Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir; Trans. Brian FitzGibbon

Hotel Silence by Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated by Brian FitzGibbon, is a delightful novel told in the first-person point of view of Jónas, a forty-nine-year-old man undergoing an existential crisis. Convinced his life has lost meaning, Jónas calmly plans his suicide. The only thing worrying him is how to do it while causing minimal disruption to his daughter.

After eliminating several options, Jónas decides the best way to achieve his goal is to travel to a war-torn country currently experiencing a fragile truce. His plan is to spend a few days there before hanging himself. He reasons the country has seen so much death, the presence of another corpse is a relatively unremarkable event.

Accordingly, Jónas gets his affairs in order, reserves a room in Hotel Silence in this unnamed country, packs minimal clothing and his all-important tool box with the necessary tools to carry out the deed, and heads off. But then events take an unexpected turn.

The location of Hotel Silence is never revealed, indicating the impact of war is the same regardless of where it occurs. The hotel and surrounding area carry the scars of war. The infrastructure has collapsed; buildings are pock-marked with bullet holes; walls are missing, revealing the shattered interior of homes; electricity is rationed; water supply is intermittent; land mines have yet to be defused; shops and restaurants are shuttered. As bad as it all is, Jonas realizes that whereas buildings and infrastructure can be fixed, the impact on survivors is not so easily fixed. Internal scars have etched themselves indelibly in the minds of survivors and surface in the form of fleeting glimpses of the horrors.

Jónas is viewed with suspicion upon his arrival in this war-ravaged country, especially when he declares he is on vacation. He takes everything in stride and has learned to expect the unexpected. He doesn’t complain about the condition of his room. Instead, he sets about fixing the plumbing and lighting. When the hotel proprietors discover his skill, they ask him to perform odd jobs around the hotel, duct taping this, wiring that, tightening door hinges, painting walls. Eventually he finds himself performing the same fix-it services in neighboring buildings. And as Jónas duct-tapes, re-wires, unclogs plumbing, repairs broken windows, he helps to mend the shattered lives of those around him, gradually re-tooling his own life in the process.,

Jónas is a self-effacing man of few words who thrives on anonymity. He never wallows in self-pity. His internal life is vibrant and engaging, revealing an awareness of the ironies of life sprinkled with occasional bursts of gentle humor. He hides a delicate sensibility. His compassion for others is shown through action rather than through words. This is a quiet, subdued portrait of an endearing protagonist whose gentle, unassuming qualities go straight to the heart.

Ólafsdóttir’s style is understated, subtle, and minimalist. Her sentences are short but pregnant with sensitivity and meaning. There is an absence of flowery language. Instead, the diction is sparse, simple, straightforward and somehow manages to capture the poignancy and poetry of life in few words. The novel won the 2016 Icelandic Literary Prize and was selected by Iceland’s booksellers as the 2016 Best Icelandic Novel. It is well deserving of the awards.

Toward the end of the novel, Jónas is asked by a disgruntled hotel guest, “Do you think you can glue back together a broken world?” Well, maybe not the whole world. But, as the novel demonstrates, you can at least glue parts of it to make some lives whole again.

Highly recommended for its quiet subtlety, tenderness, and delicate strokes of character portrayal.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review