“The Hotel Noir exists on an island, perhaps the French Caribbean but certainly isolated from the rest of Western civilization, an island doomed through circumstances and apathy to slide from tourist paradise to narcotic hell.
Among the enigmatic and enervated characters spending the season at the Noir is the book's main narrator, a once famous American writer, a Jewish intellectual from Boston who is annually drawn to this laid-back alien world. His work dried up decades before - after the premature death of his wife - but he retains some literary reputation and maintains a small circle of friends on the island including an out-of-favour local politician and a tragic young prostitute.
This lost soul prefers to escape the weekly literary salons (arranged without any conviction by the hotel's proprietress Madame Blanc, where speakers regularly insult, bore and bemuse the hotel guests) and instead compulsively visits the slums of the island. His relationship with the prostitute he has known since her innocent but impoverished childhood is ambivalent and repressed, he buys hard drugs to salve her addiction while wracked with guilt and planning to take her to a rehab clinic in the States, but only ever calling her 'the nameless one' to deny any possibility that she might become an emotional replacement for his wife.
The essence of his story is told accompanied by fantastic asides, eccentricities and the content of his dreams. It was a few dozen pages in before I properly registered the novel was written in the 1st person present tense, normally I have to say my least favorite person and tense combination, but here it really does serve a purpose and work successfully.
Then at the half-way point the narrative switches to segments written by Bat – a local journalist writing a biography of the 'slain American writer'. It seems the semi-literate, anonymous letters he had started receiving contained more than empty threats. We learn that the writer had been murdered on one of his forays into the dark underbelly of the island while avoiding a New Year's Eve hotel party. But no one, police or politicians (including his old friend who has now been returned to power), seems to care too much about the crime or the motive, the event was just part of the island's existential fate.
There is much fine prose in the telling of the story, it's leisurely development mirrors the languid decline of the hotel and the 'polyglot, polychrome society' outside its genteel, privileged walls. The environment and acceptance of decay reminds me to a degree of JG Ballard's lost fantasy worlds – this is an island of the imagination, that may represent something wider than a geographical locality.
It is compellingly readable throughout, (although the second narrator is less intrinsically gripping than the main one - though perhaps structurally essential), and the whole book is a delight. A special mention must go to the character of Madame Blanc, a grotesque both controlling and uninvolved around whom the hotel and perhaps the island revolves. Typically in the face of the hotel's decline she considers as a casual aside 'replacing the library with a video arcade or perhaps a meditation center with its own resident yogi…'
In the end the meaningless death of our narrator and the demolition of the hotel raise profound questions that are left to the reader to answer. The Hotel Noir has been sucked back into the jungle like some lost Aztec city. “People like to see things fall down,” it's the “Spirit of the times.”