Javier Montes [Granta's Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists]
As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 5 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.
Today’s featured Granta author is Spanish author Javier Montes. The opening of his new novel “The Hotel Life” was translated by superstar Margaret Jull Costa for this issue.
OK, the “fun wintertime weather” of Rochester has been replaced by mountains of snow and slipping cars and interminable delays getting into the office. Oh, and zero degree nights. People now resemble nondescript bundles, and the idea of walking anywhere to get sustenance and coffee seems as mentally daunting as climbing a mountain, or traveling through the Canadian tundra.
In addition to suffering this “wintry mix,” I’ve spent about an hour resetting every password I can think of since my email account and password were released and compromised thanks to that Gawker hack thing. UGH. The simplicity of using the same password at all accounts has been replaced by unique digit and symbol combinations that resemble the inside of a schizophrenic’s mind.
So, these two things have left me a bit cranky, a lot behind, and having to half phone this post in . . . (Excuses, excuses.)
Javier Montes’s “The Hotel Life” is one of my favorite pieces in here. It’s not the most experimental (also a big fan of the Hasbun, which will be highlighted next week) or the most daring, but in its direct simplicity and creepy moments, it’s a memorable, interesting opening (?) to his “novel in progress.”
First though, here’s a bit about Montes himself: According to Granta, he’s a writer, translator, and art critic. (Here are some pieces from Letras Libres.) He won the Jose Maria Pereda Prize for his first novel, Los penultimos, and just published another, Segunda parte. (Nice. Those are titles I can approve of.) Together with Andres Barba, he received the Anagrama Essay Prize for the book La ceremonia del porno. (And the list of awesome titles continues.) He’s done other things with Barba, including editing an anthology of stories entitled After Henry James. (Again.)
About “The Hotel Life”: I’m going to include to excerpts below, the opening which sets the tone about the narrator deciding to write a review of a local hotel, and then a part of the creepy-odd moment when he gets to his room.
HOTEL IMPERIAL, 17 March
I took only one light suitcase with me, although it was such a short journey that I could easily have taken more and heavier luggage if I’d wanted. Ten blocks, or 1.132km according to the electronic receipt from the taxi. There was so much traffic, though, that it took me twenty minutes. No one said goodbye to me or closed the apartment door behind me, no one came with me, still less followed in my tracks. I was, however, expected at my destination, and the room where I was to spend the night had been reserved in my name. I live so close to the hotel that it really would have been quicker to walk, but I decided to hail a taxi so as to get the journey off to a good start. However short, it was still a journey, and I wanted to show that I was taking it seriously (but then I’ve always taken both my work and my journeys seriously; they do, after all, come to more or less the same thing).
Or perhaps the opposite was true, perhaps it was a matter of being capable of a certain playfulness too, when required. I’ve spent half my life moving from hotel to hotel, but this was the first time I would sleep in one in my own city. That’s why I finally agreed to do it when the newspaper called and suggested the Imperial. I think we were all surprised when I did.
‘They’ve finished the refurbishment now and have just sent us their new publicity pack.’
Initially, I refused. They know I never write about new hotels.
‘But this isn’t a new hotel. It’s the same old Imperial. They’ve just given it a facelift.’
I don’t like new hotels: the smell of paint, the piped music. And I distrust the refurbished variety. Any ‘facelift’ destroys the prestige and character which, in older establishments, are the hotel equivalent of good sense and even sentiment, or, at least, of memory. I don’t know that I’m much of a sentimentalist myself, but I do have a good memory. And I’ve noticed that, after a certain age, sentiment and memory tend to merge, which is probably why I prefer hotels that know how to remember.
I long ago agreed my terms with the newspaper. I choose the hotel of the week, and they pay. Cheap or expensive, near or far, undiscovered or famous, and usually just for one night, but sometimes two. No skimping (they skimp quite enough on my fee) and no favours either. I never accept invitations in exchange for a review.
Not even if it’s a bad review, as some either very stupid or very astute PR guy once asked me over the phone.
