Love Hotel by Christine Montalbetti
Paris. P.O.L. 2013. ISBN 9782818017852
The narrator of Christine Montalbetti’s latest novel is a French writer who has decided to spend a few months in Kyoto in order to work on a book, an “uncertain novel” he can only imagine, for the moment at least, in rough profile. Two or three times a week, he meets Natsumi in the Love Hotel, a windowless, neutral site whose abstraction from the world that surrounds it constitutes much of its charm. Natsumi is curiously passive and mute in the early pages, but when she begins to speak it becomes clear that she’s a gifted storyteller, much like Scheherazade. The tales that she tells are mostly ones she had heard as a child, from her father, for instance, or from her grandmother. The stories are dynamic and mutable; they come in multiple variants and new versions. Never less than fantastic, they never fail to fascinate the narrator.
The Love Hotel is an ideal setting for tales such as these because it is conceived to facilitate fantasy of all kinds. Spirits, ghosts, and specters inhabit it, just as they inhabit the stories that Natsumi tells. Some of those spirits have names—Akanamé, Nura, Makuragaeshi—while others are anonymous. Some of them are beneficent; others are dreamers, dancers, or tricksters. Some of them are amusing; others exert “all the tyrannies of which ghosts are capable.” Whether Natsumi herself belongs to their ranks is an open question; what is abundantly clear is that in her presence, the narrator plunges into a world of fable. He comes to understand writing (in one of its dimensions at least) as a cocoon that one weaves around oneself, something that isolates the subject as efficiently as any of the rooms in the Love Hotel. Yet he is not quite sure whether the Love Hotel is a sanctuary or a prison, nor whether Natsumi is his muse or his jailor.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter because people tell stories quite regardless of circumstance—even on March 11, 2011, the day toward which this novel points, a day that began peacefully enough but ended in the Fukushima disaster.
University of Colorado