Grand Hotel Europa: A slightly problematic best seller

A fancy hotel, a missing Caravaggio and travel across Europe. Grand Hotel Europa dominated Dutch book sales when it was first published in 2018 and has now been translated into 20 languages and become an international best seller. 

Written by acclaimed poet and author Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, Grand Hotel Europa follows a writer by the same name as he checks into a magnificent but fraying hotel in an unnamed European location to nurse his wounds after a breakup.

Pfeijffer (the character) has long conversations with his fellow guests and hotel staff about everything from mass tourism to love while Pfeijffer (the author) describes the events that led to the romance’s demise. Although the book ostensibly follows Pfeijffer stay at the hotel, the book is really a social commentary on Europe as a concept and its state of affairs.

We see the author/character travel across Europe, during the events that precede his arrival at the hotel. He enjoys wine-soaked dinners, trips to museums and fascinating conversations with a host of characters – from the hotel bellboy (a refugee) to his former love, an Italian art historian who is obsessed with finding the last painting of Caravaggio to the hotel’s new owner, a Chinese businessman.

The plot meanders but the interactions of the characters produce intellectually interesting ideas. It’s clear Pfeijffer (the author) has wide-ranging interests and is well-versed in everything from art to current affairs.

Despite the book obviously being set in the present day – cell phones, MacBooks and social media are all available – the work as a slight sense of magical realism. The reader feels as though they have been transported back in time. The antiquated environment of the hotel sometimes clashes with the modernity of the outside world.

Unfortunately, the author/character falls into a number of tropes. The refugee bellboy is inspiration porn. The Americans are clownishly uncouth. The teenage girl is a seductress who, for inexplicable reasons, wants to seduce the aging, pompous writer.

Pfeijffer has taken home both the top prize for Dutch-language novels, the Libris Prize, and for Dutch-language poetry, the VSB Poetry Prize, for his previous works. Grand Hotel Europa was nominated for the Libris Prize and the NS Readers’ Award.

The book is translated by Michele Hutchison, the British translator who shared the 2020 International Booker Prize with Marieke Lucas Rijneveld for her translation of The Discomfort of Evening.

Grand Hotel Europa is a mostly magnificent book, that gets occasionally distracted by needless tangents and cheap stereotypes. Ignore the bad bits and embrace the splendor. Get your copy at the American Book Center.

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