Translated from Serbian by Christina Pribichevich-Zoric
I thought this would make an excellent companion read to both Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel and Anna Seghers Transit, given its second world war hotel setting and its cast of characters, the majority of whom are just passing through. I was right on both counts, even if the flavour of the novel is different from both.
Estoril is a grand hotel just outside Lisbon and its wealthy clientele are – shall we say – varied to say the least: fallen kings, refugees from war torn Europe, spies and diplomats from both sides of the great conflict. For Portugal is a neutral state and everyone is welcome, on the proviso that their behaviour does not jeopardise that neutrality. Which explains why the chief of the Portuguese secret police constantly pops up like a rash and has an apoplectic fit when the hotel band plays a nationalistic German song in response to a customer request! And then, following Hitler’s suicide insists that the hotel lower its flag to half-mast:
We preserved peace and dignity and maintained our neutrality all through the war. It wouldn’t be nice if at the last moment we ran over to the winning side. You must admit, it wouldn’t speak well of us, would it.
Neutrality, it seems, is a matter of great complexity.
The novel’s structure mirrors that of folk moving into the hotel and then moving away by following the stories of significant guests for a few chapters before moving onto the next arrivals. It does mean that the cast grows as the novel progresses and it can be hard to keep track. (I should have taken notes as I was reading.) Fortunately there are central characters who hold the whole together: the hotel staff (of whom I became rather fond), Duško Popov, the (actual) double agent, and Gavriel Franklin (Gaby),a 10-year-old (fictional) Hasidic Jew, who is separated from his parents at the Spanish border and spends the rest of war at the hotel waiting for them to join him. (Money is no object – his family had the foresight to fill his suitcase with foreign currency and sew uncut diamonds into the hems of his garments.)
Popov was the real-life inspiration of Fleming’s James Bond, and in a playful moment Tiago-Stanković has the two cross paths in the casino. Fleming’s cameo is enough to paint him inept as a spy. On the other hand, Popov’s skill had me as confused as the two powers he was playing off against one another!
(Actually I’ve come to the conclusion that I really should have taken this novel more seriously and paid more attention – its at times underlying comic tone is somewhat deceptive.)
Despite the author’s meticulous research (even going so far as go acquire artifacts belonging to the real Popov), the fictional Gaby stole the show for me. He arrives at the Estoril as a lost young boy desperate for his parents to join him, charms and befriends the staff and many of the important guests including Popov (who with the ammorality of a double agent shows no compunction in “lending” money from the boy). His only true companion is a dog named Fennec. During the course of the war/novel Gaby matures and becomes independent, but when the war ends he is called back to Holland by his uncle. He leaves the hotel, still hoping to reunite with his parents. More importantly for the reading experience, his departure from the hotel leaves the hotel staff and this reader in tears.