Hotel Ortolan by Tom Whalen

If you choose to read this book, to visit this Hotel, you will find it to be finely crafted by photographer Michel Varisco and writer Tom Whalen into a labyrinth of stairways and passageways of uncertainty, mystery, and intrigue, along which there are scattered bread crumbs, enticements, clues and innuendo that will take you down corridors that you hope will lead to your room. Henry Green described good prose as a “gathering web of insinuations.” Once you check in, whatever past you may have had will become a forgotten dream and then time itself will become inverted, then finally cease to have any meaning at all.

Each section of text of Hotel Ortolan (Black Scat Books, 44 pages) is complemented by a black and white photograph of an interior setting in an old, three-story house in southern France where the photographer, Varisco, happened to be staying on Bastille Day weekend. It was the 13th of July, her birthday and, oddly enough, the same date inscribed on a cemetery marker on the mantle of the fireplace. The photos of the white plaster interior of the house and the strange orientation of the stairways, and door openings with peculiar decor add another evocative dimension to the tale. Varisco had read the previously published text of Hotel Ortolan long prior to her visit to this unusual house. As she roamed its hallways and rooms she felt its uncanny resemblance to and a compelling resonance with Whalen’s work.

The entire story occurs within Hotel Ortolan — Ortolan being the name of an endangered species of finch. This little bird is also a culinary delicacy that is prepared in a particularly disturbing and sadistic way and eaten whole. It’s not on the menu at the Hotel. There is no menu.

Most of the story is narrated in first person in a simple and deliberate language, with a matter-of-fact, yet apprehensive tone. The narrator is searching for his room. Whalen’s narrator comes across as formal, diffident, and polite. There are several point of view changes as other voices are introduced. Late in the story, the point of view shifts to second person, when the readers find themselves in the Hotel along with the narrator. The narrator addresses the reader as another Hotel guest. Like the finch after which the Hotel is named, the narrator and the other guests are innocent victims of the circumstances and conditions in the Hotel, and one can’t help but wonder if they will face a similar fate in the end as that of the finch. However, through the description of a dream, the narrator suggests that leaving the Hotel, even by dying, may not be possible. Brief glimpses of light (deliverance?), do appear in the story, albeit at the top of a stairway that goes nowhere or in the form of a candle held by a child who leads you down another mysterious corridor.

In one notably curious passage, the narrator or guest, encounters the occupants of the room next door:

“In the room next to mine live angels. Sometimes when I pass their room during the day their door is partially open and I step in. They hang from the ceiling, one in each corner, their dark wings enfolding them like the wings of bats. Always one opens its eyes, which are gray as the sea, and I politely ask if there is anything I can do for them, but the angel only shudders inside its wings and closes its eyes…”

The structure of the story has been pared down to the bare essentials, without any unnecessary props or scaffolding, no staff, concierge or mint left on your pillow. Whalen is an admirer and translator of the German writer Robert Walser. In Walser’s “The Dream” the narrator says, “All we have and possess is what we long for; all we are is what we’ve never been.” All Whalen’s narrator longs for is to find his room. But even this modest ambition goes unfulfilled as he continues to search.

After reading this book, and you ponder the story, you may begin to realize that you’ve actually stayed in this hotel yourself, you know this place, that you’ve been here all along, that Varisco and Whalen have simply shared their vision of the place with you, maybe from just down the hallway, then shrouded it in the thin cloak of fiction.

-Conway Dorsey, author of “Odeen Hibbs” in The Year of the Thief, 2006.

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