BEF 2011/13 – Hotel by a Railroad [Norway]

01/04/2011

The act of making a choice is an expression of freedom.  When there is only one path to take, and that path steep and stony, we feel keenly our privation, the injustice of it, often hopeless, and we shuffle along it fettered, as it were, by a fate incorrigible.  Most often, however, the truth is that we have only ourselves to blame for such a harshly determined existence.  And so while we yet have the choice to make, while we remain undecided, we stand in the knowledge of our freedom, feeling that we have some control over our lives.  In this state of perpetual indecision  is how the narrator of Frode Grytten’s short story Hotel by a Railroad wants to live.

That the narrator is a man bored in his marriage is clear.  He wants to get away from his wife, wants to be one of those people on the train he watches from his hotel room, going somewhere.  We get no description of her, only that

After they had gotten back from the pool, she had complained about the heat and taken off her dress.  It irritated him when she went around half-naked like that.  There was something carefree and unseemly about it, as if she had given up and just couldn’t be bothered anymore.

He tells her he is going out to buy cigarettes, but he is really going back to the pool to look for the two young women whom he spied when he and his wfire were there earlier.  After the initial disappointment of not finding them, he orders a cup of coffee.  By the time he finishes the coffee the girls have reappeared from the change rooms.  Of these we get a description:

The blonde one was wearing a beige summer dress.  The dark one was wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

At first he follows them carefully, surreptitiously.  He follows them down the street, distant but taking care not to lose them; he follows them into an amusement park, boldly sitting at the table beside them in a restaurant; he follows them onto a rollercoaster, in and out of shops; on the bus the dark-haired one recognises him and “[smiles] teasingly at him at regular intervals.”  He is only acting on impulse, “without pondering the alternatives”…”His head couldn’t manage to hold onto anything.  He only felt a faint murmuring in his skull.”  He is not yet making a choice but is only being pulled along in the wake the girls.  And then the moment comes: the girls hug each other and separate and the narrator is forced to decide quickly which one to continue following lest he lose both.

It is on this moment that Grytten’s story turns.  It doesn’t matter which girl he chooses to follow, so long as he has the choice.  He follows the blonde because she waits to cross the street and he can easily catch up.  He even manages a brief exchange, a casual banality about the pleasant evening.  He follows her into a train station, where he loses her.  What to do now?  He smokes a cigarette and decides that his day is done, his adventure is over, and it’s time, after seven hours, to return to the hotel and his wife.

Our narrator is a man who never wants to decide anything.  He wants always to have the menu before him but never to place an order.  For once a decision is made we lose a wealth of possibilities and the man enslaved to the accumulation of money is the greater pauper than the penniless but free vagrant.  The narrator is a miser of potentiality, the kind of man whose thoughts turn to those doors closed whenever he makes a choice: once he is freed, once he has chosen not to return to his wife after all but to follow the blonde girl (finding her again just in time) onto her train, a part of him years to be back behind the window pane from which he watched the train pass by, back behind the glass of those domestic tableaux one finds in shopping centres at Christmas, where parents “put their kids to bed” and turned on the television and “poured themselves a glass of wine and leafed through the newspaper…He wanted to be there doing ordinary, everyday things.”

“Ordinary, everyday things,” rather than, say, stalking two young girls for seven hours?  For all that Hotel by a Railroad is a successful exploration of its theme, Grytten has couched it in a strange and unnecessarily sinister context.  Here we have an older man (balding, graying mustache) following young girls around Gothenburg, trying to decide which one he likes better.  And we know it’s not the first time: “He was happy with the choice he’d made; he had a talent for this, choosing the right girls, finding girls who were sensitive to a situation like this.”  This behaviour is more than a little disturbing and more than a little mysterious.  It is no mystery that he, an older man, should enjoy watching young women, but to stalk them the entire day is a pathological behaviour for which Grytten doesn’t account in the text and which only serves to confuse and shadow the more important theme of the piece: a man stuck between the desire for complete freedom and the vertigo such an expansive freedom induces.

‘Hotel by a Railroad’ is translated from Norwegian by Sean William Kinsella

This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.  For another perspective see Damian Kelleher’s excellent and prolific website.

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