A Preposterous Man Of Mystery In 'Hotel Crystal' Equal parts thriller, travelogue and literary puzzle, Hotel Crystal is The Bourne Identity by way of Borges.
NPR logo A Preposterous Man Of Mystery In 'Hotel Crystal'


Book Reviews

A Preposterous Man Of Mystery In 'Hotel Crystal'

'Hotel Crystal'
Hotel Crystal
By Olivier Rolin
Paperback, 190 pages
Dalkey Archive Press
List Price: $12.95

Olivier Rolin won the Prix Femina for his book Port-Soudan. Hannah/Agence Opale hide caption

toggle caption
Hannah/Agence Opale

Olivier Rolin won the Prix Femina for his book Port-Soudan.

Hannah/Agence Opale

Translated from the French, Olivier Rolin's Hotel Crystal purports to be assembled from papers discovered in a Paris lost-and-found six months after the "disappearance" of Rolin himself. (In real life, Rolin is a reporter and novelist esteemed for work notably more straightforward than this droll frolic.)

Each of the book's 43 chapters proffers a description of a hotel room and retells an anecdote concerning the author's escapades thereabout. Typically, a clinical summary of a room's dimensions opens onto a meticulous account of its decor — light fixtures that might recall cognac glasses or jellyfish, carpet patterns too often evocative of vomit.

There's the radiator, the television, the enchanting or vile view, and a mirror in which Rolin can revile his reflection — the "walrus-like countenance" depressing him in Cuauhtémoc, Mexico; eyes, in Montreal, resembling "melted candle wax"; the neck-up apocalypse greeting him as the dawn call to prayer sounds in Beirut: "sitting atop my shoulders is a wrinkly, reddish sack-a mushy, wine-soaked pear-crested with scarce, bristling strands of hair."

As Gore Vidal once noted, such looking-glass scenes are staples of the hack novel, and Hotel Crystal's bag of intertextual tricks includes many a parody of (and homage to) the spy thriller.

Rolin looks so rough because he's been out partaking in a preposterous range of capers involving fake Semtex, fly-sized surveillance drones, cloned mammoths and the like.

But sometimes he's simply ravishing the chambermaid or stealing a suitcase of cash from his own publisher — who'd been planning to bribe a prize jury on his behalf — so that he can pay a ransom to terrorists and recapture his ever-imperiled true love: "Mélanie must still love me as long as she continues to put herself in harm's way just so I can rescue her: the ultimate in generosity!" What a cheeky exclamation point that is!

With a voice that is frisky, rakish and astronomically arch, Hotel Crystal is about seduction — the lure of fiction and the charm of lies, the escapist possibilities of even the dullest suite at any dreary lodge. Call it The Bourne Identity by way of Borges, a room-service delight liberally seasoned with highbrow mischief.

Excerpt: 'Hotel Crystal'

Hotel Crystal
By Olivier Rolin
Paperback, 190 pages
Dalkey Archive Press
List Price: $12.95

Room 226, Torni Hotel, Yrjönkatu 26, Helsinki:

Another room more complicated to describe than the average. The door opens into a little entryway of around 2.5 x 2.5 meters, onto which opens, on the right, after the mirror, the door to the bathroom, and, on the left, a closet made of blond wood (birch, perhaps? Anyway, all the other furniture in this room—I'm pointing this out now so that I don't have to come back to it—is made out of the same wood.). The ceiling, about 2.5 meters high, features a frosted glass porthole right in its center, currently illuminated. To the right of the door on entering, a thermometer that currently reads 22°C.

The main room, cubic like the entrance but more spacious, must measure approximately 4.5 x 4.5 x 4.5 meters: a high ceiling, therefore, with a large rhomboidal brass crown at its center (I'm not sure if I'm making myself clear), fitted tightly around a polished glass fixture—another light. The carpet is green, flecked with a little red and yellow motif of nondescript shape. On the right-hand wall, a large mirror sits atop a table with two drawers, plain and functional. Up against this table sits a two-tiered chest, each tier closed by a two-panel articulated wooden door, containing a minibar below and a Nokia television set above. Facing the door, a double-paned window, relatively narrow (about 1.50 x 2.50 meters), looks out onto a small paved courtyard where, under a lime tree that the wind has now stripped of its leaves, sits a pile of stacked chairs and tables, remnants of the summer season, as well as space heaters for the bistro terrace. Above, a modern building where shining neon letters spell out TEKNISKA FÖRENINGEN I FINLAND, evidently in Swedish, since I can almost make out the meaning. Triple curtains shield the windows: white cloth, then white netting, then pale beige velvet. Beneath is a flat radiator.

To the left of the window, the wall is hung like all the others with wallpaper in broad stripes of very pale beige and bister, topped with the image of a strip of green acanthus leaves twirled around a fascia, about 50 centimeters from the ceiling. The upper part of the walls is white, as is the ceiling. Abutting this same wall is a single bed covered with a bedspread in a green leaf print on white background, whose rather tall headboard faces the window, and above which is hung a small painting by a certain Kohlmann, depicting a bridge over a stream set in a snowy landscape with a pine forest in the background. On the night table—the same wood and simple design as the rest of the furniture—is a lamp composed of a flattened globe of frosted glass (jellyfish-like) held in place by a brass ring attached by three curved arms to a fluted brass column set in the center of a brass disk (the lamp sits on the table just beneath the mirror). A high-backed chair and an armchair tending toward the ellipsoidal (or something)—upholstered in a blazing pink with white dotted lines running through it—complete the furniture.

It's in the mirror above the table, with fewer than a hundred days remaining until the end of the twentieth century, that I stare at my face, busted up, oozing, bruised and bandaged, squeezed into a kind of girdle of netting, in sharply painful (and sarcastic) contrast with the photo, older and exaggeratedly glamorous, of the same individual (or, one might say, of another individual bearing the same name, having written a book in French entitled Port-Soudan), published in the "Kulttuuri" pages of the Helsingin Sanomat, dated Sunnuntaina 3, Iokakuuta 1999, lying open across the leather blotter on the table. A roll of gauze on the left side of my skull makes me look like a giant Mickey Mouse that had its other ear bitten off by a cat. In the postwar years, the Torni Hotel used to be the GPU headquarters in Helsinki, and I look just like I've come out of a heated discussion with the comrades (that's where Antonomarenko began his career, in the mid-fifties). In fact, three days ago, totally drunk, I got into a brawl over an interpretation of the Sibelius D Minor Violin Concerto with some sailors in a bar down by the port, and the disagreement failed to turn to my advantage. I was dragged to the Maria Hospital in the midst of a Shakespearian tempest.

And, at present, I'm staring at my bumpy, blotchy face, packed into its netting, comparing it by lamplight to my skull-and-crossbones likeness in an x-ray image marked "Olivier Rolin, 05/17/57, 10/8/99, Forum," taken at the Forumin Lääkäriasema Mannerheimintie 20B, a private clinic near the hotel where I'm a regular. They made a ten-year error in my date of birth, from which I deduce (through a torturous kind of logic that nonetheless strikes me as quite obvious) that I am to live only ten more years before this last face becomes mine—a definitively generic Jolly Roger. See you in October 2009.

Text handwritten on a white envelope, 21 x 27 centimeters, stationary of the Forumin Lääkäriasema, Mannerheimintie 20B.

Books Featured In This Story

Hotel Crystal

by Olivier Rolin and Jane Kuntz

Paperback, 216 pages |


Buy Featured Book

Hotel Crystal
Olivier Rolin and Jane Kuntz

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?