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.

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A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa (Man Booker International Prize Long List)

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“I was happy in this house, on those afternoons when the sun came into the kitchen to pay me a visit. I would sit down at the table. Phantom would come over and rest his head in my lap.

If I still had the space, charcoal, and available walls, I could compose a great work about forgetting: a general theory of oblivion.

I realize I have transformed the entire apartment into a huge book. After burning the library, after I have died, all that remains will be my voice.

In this house all the walls have my mouth.” p. 104

I thought this book would be more about one woman’s isolated life behind the walls of an apartment she had barricaded herself into, and less about the revolution in Angola.

I thought it would have more letters, memories, and scribblings which she had left on the apartment walls after living there for years and years in utter isolation.

I thought I would like reading about an introvert in the extreme, a person who disliked being outside at all.

Instead, there was much about trapping pigeons with rough diamonds, and political goings on.

Frankly, I didn’t like it. It is my least favorite of the long list so far. Find more thoughts, with a better plot summary, from 1st Reading.

A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa
Translated by Daniel Hahn
244 pages

Skylight by Saramago

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Just as a skylight is an opening in the roof, either admitting a brief illumination of light or giving outsiders a peek as to what’s inside, so Jose Saramago gives us a view of the inhabitants of an apartment building in Lisbon during the early 1950’s. Each member becomes almost as familiar to us as the members of our own family; in fact, I felt as if I was living in the apartments with these people. Which wasn’t always a pleasant feeling, for we are face to face with a lonely cobbler and his wife who have recently taken on a renter, a beautiful mistress and her benefactor, a family of four spinster women: the mother, aunt and two adult daughters, and an embittered couple with their ten year old son.

Each family has its own dreams and disappointments; their lives are lived out before us as a slice of life. We, as the reader, never leave the apartment. But, we see the complexities and emotional drama inherent to each person. We find ourselves taking sides, nodding our heads in agreement with a conversation, or silently cursing foolish choices.

When I closed the book, I had only an indication of where each person’s path would take them. Nothing is wrapped up or finalized. But I saw that the steps which had been taken would be next to impossible to reverse, and that for each family, nothing much would change.

The elderly cobbler and his wife would continue to love each other throughout their old age and loneliness; the mistress would continue to find a benefactor who would support her financially; the embittered couple would go their own way with excuses for needing freedom; and the four women would listen to classical music as they continued to stifle their inner passions. It isn’t concluding what would happen that makes this novel fascinating, it’s discovering who each character is, how he thinks, and what prompts him to take each step in his life.

It is no wonder to me that Skylight is in the top of the important book lists lately. Although it took almost four decades to be published, it is a beautifully written observation of human lives. I will be thinking of it for a long time to come.

Publishers often take a while to decide whether to publish a novel, but 36 years is pushing it. This is what happened to the Portuguese writer José Saramago, whose book Skylight was submitted in 1953 and returned in 1989, a few years before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The author, whose work has been translated into 26 languages and whose sales exceed 2m copies, refused to let the novel be published in his lifetime. It would be a constant reminder, he thought, not so much of rejection, but of indifference and bad manners. ~Independent

Some favorite quotes:

“They had their past to remember, the present to live in, and the future to fear.”

“On this side- or perhaps on the other side too – of the inevitable noises lay a dense painful silence, the inquisitorial silence of the past observing us and the ironic silence of the future that awaits us.”

“All I mean is that we won’t become what we are meant to be in life by listening to other people’s words or advice. we have to feel in our own flesh the wound that will make us into proper men. Then it’s up to us to act.”

Blindness by Jose Saramago

Title: Blindness
Author: Jose Saramago
Published: 1998
Number of pages: 326
Rating: 5 out of 5

There are no names of characters here. Only “the girl with the dark sunglasses,” or “the doctor”, or “the boy with the squint.”

There are no quotation marks delineating conversations here. Only a random, stream-of-consciousness kind of dialogue as one voice interacts with another.

What there is is blindness. Unexpected blindness which comes upon its victims in the form of a milky white sea instead of total blackness.

While driving home one day, a man sits in his car at the intersection unable to proceed because he has lost his sight. A stranger helps this man to his apartment, and then goes back to steal his car. The stranger becomes blind. The eye doctor from whom the man seeks medical assistance becomes blind. The patients who were waiting in the doctor’s office when the man is called become blind. Blindness seems to rub off from one to another as easily as the hair from a cat when it rubs against you.

How does one function when one has suddenly lost sight? How do those around react when an ailment is suspected of being contagious? It’s rather a survival of the fittest here, except for the doctor’s wife, who inexplicably is not without her sight. Yet she has willingly accompanied her husband with the other blind people into the wards of the empty asylum where they are interned.

A sort of order begins in the wards. People organize themselves so that the distribution of food which they are given, never enough to go around, is at least given equally. But, how are they to manage cleanliness? Believing that they are unseen, not knowing that the doctor’s wife still has her sight, some defecate on the floor; soon filth prevails. Worse, a kind of mafia has set itself up demanding payment for the food which the government promised would be provided.

The soldiers guarding the place are paranoid that the blindness will spread to them, and when the inmates come for assistance they are instantly shot. This book, more than a treatise on being blind, is a treatise on civilization. It is fantastic.