Told with exquisite, black humour, this life-affirming tale is that of Jónas, a depressed man from Iceland who is considering ways to take his own life. Separated from his wife, trying to cope with his mother spiralling into dementia, and struggling to come to terms with the knowledge that his daughter is not his own, Jónas determines on a plan which will ensure his daughter is not the one to find his body – to fly to a war-ravaged country, and put an end to it there.
Jónas arrives at his intended destination, the Hotel Silence, without a change of clothes and carrying nothing but the tools he needs to put his plan into action. But once there, new relationships are forged, and his resolve begins to crumble.
Ólafsdóttir should be applauded for the topics she chooses to incorporate into her work: the mindset of a man on the brink of suicide and the portrayal of a country struggling to recover from a period of intense violence are both powerful concepts that can be difficult to pull an uplifting message from. Blending small elements of comedy and popular culture into this surreal mix makes her writing distinct. It is a serious and philosophical book, yet it has several laugh out loud moments – the hotel receptionist laying out the map for his visitor and instead of making out the local restaurants, marking out the areas with land mines: ‘Don’t step on anything here, here, here and here.’
Hotel Silence was originally published in Icelandic in 2016 and went on to be translated into a 2018 English edition which was released in the UK by Pushkin Press. Founded in 1997, Pushkin Press publishes novels, essays, memoirs and children’s books, aiming to represent exciting, high-quality writing from around the world.
The novel is broken down into two parts: Flesh and Scars. What comparisons do these titles draw on from the story? Why do you think the author chose these particular words?
How do you think the fact that the novel is translated affects the vocabulary and meaning that the English version holds?
Why do you think the hotel is called ‘Hotel Silence’ and how is this apt for the situation it finds itself in?
At several instances, the book makes reference to the work of Jónas Thorbjarnarson, a famous Icelandic poet. Despite his success is his native country, Thorbjarnarson’s work has not been translated into English, hence he is largely unknown to the readership. The novel contains a notes section which acknowledges these references. How does unfamiliarity with this literary figure affect how the reader interprets these quotations and does it distance an English reader from the author’s intention as to their inclusion?
Arguably, the two central features of the novel are Jónas and the country he travels to. Is there a balance in the attention dedicated to these two focal points? Do you think that one element serves the other — was Jónas designed to serve as the fixer to the war-ravaged land? Or do you think that the location was designed to serve as a place for Jónas to heal?
In the prologue we know that Jónas sleeps with a woman at some point in the future narrative. What impact does this have on you as you read the novel?
Why do you think the author uses the diary to recount Jónas’ younger years? What purpose do these flashbacks serve?
What do you think is the significance of the tattoo that Jónas has done over his heart?
Why do you think the men of the town become angry that Jónas is helping the women?
It could be argued that there a clear divide between the actions and reactions of men and of women in this book. Do you agree and if so, why do you think this is the case?
What part does Svanur play in the book?
At one point, May suggests that the war will now be over until the next generation of men grow up. Discuss the impact of this statement upon the ending of the book.
Jónas becomes embroiled with local tensions and, at one point, while returning to the hotel, he is attacked by a previously unknown local. The beating leaves him bedridden for some days. Upon awakening, Jónas reveals more details about himself to the hotel staff and uses the phone in reception to contact his daughter Waterlily. To Waterlily, he discloses more information about his actions, how he sold the business, that he is currently abroad in an unsafe environment and that he intends to stay for a few more weeks. Despite opening up more to Waterlily, he isn’t forthcoming with his previous intention to commit suicide, instead he attempts to give reason to his actions by stating that he wanted to ‘simplify his life’.
Not long after, the owner of the restaurant (that Jónas frequents), arrives in the lobby with the assailant responsible for Jónas’ injuries. The restaurateur apologises on behalf of him. They hope to make it up to Jónas by offering him the wares of a storage facility which includes items of furniture that may be of use in decorating the ‘women’s house’. Despite his initial feelings he agrees to accompany the thug who introduces himself as Bingo. Jónas picks out several items and acquires the much-needed paint he was trying to source. The hotel starts to attract new clientele, suggesting a promising future for the business. The actress returns to the hotel and, with a surge of confidence, Jónas propositions her — the two become intimate. Jónas arranges, through Waterlily, for the delivery of prosthetic limbs to the town. The tourist staying at the hotel is arrested. Waterlily phones and informs Jónas that his neighbour, Svanur has killed himself. The novel ends with Jónas entering the same taxi he arrived in with the implication that he is travelling home.
Auður Ólafsdóttir is from Iceland. She was inspired to start writing novels about love after stumbling upon a convention of love story writers while she was on holiday in the Pyrenees. ‘Never before had I seen a group of people so un-writerly in appearance,’ she says ‘not that writers are supposed to have some kind of uniform appearance. They seemed to have a definite color scheme going – lots of purple. And I got to thinking that it might be nice to be invited to a conference like this one day. Since then, love has been a constant theme in my work.’
From: Icelandic Literature Centre, Interviews with Icelandic Authors
Hotel Silence won the Icelandic Literature Prize in 2016 and the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2018.
Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir has also won prizes for here other work including Butterflies in November and The Greenhouse.
The book store chain Foyles conducted an interview with which can be seen Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir here