Hotel Silence, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (translated by Brian FitzGibbon), tells the story of a man who feels that he no longer exists. Once upon a time he was a husband, a father, a son. Now these roles have been eroded, taken from him by forces he struggles to understand. He is unable to find any reason to go on.
Jónas Ebeneser has always tried to do as he is told by the women in his life. His names mean ‘dove’ and ‘the helpful one’ – they suit him well. His mother, a former maths teacher, lives in a home for the elderly where she is gradually losing her mind. His wife has divorced him, his daughter grown and leading her own life. Over the years Jónas taught himself how to fit appliances, mend that which was broken, become a handyman. When his father died he dropped out of university that he may keep the family business going. He considers himself ordinary, lately become unnecessary and thereby unhappy. He has decided to commit suicide.
Jónas plans to borrow his neighbour’s gun although he has never handled a firearm and is concerned that he may inadvertently hurt someone else. He considers hanging himself from a light fitting but worries that his daughter may be the one to discover his body and have to cut him down. He does not wish to be an inconvenience when he has always tried to be helpful.
Eventually Jónas concludes that the easiest place to die would be abroad, his body tidily returned to his family in a box. He clears out his belongings and puts his affairs in order. He buys a one way ticket to a former war zone where the supposed dangers may solve the problem of how to meet his end.
Wars and their aftermath are opportunities for the unscrupulous to make money. The local population has been decimated, traumatised, the survivors forever scarred physically and mentally. As they try to salvage a life for themselves, outsiders arrive eager to hoover up anything of value, to gain lucrative contracts amidst the rebuilding. When Jónas arrives all are suspicious of his motives.
He has booked himself into Hotel Silence, a venue with few guests and suffering neglect in a place now avoided by tourists. Wanting to take a shower, Jónas fixes the plumbing in his room. When a door falls off in his hands he reattaches it. Soon he is being called on to use his skills elsewhere. He has tools and knowledge that are in demand.
Surrounded by the aftermath of allied bombing raids and local infighting, Jónas helps out with practical matters as he has always done when asked. His efforts do not please everyone. There is jealousy from those who are not benefiting, warnings from those who seek to profit from the misery inflicted. They are incredulous that he should work simply to be helpful.
The story is told in two halves. The first is set in Iceland and tells of how Jónas reached a point in his life where he wished to end it. The second is set in the unnamed former war zone and offers a different perspective on survival. Whereas Jónas can no longer find a reason to live, the people he meets abroad have suffered unimaginably but remain determined to continue with their lives.
The writing is spare and humane offering an understanding of individual unhappiness. No trite answers are offered but there is empathy in the cost of loneliness and the damage caused by personal and wider wars. An unusual tale that offers much to consider. Despite the often grim subject matter, a captivating read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.