People in the hotel world know my views, but an awful lot of invitations still get sent to me at the office (I won’t allow the paper to give anyone my home address). I suppose the PR companies send them just in case I do, one day, take the bait, just in case I relent and end up accepting and going to the hotel, where they will treat me like royalty and give me the very best room, so that I will then write a five-star review, which they will frame and hang up in reception or post on their website, and which will bring in money from guests or, even if it doesn’t and even if they don’t need it, will doubtless bring them other things that are sometimes worth as much or more than money: the approval of fellow hoteliers, the warm glow of vanity confirmed, the certainty that they are, as a hotel, on the right track.
My column, I have to say, continues to be a success. And although the people at the newspaper never say as much, so that I don’t get bigheaded, I know that hotels, airlines and travel agencies are queuing up to put a half-page advertisement in my section: ‘The Hotel Life’.
That success is, of course, relative, as is any success in newspapers and in print. Every now and then, someone suggests I start a blog with my reviews. Even the people at the newspaper do so occasionally. It might be fouling our own nest, they say, but if you started a blog and got some advertising on it, you’d make a mint.
I think they’re exaggerating.
‘Besides, you only live around the corner. All you’d have to do is spend a couple of hours there one afternoon to check out what they’ve done.’
Again I refused. They know perfectly well that I don’t write about hotels I haven’t slept in. It would be like writing a restaurant review having only sniffed the plates as the waiters brought them out (of course, my colleague on the next page sometimes does exactly that in his column: ‘Dinner is Served’. He said to me when we met once, ‘I can tell by the smell alone what’s cooking.’ I didn’t take to him, and the feeling, I imagine, was mutual).
‘Well, if that’s what’s bothering you, spend the night there.’
They may have been joking, but I took them at their word. I rather liked the idea of sleeping in a hotel room from which I could almost, you might say, see the windows of my own empty apartment and bedroom. A night of novelty might buck me up a bit. I’ve grown rather jaded with the years; well, I’ve been doing the same job for a long time now. My choice, of course. And I do it reasonably well, I think, possibly better than anyone, to judge by the emails I sometimes get from readers and even the occasional letter written the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper, envelope and stamp, and which the newspaper also forwards to me.
The letters always arrive opened. Apparently it’s a security thing, but it seems a bit over the top: I might be somewhat harsh in my comments at times, but not enough to merit a letter bomb. Then again, I don’t mind if the people at the office read them, always assuming they do, because at least the editors will see that I do still have a public.
On the other hand, there’s nothing so very amazing about being better than anyone else at a job for which there’s scarcely any competition. There aren’t many of us hotel reviewers left, not at least in the newspaper world. The Internet is another matter, there everyone wants to give his and her opinion and to analyse their journey down to the last detail and even write as if they were real reviewers (I think some of them copy my style and my adjectives). There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose. On the other hand, the reviews are never somehow right either: they’re nearly always illintentioned, ill-considered and ill-written by venomous individuals or by just plain weirdos: I mean, I like my work, but I certainly wouldn’t do it for free.
In the end, I gave in, which is presumably what the people at the Imperial were counting on when they tried their luck. The editors were thrilled, so I guess they had some advertising deal going on as well. As usual, they made the reservation in my name. My real name, of course, not the pseudonym I use for my column. The surname on my ID card throws even the sharpest manager or receptionist off the scent and means that I can be just like any other hotel guest. That’s also why I won’t allow my photograph to appear alongside my name, and why I never go to conventions or meetings with colleagues. That’s no great sacrifice, mind: they’re doubtless as dull as the reviews they write. Having no face makes my job much easier and – why deny it? – more amusing too. That way, the whole thing has something of the double agent or the undercover spy about it. A double double agent, because in hotels, no one is ever who they say they are, and who doesn’t take advantage of a stay in a hotel to play detective, however unwittingly?
After all these years of only using my real name to check in, it now seems to me falser than my false name; apart from the people on the newspaper, few people know it, and still fewer – almost no one, in fact – uses it.
