said to Sebastiao that one day I hoped I would understand why all this had happened.

He doesn’t even understand why “all this” has happened. But, do we ever? Do we ever fully learn the reasons behind our suffering, or the answers to our unanswered questions?

I’m beginning to see the wonder of this bizarre little book after all.

Find another review at roughghosts, and thoughts on the author at Literary Hub. Thanks to Two Lines Press for my review copy.