One need not be a world traveler or international spy to enjoy Olivier Rolin’s Hotel Crystal, but the allure and intrigue of both take center stage in this cleverly crafted antinovel-cum-travelogue. French novelist and journalist Olivier Rolin chooses another “Olivier Rolin” to play the starring role in this collection of global capers that are disjointedly linked through a series of detailed hotel room descriptions.
Most of the 43 chapters include a thorough recounting of the interior of Rolin’s current lodging. He takes the reader on a remarkably unusual tour of rather ordinary hotel rooms around the world, describing mundane details of accommodations ranging from a Double Tree in Tallahassee, Florida to a Novotel in Cotonou, West Africa. He approximates the dimensions of each room and describes furniture, lighting fixtures, fabric patterns and wallpaper motifs. Recounting shapes of pillows (like “gigantic ravioli”) and wall colors (“denture pink” or “oxblood red”), he continues his seemingly absurd yet captivating narrative right down to the exact positioning and design of the luggage rack.
Although the repetition may tempt readers to skim some details, each of Rolin’s settings is curious enough to hold interest. And his creative use of mirrors and windows proves particularly revealing, providing insight about the state of his own character and offering up views of landscapes that lie beyond the tiresome litany of measurements and upholstery patterns. He often segues from reciting banal room details to carrying on with his latest scheme-in-progress, as in Lausanne, where he describes the phone in Room 1212 at the Hotel d’Angleterre, as it “happens to be ringing to let me know that my clients are waiting for me in the lobby.”
So just what exactly is this international man of mystery up to? Brawls, murder, sex, street riots, ransoms, smuggled caviar and the “explosive-fake-nougat trade” all play a role. There are embassy meetings, secret missions, ridiculous shenanigans and, to be fair, noble efforts like “preserving world peace (temporarily).” Rolin wheels and deals with frequency among a worldwide network of cohorts and exotic women. And, of course, one woman and one hotel room stand apart from the rest. Rolin cannot describe (and remembers very little) about Room 211 at the Hotel Crystal in Nancy, France— except for a box of macaroons—possibly a present from his one true love, Mélanie Melbourne?
This is only one of many unanswered questions. We learn at the outset of the novel that Rolin is actually missing. His stories, discovered in a briefcase that turns up in Paris, made their way into the hands of an “editor” who has pieced together Rolin’s peculiar travel journal. Notes about his hotel rooms and ensuing misadventures are scribbled on travel ephemera of every kind — hotel stationary, transit maps, airline menus, an assortment of postcards, pages torn from literary works and from a Lonely Planet guidebook (with a long footnote hypothesizing why this might be.)
We also learn that Georges Perec has inspired Rolin. While describing Room 102 of Augerge Saint-Pierre in Mont-Saint Michel, Rolin sits (in a bamboo chair) and says he will not leave until he finishes reading a book by Perec:
“So, it is my intention to write the book that Perec refers to in Species of Spaces: ‘…to make an inventory, as exhaustive and as accurate as possible, of “All the Places Where I Have Slept.”’ Yet, as far as I know, Perec never finished the work as planned. So, I’m going to do it for him: not out of arrogance, but rather out of a kind of respect bordering (perhaps) on devotion. When it comes to the authors I love, I can’t bear the idea that they left a project incomplete.”
Yet that is exactly what Rolin does in Hotel Crystal. His experimental fiction is engaging and humorous, but too fragmented and unresolved to be fulfilling. Flipping back and forth between chapters, I found myself trying to piece together his puzzling movements, wanting to plot his multi-continent hotel jaunts on a map, and surprisingly, wishing I could participate in his international escapades. I imagined Rolin’s book as an adult version of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series—complete with fantasies, bad guys, rooms of mirrors and games of chance—in which I could play a part, and see at least one story through to the end.
Rolin’s assemblage of far-flung travel tales is imaginative and refreshing in its approach, but I remain unsatisfied. And throughout the book, he dares to tease about additional tales he has to share! “But that’s another story.” Somehow enticing in its lack of resolution, Hotel Crystal is, however, a book I will read again, foolishly (perhaps) still hoping to solve something in the end.
By Olivier Rolin
Translated by Jane Kuntz
Dalkey Archive Press
190 pgs, $12.95