Books

'Hotel Silence' Unpacks a Crisis of Masculinity

The protagonist's blind allegiance to dominant conceptions of masculinity is so ingrained in his psyche that he never contemplates resistance.

Hotel Silence
Auður Ava Ólafsdótti

Grove Press / Black Cat

Feb 2018

Other

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.

4

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Music

Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Music

Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum
Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Music

Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.

Music

Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.