Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer
Grand Hotel Europa
Writer pays homage to lost love and a dying Europe
An author by the name of Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer leaves Venice and moves into the stately Grand Hotel Europa for an indefinite period. His relationship with Clio, a clever hot-blooded art historian, has just fallen apart. In the hotel, where a sense of long-lost glory hangs in the air, he reconstructs exactly what went wrong with Clio and befriends the eccentric hotel staff and guests along the way.
Among these are the major-domo, who always speaks in complete sentences, the feminist poet, Albane, the congenial bellboy, Abdul, and the intellectual, Patelski. Ever since the hotel was bought by the Chinese millionaire, Mr Wang, there have been plastic flowers in the antique vases and disco lights in the chandelier. The tension between the representatives of Old Europe and the new world reach a climax when the major-domo is fired.
The clash between tradition and modernization played a decisive role in the end of Ilja and Clio’s relationship as well. A classicist like Ilja sees nothing but the beauty of Old Europe, whereas Clio laments that a country like Italy is strangled by the past. This sentiment compels her to take a job at the Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi, but Ilja – a European in his heart and soul – refuses to go with her.
Ilja is enraged by the fact that Europe is becoming a giant theme park, Venice being one frightening example. He contends that beauty and an illustrious past alone are no longer relevant: ‘I don’t want to have to conclude that, like the hotel I’m staying in and the continent it’s named after, my best years are behind me and that my only real prospect for the future is to live off my past.’ Still, the book is anything but sombre – Pfeijffer is too witty for that. At the end, when the main character decides to follow Clio to Abu Dhabi, the reader is left with the hope that he can still reconcile his muse and his beloved continent.
Just like Pfeijffer’s previous novel, La Superba, this book addresses central themes such as tourism, globalization and the refugee crisis. Its stylistic variety is striking: in the hotel, the characters speak in flowery, old-fashioned prose, whereas the language used to describe Ilja’s relationship with Clio is poetic and sensual. What’s more, an exciting, Dan Brown-style subplot emerges when the author and his girlfriend go off in search of a lost painting by Caravaggio. Along the way, the book offers essay-like elaborations on Venice, Skopje and the excesses of mass tourism. With this ingenious juxtaposition of styles and themes, Pfeijffer makes a stunning literary plea for Europe. Grand Hotel Europa is truly a Great European Novel.