By Mandy-Suzanne Wong
Welcome to Kiskadee, a yellow-breasted, black-masked, ruffling and squawking celebration of nonhuman vitalities. In this column, you’ll find true stories of nonhuman beings living extraordinary lives, defying human comprehension, and inspiring masterpieces.
Hôtel Splendid only uses short sentences. All are in the present tense. Hôtel Splendid is Marie Redonnet’s first novel. It’s a tumultuous love story. The lovers are a swamp and a hotel.
“The Splendid is well-known,” writes Redonnet. “Even if it is not what it was, it’s the only hotel in the region. Grandmother was a pioneer. No one had ever had the idea of building a hotel so near the swamp.”
A nameless grandmother leaves the Hôtel Splendid to her nameless granddaughter. The nameless granddaughter is the novel’s narrator. The novel is named for the hotel, Hôtel Splendid. The drama of the novel is not that of the grandmother and granddaughter but of the hotel and the swamp.
The hotel exists because the swamp exists. The swamp was irresistible to the grandmother who wanted a hotel. Hôtel Splendid was born of the swamp. It owes its life to the swamp.
“The swamp deserves more attention,” Redonnet’s narrator writes. “It is a real nature preserve. There is always more of it to explore … In grandmother’s day, it was full of hunters. During the season, they stayed at the hotel. The canal that runs along the far end of the garden leads to the swamp. The Splendid has direct access to the swamp thanks to the canal.”
Hôtel Splendid loves the swamp as if the swamp were a mother. This is a turbulent love. The hotel needs, like any creature, to be separate, its own thing. But it can’t help but inherit the porousness of the swamp.
“You can see the swamp is spreading because the far end of the [hotel’s] garden is becoming marshy … The odor of the swamp comes into the hotel … From the rooms you have a lovely view of the Hôtel Splendid surrounded by water, and at night the signs reflected in the water.”
Since it owes its life to the swamp, Hôtel Splendid needs the swamp. It’s almost as if the hotel wants to let the swamp leak in. At the same time, the hotel must stand apart from the swamp.
The swamp loves the hotel as if the hotel were a lover. This is also turbulent. Hôtel Splendid invades the swamp like someone dazzling and toxic, too brilliant to resist. Someone who promises to change you, guide you from the mire of yourself into the light. “It took two signs to announce the Hôtel Splendid from far away … They are the only neon signs in the region … Without the neon lights blinking in the night, the Splendid would no longer be the Splendid … There is no danger of getting lost in the swamp at night thanks to the signs … You would think you were in the city when in fact you are on the edge of the swamp.”
Hôtel Splendid is a promise to the swamp like an infatuation is a promise. The swamp is the fascination of the hotel’s prehistory, of its nonexistence. The swamp and the hotel cling to each other jealously. Each encroaches on the other in an effort to possess it.
The hotel oozes liquids into the swamp. The refuse of the lavatories, outhouse, and garden drain into the swamp. The swamp oozes dampness into the hotel. The swamp’s odors, mold, and insects penetrate the hotel. The plumber fears “the state of the pipes. He is afraid his repair will not hold and that soon there will be leaks all over the hotel. As if it weren’t enough that the lavatories are blocked. The wood of the balconies is beginning to rot.”
The hotel and the swamp have a dangerous liaison. They are tangled in each other. They enable each other and make each other vulnerable. The swamp is not a mother. The hotel is not a lover. In speaking thus of them, I can only speak as if their relations mirror human relations.
A swamp and a hotel are not human. Redonnet does not speak of them as if they’re human. It occurs to me to speak of them that way because it’s easier. It’s the easiest way for me to conceptualize Redonnet’s achievement. But the easiest way is not always the best.
Redonnet’s swamp and Hôtel Splendid do not sing or laugh or express thoughts. They are a hotel and a swamp, and they are intimate. But the character of the swamp, consisting of slow-moving water, and the character of the hotel, built of cheap and porous materials, makes their intimacy so dramatic that, seeping and leaking, they are true protagonists.
In turn, the narrator is not a protagonist. She is nothing but an organ of the hotel. “I have no will,” she says. “I have never left the Hôtel Splendid.” She narrates, but her function is not to be the voice of the hotel.
“Lavatories are my eternal overriding concern, along with the Splendid, of course. I want to keep it in good condition, no matter what it costs me. The swamp needs the Splendid.”
The unnamed woman is the hotel’s heart. She is the physical, buried heart of Hôtel Splendid. She is the component that makes it go on. She is like the engine that powers an electrical system. She is the source and expression of the hotel’s resilience as the swamp brings railway workers and mosquitoes.
“I am the one,” she says, put-upon and proud, “who deals with all their little needs. I change their linens often. I scrub down the rooms to get rid of odors. Not to mention the plumbing problems I continually have to resolve … I am always on the lookout for leaks.”
For herself, she is nothing. She identifies herself and everyone around her as parts or hindrances of the hotel. When her elderly sisters die, “the name of the Hôtel Splendid is engraved on the coffins” like her sisters are the hotel’s property.
Her life is also one of the hotel’s chattels. Like a pipe or lavatory, her body is a working part of the hotel’s body. She wears herself out in the struggle to secure the hotel’s physical integrity against the incursions of the swamp and inconsiderate guests.
