Thursday, 15 November 2012

You Can Check Out Any Time You Like...

One writer I've been wanting to try for some time is Joseph Roth, author of Radetzkymarsch, one of the most famous novels in the German language.  While I won't be getting to that one this month, I thought I'd get a taste of his work by reading a famous novella, Hotel Savoy, so I was all set to start the bus off on the road to Vienna.  That is, until I discovered that despite being described as an Austrian writer, Roth was actually born in Eastern Europe (present-day Ukraine) - and that his book takes place in Poland...

Hotel Savoy is set in the years after World War One in the Polish town of Łódź.  Gabriel Dan, a returning prisoner of war, arrives in the city on his journey westward.  He is hoping to press onwards to America, but as his rich uncle, Phöbus Höhlaug lives in the city, he decides to stay for a while in the hope of getting the money he needs to emigrate.  While he is waiting, he takes up residence in the Hotel Savoy, an imposing building in the centre of the town, where rich and poor alike are in residence - albeit on different floors.

Right at the start of the book, we see the hotel through Gabriel's eyes, his and our first impression of the town:
"Zum erstenmal nach fünf Jahren stehe ich wieder an den Toren Europas.  Europäischer als alle anderen Gasthöfe des Ostens scheint mir das Hotel Savoy mit seinen sieben Etagen, seinem goldenen Wappen und einem livrierten Portier."
"For the first time in five years, I stand once again before the gates of Europe .  The Hotel Savoy appears more European than any other resting place in the east, with its golden coat of arms and a liveried porter."
(my translation)
Once he enters the hotel though, we see that this grand facade hides a slightly more prosaic existence.  While the bottom floors belong to the wealthy, the poor and displaced are hidden away in the upper floors.  As is claimed in the book:
"In allen Städten der Welt gibt es kleinere oder größere Savoys, und überall in den höchsten Stockwerken wohnen die Santschins und ersticken am Dunst fremder Wäsche."
 "In every city in the world, there are small or large Savoys, and everywhere, on the highest floors, live the Santschins [the name of a poor family] of this world, suffocating in the steam of other people's washing."
Perhaps though, those on the higher floors are, as is occasionally alluded to, closer to God than the luxury-worshipping people down below...

The hotel is more than just a building, of course.  It's a representation, an embodiment, of society, and the book is an allegory for the sorry state the world found itself in after the horrors of the Great War.  Just as in the wider world, the hotel quickly separates the rich from the poor, and those lucky enough to live on the lower floors make sure that they pull together.  For example, whenever a worker from the local factories dies, the doctor makes sure to give the cause of death as heart failure - and not lung failure caused by breathing in tiny fragments of cloth day in, day out at work...

Gabriel intends to move on quickly, but he finds himself strangely in tune with life in the hotel, in part because of the attractions of the cabaret artist, Stasia.  As the days and weeks pass, it appears that he will struggle to ever leave the town - and the hotel.  It's all very reminiscent of a book I spent a lot of time on last year :)

Unlike in Kafka's work though, there is a revolutionary streak running through Hotel Savoy.  When Zwonimir, Gabriel's old friend from his army days, arrives in town, he acts as a catalyst, setting a light to the volatile atmosphere, sending the story towards a dramatic climax.  As the rich housewives see a hypnotist to have their headaches cured (while their husbands cavort with naked dancers in the cellar bar), the poor and hungry are dying in the streets, lying in the dirt.  It doesn't take a genius to see that things aren't going to end well.

Hotel Savoy is an entertaining story, fairly easy to read, but with a serious message underneath.  What makes it even more interesting is that the hotel depicted in the novella is real, located in the central-Polish city of Łódź.  There was a picture on Wikipedia of the hotel after its renovation, with beautiful, gleaming white walls.  However, I decided that the picture above was far more interesting and, what's more, better suited to the story.  While I wouldn't like to live at the Hotel Savoy myself, it is definitely a fun place to while away a few hours ;)