European Novel(ties): Pereira Maintains and Grand Hotel Europa
In the latest installment of our monthly book club, Gijs Verhoeff and Catherine Wood review two books that show the idyllic beauty of European cities, but make the reader question what is going on underneath the surface.
Pereira Maintains – Antonio Tabucchi, original language: Italian (as Sostiene Pereira)
Pereira Maintains takes you back to the Iberian peninsula In the 1930s. An elderly man, called Pereira, works for a local newspaper in Lisbon, where he’s responsible for the culture and literature section. He takes his work very seriously and spends his day writing obituaries of writers, thinking about foreign literature, and translating mostly French stories. In that sense it is a perfect addition to the discussions in European Novel(ties).
Pereira’s ‘account’ describes the changes in Portuguese society under the Salazar regime. The Spanish Civil War is an important backdrop to the monotone life of the old man. Pereira originally prefers his usual apathy to the developments. This changes when the encounters with a young man - Monteiro Rossi - force him to take position.
The book is a captivating account on when and how to take a stance against fascism. Pereira Maintains explores how long it remains possible to argue that the politics that disrupt the lives of others won’t involve you, or how long you can remain ‘uninvolved.’ In that sense, it shows how politics is and always will be personal.
Ultimately, the most important literary tool of the author has been the ‘testimonial’ style, which reminds the reader of a police report. From page one, it is clear that the reader cannot fully trust the account of the events. The possibility of censorship in the story that you’re reading and the possibility of Pereira lying about his role, loom over the book. Moreover, because you only indirectly experience the events through Pereira’s testimonial, you don’t know the motives of all the other characters. Both Pereira Maintains and Grand Hotel Europa leave you to wonder what you can believe. This effect is similar to the foreword of Nabokov’s Lolita and the final page to Karin Boye’s Kallocain.
Even more than making you wonder what to believe, Pereira Maintains is truly a plea to believe in something - preferably something bigger than yourself and the attention to help others. It’s a short, but powerful novel that is as relevant now - under a Giorgia Meloni government - as when it came out in 1994 during the first government of Silvio Berlusconi.
Grand Hotel Europa — Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, original language: Dutch
After finishing Tabucchi’s slim novel, if you’re up for a longer read, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s Grand Hotel Europa, first published in 2018 and translated to English in 2022, is a good option. Like Pereira Maintains, Grand Hotel Europa is written by an outsider about another European country. But while the main setting of the novel is Italy, where the author/main character had settled (and no longer considered himself a ‘tourist,’) the European continent as a whole plays a crucial role in the book. It provides a vehicle for Europeans to reflect on what they have been, what they are, and what they will become in an increasingly globalized and complex world.
I say “author/main character” because Pfeijffer also writes the book in a semi-autobiographical way, including referencing previous novels that he actually wrote, so much so that it’s never entirely clear which of the events he describes are ‘true’ and which are invented. He weaves together two storylines: one in the past describing the course of a recently ended relationship, and one in the present where he stays as a long-term guest in a beautiful old hotel that is long past its prime. While staying at this hotel (in an unnamed European country), he attempts to make sense of that relationship through writing.
In both storylines, Pfeijffer offers a sharp critique of the mass tourism that has taken over much of Europe today. At the same time, he explores the irony of the voyeurism of western tourists when they go abroad to ‘exotic’ countries, who then feel offended when American or Chinese tourists do the same in cities such as Amsterdam or Venice. At times, this critique can feel rather pretentious, particularly considering that Pfeijffer’s character is a tourist himself. But I came to think that this was intentional, and encourages the reader to reflect on their own behavior and perceptions of tourism. I think all of us in EPS, living and trying to become ‘locals’ in three cities not our own, can see a bit of ourselves in one of the archetypal tourists Pfeijffer describes as feeling gratified whenever mistaken for a local.
The author also ties the effects of globalization to his criticism of tourism in ways that are at times funny and heartbreaking. For instance: at the Grand Hotel Europa, the new wealthy Chinese owner switches out the Asian artifacts in the ‘oriental room’ for wood paneling and a faux red phone box to make it look like an ‘authentic’ English pub. Meanwhile, the main character encounters a migrant who is trying to build a better life in Europe. In both situations, the continent’s past of outward expansion and colonialism is reflected back upon itself when it is confronted with the economic impacts of globalization, mass tourism, and the effects of the migration ‘crisis.’
In his novel, Pfeijffer doesn’t present any solutions for the problems he explores in such depth. And maybe that’s because he doesn’t have any. Pfeijffer adeptly critiques tourists of many types—including those who see themselves as superior and not like those other tourists—but doesn’t tell us what to do instead. And while his book is a mastery of raising important questions, it is prone to cynicism that isn’t always helpful. I think it is possible to travel in a minimally problematic way, including doing so more sustainably, building connections, and being respectful of your destination by trying to get to know it while still remembering that you are a tourist. This is an ideology embodied by the great American travel writer Rick Steves in his essays on “How to Travel as a Political Act.” Because, ultimately, as Pfeijffer points out, most people are tourists at some point in their lives and many have experienced the negative effects of tourism firsthand. Since this won’t change for the foreseeable future, all we can do is try to travel more responsibly.