The corridor on my floor was empty and silent, as if it were five in the morning. Or as if it were precisely the time it was, because hotels are often very noisy at five in the morning. No employees, no guests. The thick, gluey smell of new carpets. I reached my room door and it took me a while to work out how to put the card in the slot. Finally, the little red light blinked, then turned green. The door gave a kind of wheeze and reluctantly opened a couple of centimetres. Beyond lay a dark area, one of those spaces in hotel rooms that serve as a kind of no-man’s-land and provide the luxury of a square metre with no furniture, no name and no other purpose than that of isolating the bedroom, at least in theory, from any noise out in the corridor.
To my right, the door of the bedroom stood slightly ajar, letting in just enough light for me to see that the door to the bathroom stood wide open. A gleaming tap dripped in the darkness. Before I had a chance to close the main door to the corridor, I heard a voice inside. Like a thief taken by surprise, I instinctively froze, an instinct I had no idea I possessed and which was, besides, entirely misplaced. To my left, in the full-length mirror in the vestibule, something moved. In the reflection, I could make out the inside of the room that the door was preventing me from seeing. I saw a double bed with a beige counterpane that matched the grey light coming in through a window invisible to me.
A girl was sitting on the edge, towards the head of the bed. She was pretty, despite the ridiculous amount of make-up she was wearing. She looked very young. She had on only a bra and panties. Her hair and skin were the colour of the bedspread. Her hands were resting on her lap, and she was staring down at them with a look of utter boredom on her face. She was blowing out her cheeks a little, drumming lightly on the carpet with her feet and sighing scornfully, exaggerating these signs of tedium, like a child pretending to be bored. Out of the corner of her eye she was watching something happening on the part of the bed not reflected in the mirror. She wasn’t alone. The mattress creaked without her having moved a muscle and someone – a man, of course – panted once, twice, three times.
I didn’t know whether to go back out into the corridor or to walk straight in and demand an explanation. Since they clearly couldn’t see me, I took another step forward, my eyes still fixed on the mirror. The girl’s reflection disappeared. On the other side of the bed, with his back to the headboard and to her, I saw a naked boy. He was probably slightly younger than the girl and much darker skinned too. I couldn’t see his face because his head was bent contritely over his chest: I could see only a tense forehead, the beginning of a frown. He was still breathing like someone about to make some great physical effort, and was running his hand over his chest with a strangely insentient, robotic gesture. Then the girl spoke.
‘Get on with it, will you?’
The boy jumped and looked at her as if he had forgotten she was there.
‘All right, all right.’
He again focused on his hand and let it slide slowly down his chest to his navel. He placed it, without much conviction, on his flaccid penis, which he shook a couple of times, like a rattle. Then suddenly a shiver ran through him.
‘It’s too bloody cold in here.’
The girl’s ‘yeah, yeah’ sounded resigned, as if she had said it a thousand times before, as if she had spent her whole life in that room, sitting there in her underpants, listening to people complaining about the cold. I imagined her arching her eyebrows and nodding in mock solemnity, but to check that I was right, I would have had to stop seeing the boy’s face. She must have liked the woman-of-the-world air that her ‘yeah, yeah’ gave her, because she repeated it.
The boy started breathing hard again as he went about his business without success. The girl joined in his next out-breath.
‘I don’t know. Can’t you help?’
‘No, I can’t, I’ve told you already. You have to do it on your own. Then we can fuck.’
‘I can’t get it up.’
‘Well, watch the film then.’
The girl had suddenly adopted the tone of an older sister.
‘Wait, I’ll turn up the volume.’
I heard her feeling for something next to the bed and heard things falling onto the carpet. I didn’t dare change my position in order to be able to see her face again. I was beginning to feel afraid they would discover me there. The idea of marching into the bedroom, pretending to be surprised and asserting my rights had vanished of its own accord. I should have gone down to reception. The truth is, I don’t know if I stayed there because I was afraid of making a noise as I left or because I wanted to see and hear more. It seemed to me that I could safely wait a while longer: if the boy or the girl got up, I would still have time to step out into the corridor and close the door before they saw me.
You can read the rest of this excerpt by purchasing Granta 113. Or, better yet, you can subscribe and receive the issue for free . . . .