“I understand grandmother. The Hôtel Splendid was her life. And me too, without the Splendid, what would become of me?” Without the Splendid, the nameless one would perish. Every organ perishes without a body to be part of.
So her life is at stake in the turmoil of the swamp and the hotel. As they press together and wound each other and press together again, she is caught in the middle. Winters in the swamp mean frozen pipes. “I spend my days carrying jugs and firewood to the rooms.” Springtime in the swamp means “damp is everywhere … The mosquitoes are back.”
Though she is sometimes “discouraged,” she never despairs. Nor does she form ambitions beyond keeping the hotel in the swamp as long as she can. She has no plans to relocate, renovate, create a hotel chain, or reproduce. She has no pretensions to immortality.
She’ll have no granddaughter to inherit the hotel. When she dies, Hôtel Splendid will die. This is not a problem for the nameless one. The fact that the hotel dwindles as she ages is simply a fact for her. Deaths are facts of life. She does not mourn her sisters.
But the world outside the swamp has other priorities. The outside world’s priorities are progress, profit, immortality. Immortality takes the form of edifices built to last.
A railway company sends an army of men to the hotel, prospectors, geologists, engineers, workmen. “They are convinced the company is doing the right thing in trying to put a railway line through the swamp. They say that will give it life. But the swamp does not need the railway to live.”
A love story becomes epic when an inexorable, titanic force threatens the lovers’ insular drama from without. In Hôtel Splendid the antagonist is industrial capitalism. The swamp and small hotel must stand their ground against the company’s ravenous calculations and technologies.
“They say the Hôtel Splendid will never be able to adapt itself to the needs of the guests the railway will bring. What can I say to them? The Splendid was built for the swamp, not for the railway … The rumor is that they are going to drain the swamp once the railroad tracks are finished.”
The tracks are never finished. The swamp exerts itself in its oozing, quiet way. It swallows the embankment that is built to house the tracks. It seeps between the tracks so the tracks cannot join up. The swamp is victorious. The company is defeated.
The company gives up on the railway. The workmen leave the hotel. The swamp, the hotel, and the nameless one are left to themselves and their devotion to each other, and to their quiet, oozing, undesperate decline.
Humans don’t think swamps have abilities or preferences. We think we can overpower whatever a swamp does. Humans think we can force anything into submission with violence or science.
Redonnet’s swamp refuses to be forced into submission. In Hôtel Splendid, it’s the humans who surrender and retreat before the swamp. It’s the human narrator who is subservient, stripped of her identity, consumed by the hotel. It’s the hotel, the man-made edifice, that submits to the swamp.
The swamp rises up. It floods everything except Hôtel Splendid. The hotel is not impermeable. It joins with the swamp. “The damp and the mildew are part of the hotel,” like the narrator herself.
The nameless one feels her strength failing. She says for the first time, “There are days when I am ashamed of the state of the Splendid. But the sight of the swamp helps me to forget about all my failures.” The swamp consumes her because it has consumed the hotel.
But her spirit is unbroken. Under the influence of the swamp, the hotel may have “lost its beautiful façade … All its flaws are showing. But it is holding up. People are wrong to criticize it.”
People are wrong to criticize Hôtel Splendid because all it needs is to hold up until it has lived out its time, no more. To want just that and no more requires courage.
Today we’re caught between capitalism and climate emergency. The one demands that we produce and consume more and more. The other implores that we refrain. Refraining takes courage because not wanting more looks like failure.
In 1985, when Hôtel Splendid was written, capitalist expansion was the done thing in powerful countries. Redonnet was born in Paris. So even to Redonnet, the novel’s nameless narrator looked like a failure. Redonnet suggested in an interview that Hôtel Splendid’s unambitious narrator is the kind of unproductive person that civilization needs to overcome in the name of progress.
Hôtel Splendid’s narrator looked like a failure in 1985 because she wants nothing but to live and die as part of a hotel in a swamp. She doesn’t want to control them. She wants to care for them. She knows she is as vulnerable as they are. She doesn’t want anything more.
In 2019, oceans are rising up. As Redonnet’s swamp swallows the railway, oceans are swallowing real islands and communities. Oceans are rising up because of global warming. Global warming is caused by fossil-fuel consumption, which is caused by civilization’s urge to produce and consume.
In 2019, now we realize what we’ve done, Hôtel Splendid’s narrator does not look like a failure. She wants what most people are afraid to want. She refuses to join in with the destroyers. She exceeds Redonnet’s vision. Redonnet’s US translator, Jordan Stump, once said that “the poetry of her work grows for the most part from something … deeply buried.” What is deeply buried in her vision, maybe unknown to herself, is “a kind of ineffable entwining of life and death.” Hôtel Splendid’s nameless orphan understands that this entwining is what living is. It is the kind of living that she loves.
Mandy-Suzanne Wong is the author of the award-winning fiction chapbook Awabi (Digging Press) and the novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal House), a Permafrost Book Prize Finalist, Conium Review Book Prize Semifinalist, SFWP Literary Award Shortlistee, and PEN Open Book Award nominee. Her nonfiction book on nonhuman animals in radical art, Listen, we all bleed, was named a finalist and awarded an honorable mention in the Red Hen Press Women’s Prize Competition.
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