A writer takes up residence in the stately but decaying Grand Hotel Europa in order to contemplate where things went wrong with Clio―an art historian and the love of his life. His recollections take him back to when they first met in Genoa, his wanton visits to her in Venice, and their dulcet trips to Malta, Palmaria, Portovenere, and the Cinque Terre in their thrilling search for the last painting made by Caravaggio. Meanwhile, he becomes fascinated by the mysteries of the Grand Hotel Europa and the memorably eccentric characters who inhabit it, all of whom seem to hail from a halcyon era. All the while, globalization is laying claim to even this place, where a sense of lost glory hangs sulkily in the air.
One can’t help being impressed by how many narrative balls Pfeijffer keeps in the air. The novel combines a comedy of manners with travel journalism, political and cultural commentary, and reflections on European identity. Oh, plus an art-heist mystery (centering on the final days and paintings of Caravaggio). And that love story. Pfeijffer’s prose, bravely translated by Michele Hutchison, is as multifarious as the novel itself — now elegant and baroque, now blandly reportorial, now bawdy (some readers may cringe at his lusty descriptions of sexual encounters). What to make of a style that calls to mind Nabokov, Tom Wolfe, Baudrillard, Umberto Eco, Wes Anderson and a UNESCO position paper? The novel wantonly mingles the erotic and the esoteric, the hilarious and the hectoring, the antic and the academic ... Pfeijffer’s characters tend to spout lectures ... There is a higgledy-piggledy quality to the novel that suggests a writer taking all the oddments on his desk and sewing them together with metafictional and autofictional threads. Not everything works, but in the end, Grand Hotel Europa is like its garrulous narrator, whose flaws and excesses you readily forgive because you enjoy his company. Not even the book’s caustic and at times dismal take on contemporary European realities can dampen its incorrigible high spirits.
A very nice twist on this is that Abdul's harrowing story turns out to closely echo a familiar classical one, which causes some problems (or at least raises some questions), a neat mixing of reality and fiction, as well as history and the present ... There's quite a bit of the polemic to Grand Hotel Europa, with Pfeijffer giving ample room for characters to philosophize and have their say, but it's quite artfully integrated into the fiction ... feijffer has easy fun with the commercialization of the past, in particular, as well as the behavior of tourists (including their search for the authentic -- i.e. non-touristy -- experience) -- with enough variety to his examples, moving easily between the Grand Hotel Europa and various spots elsewhere, to keep things interesting ... He can get over-explicit in the meta-ness of the novel ... This hunt for the missing painting also plays a role in the novel's conclusion -- making for an arguably far too neat one. In fact, however, it's an almost welcome final turn: if so much of Grand Hotel Europa and its characters -- particularly its narrator-protagonist, Pfeijffer's double down to the tie-pin -- are so close to life, the conclusion, in its artificiality, feels like pure fiction -- and that is all for the best at that point ... The novel ambles along at a leisurely pace, but for the most part is certainly lively and entertaining ... One can argues some with Pfeijffer's understanding of how history is seen and treated in non-European cultures, but he's on solid ground when writing about Europe, and Grand Hotel Europa is a fine take on (one big part of) the contemporary European condition, as well as on tourism and the question of authenticity (with considerable overlap across all of these). It's a big, fun read beyond that too -- a bit ragged at some of its edges with its large cast of characters (and not least with Ilja and Clio's relationship), but offering good story-telling for the most part.
... expansive if imperfect ... Sophomoric, smutty characterizations of Ilja’s sex life and an occasional reliance on stereotypes—a man referred to as the 'big Greek,' an ethereal feminist French poet—clash with the otherwise vital commentary. There’s real power here, but it’s diluted by the distracting detours.