Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, and translated from Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon, depicts one man’s attempt to understand his existence. Ólafsdóttir tells the tale of Jonas Ebeneser who, at midlife, is emotionally adrift and sees no point to his life. Contemplating the myriad of ways to commit suicide, Jonas books a flight from Iceland to an unnamed war-ravished country. He is equipped with nine personal items, including the tools he will use to affix the hook from which he will hang his noose. He reserves a room at Hotel Silence and almost immediately finds companionship with his eccentric neighbors. At this point his reawakening begins. Many readers will find Ólafsdóttir’s depictions of emotional pain and trauma engaging. Overall, however, Hotel Silence’s portrayal of emotional transformation is unconvincing.
Jonas represents a crisis of masculinity. He’s “about to turn forty-nine. Male. Divorced. Heterosexual. Powerless. With no sex life. A handyman” (28). Later in the novel, he learns that his beloved Waterlily is not his biological daughter, rendering him symbolically impotent. Jonas’ lack has emotionally crippled him. He laments “I don’t know who I am. I’m nothing and I own nothing” (21). Essentially he is unable to meet the dominant conceptions of manhood despite embodying all types of social privilege. Problematically, Jonas does not attempt to subvert patriarchal masculinity. This is the ultimate downfall of Hotel Silence. Jonas’ blind allegiance to dominant conceptions of masculinity is so ingrained in his psyche that he never contemplates resistance. Instead, he quietly succumbs to the patriarchal narratives that push him towards self-destruction. Even a modicum of critique would have made Jonas’ self-hatred more palpable.
Jonas’ failed relationships with women are a major component of his emotional wreckage. He ruminates over his divorce, picking at the details while searching for clues to the demise of his marriage. Here the author pens a realistic postmortem of a marriage. Other aspects of the novel are more conventional. He feels responsible for his daughter’s happiness even though she seems very competent and self-possessed. His relationship with his mother is a burden, and he resents her inability to maintain lucidity. The most information readers are given about Jonas’ backstory comes from his wanton journals. He chronicles his sexual encounters with women who are named by only one initial. These women are nothing more than corporeal reminders of his long lost virility. The characterization of women in Hotel Silence is trite; they are sex objects, confused mothers, and hapless daughters.
Equally discomfiting is Jonas’ need to help women. Part of his emotional recuperation stems from his compulsion to reconstruct a communal women’s home. It’s never made clear what exactly motivates Jonas to think he is these women’s hammer-wielding savior. Yet at this point the reader senses the beginnings of his reawakening. In a self-congratulatory moment Jonas realizes the women’s house is now rain-proof because he “changed the last window the day before yesterday” (189). Papa Jonas, indeed. As contrast, Jonas begrudgingly agrees to provide construction assistance to a male restaurateur. The requested workmanship is not depicted in the novel, thereby never contributing to Jonas’ redemption.
The novel’s highpoint is Ólafsdóttir’s depiction of war survivors and the herculean effort it requires to reclaim an existence in a postwar society. The author pens a strong reminder that towns and countries wasted by war still exist even after the refugees have resettled and the contractors have moved in. Typically the aftermath of war is rarely considered, especially after the lives of the survivors “…are no longer on the news. We are forgotten. We no longer exist” (70). In this setting Jonas begins to work for May and Fifi, siblings, who have inherited their aunt’s hotel. Blindly optimistic despite their circumstances, May and Fifi hope to rebuild Hotel Silence and subsequently their lives. Even the aforementioned restaurateur “hopes things are picking up again. Yesterday the other foreigner in the hotel came to eat and today you, we have every reason to be optimistic” (102). Their optimism is a startling contrast to the novel’s overall grim tone. Yet, it is this positive thinking that proves to Jonas that life is worth living.
Jonas’ flight to an unnamed country, where “destruction lies everywhere” (70), forces him to take a critical account of his own life. The atrocities experienced by May and Fifi serve as a contradistinction to Jonas’ banality. Essentially they help Jonas realize that “in the land of death there isn’t the same urgency to die” (127). They experienced actual trauma and very fittingly put Jonas in a position to realize his problems are “…at best inane when compared to the ruins and dust that lie outside my window” (113). Yet Ólafsdóttir is careful not to ridicule Jonas’ sorrow. Hotel Silence demonstrates that both small and large scale emotional upheaval can take various forms.
Throughout the novel Ólafsdóttir is able to successfully unpack the nuances of anguish. Yet Jonas’ insularity and need of a motley crew to kickstart his reawakening is reiterative. Hotel Silence’s strength is its raw depiction of trauma and grief; however, the overall character development and plot are bromidic.