Do you want to be a tourist or do you want to be a traveller? It’s a question that those with a surfeit of free time and a healthy sense of wanderlust ask themselves when lighting out for unfamiliar locales. To be a tourist, the thinking goes, is to embrace something a bit too prescriptive – a prefabricated journey, a regimented list of sites to see, and, most of all, the tacit acceptance that you’ll remain an outsider in the place you visit. A traveller, on the other hand, claims something more authentic: spontaneity, a deeper immersion in the foreignness of a foreign place, and, most important, the ability to treat one’s travels as not just a break from normal life, but something that provides insight and helps shape what that life is.
Mark Anthony Jarman, writing in his closely linked short story collection Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, makes it clear on which side his unnamed protagonist falls in this tourist/traveller divide. As he puts it in “Pompeii Book of the Dead,” the collection’s lengthy final story: “And I am not one of those who pretend they are not a tourist – I know what I am.” Indeed he does. He’s a middle-aged man who has come to Italy to find some solace in the wake of his wife Natasha divorcing him back in Canada. Jarman’s protagonist is not looking for huge, revelatory experiences that will jolt him out of his malaise, and he’s certainly not looking to ensconce himself within Italy’s increasingly divided and struggling society. Instead, he hunts for what the Italians call milagritos – “little miracles” – the small moments of beauty and revelation that come from a fragmented randomness. Our man in Italy doesn’t actively search for meaning in the events that befall him over these twelve stories. Rather, he deliberately lets them wash over him with a kind of absent, touristic passivity.
It’s an interesting approach. Milagrito is a term we might apply to the best short fiction in general, and to the works of Mark Anthony Jarman in particular. Indeed, over the last three decades, Jarman has carved out a place for himself as one of Canada’s most dynamic and lyrical short story writers. His tales tend to pop and crackle with lively, inventive sentences and daring metaphoric swings. Readers of past collections like 19 Knives and My White Planet know that Jarman is someone deeply invested in the power of the milagrito. Many of the stories in those books are populated with characters full of keen awareness and pungent confidences. Which is why Knife Party at the Hotel Europa feels like such a departure. These stories have a maudlin, almost saccharine air untypical of Jarman. There is a persistent, often pathetic self-loathing that follows this character, this “poor, poor, lonely teddy bear,” around like a Charlie Brown raincloud. Even Jarman’s most expansive and loopingly creative sentences can’t hide the fact that this guy is a bit of a sad sack.
At least, that’s the impression we get from the first few stories. The opening tale, “The Dark Brain of Prayer,” has much going for it: as his man awakens to the allures and contradictions of Italian life, Jarman infuses his language with a near-religiosity. Canada remains a vague monolith in the background while Rome throbs with eerie specificity. (There is much said, for example, about the heat, throughout this and other stories in the collection. Our man is constantly soaking his shirt in water to stay cool.) But what does it all come to? In the end, “The Dark Brain of Prayer” is a standard meditation on a mid-life crisis, the story of a jilted man forced to begin his romantic life all over again. As he puts it:
I dwell on affliction, on bloodstream messengers. What is the message? That it is hard to meet someone new. I’m thinking tonight of my blue eyes. Nothing compares to you. The jukebox plays the same loyal tunes and my skin rebels, my skin breaks out: a wet horseshoe-shaped constellation on the flesh of my palm, and rows of red dots on the skin above my wrist, like an addict’s route map.
“Butterfly on a Mountain” leaves a similar impression. Again, we get a detail-rich impression of Italy. There is much about the schism between natural-born Italians and the immigrants who pour in from North Africa and the Middle East (including one who falls from the wheel well of a DC-9). But it’s all told with a very touristic eye, a distance that forces the Italian details to play second fiddle to what really consumes this man: his bruised heart and ego. Clearly, we’re very much outside Mavis Gallant’s approach to expat writing.
Thankfully, the collection tempers all this with the inclusion of two extremely disquieting elements; namely, incest and violence. Indeed, our man in Italy is not there alone. He is travelling with a crew that includes his cousin, Eve, and over the course of their journey the two develop a fiery sexual connection. In “Adam and Eve Saved from Drowning,” she walks in on him as he’s getting dressed in their hotel room. After they discuss which way his penis leans (to the left, natch), she proceeds to play with it: “She seems to forget that I’m even there as she moves it this way and that. I sense that this is the first time she’s been relaxed enough with someone in daylight to really look at one and move it about … I can tell that playing with it is making her amorous.”
Shocking yes, but the subversion of this love affair is a necessary nerve tonic to joggle us out of the collection’s more mawkish parts. Jarman has written very well about male loneliness in the past, and in reading Knife Party at the Hotel Europa we can’t help but be reminded of one of his more brilliant phrases from a previous book: “sexual Nebraska.” (It’s a dreadful place. Avoid it if you can.) And we sense that just as this protagonist begins to teeter toward a life of cold bed sheets, endless dry spells, and dying alone, he embraces the most dissident relationship available to him. His tryst with Eve is more than just a big fuck you to his ex-wife, Natasha, and to the world at large. There’s something engrossing about their dynamic, a camaraderie that transcends the casual exploits of two tourists looking for a bit of renewal in Europe.
As for the violence, it often feels as if this is Jarman’s true métier. Anyone who has read his oft-analyzed story “Burn Man on a Texas Porch,” or his tale “Cougar” (both collected in 19 Knives), knows that Jarman has a knack for describing sudden, inescapable moments of carnage. We get the same sort of violence in this latest book, the epicentre of which involves a man getting stabbed in the at a party in the appropriately titled, “Knife Party.” The image of that scene – the blood, the desperation, the uncertainty about what exactly has happened and how to deal with it – continues to haunt our narrator throughout the rest of the book.
Violence, in fact, seems unavoidable in an Italy of drunken frat-boy tourists from America (described in the story “Party Barge”), of immigrants desperate for a better life (including an Iraqi woman befriended by the narrator who was nearly killed by the US military), and the frustrated locals caught at the centre of it all. When our narrator captures the image of young men kicking the windows out of a train in order to escape into a dark tunnel, the violence feels like a metaphor for divorce and all the risks associated with it. There’s also a horrific motorcycle crash involving an attractive young couple that he spies from a distance. All this violence plays a double role: it at once unnerves the narrator and reminds him that he’s ultimately only a tourist bearing passive witness to the events around him.
Between the sad-sack mawkishness, the incest, and the grisly particulars of certain stories, one might be left with the impression that Knife Party at the Hotel Europa is a harsh read. This is not the case. There is a great deal of tenderness, humanity, and humour in these pages. When Jarman atmospherically nails the lonely mid-life crisis, as he does in “The Troubled English Bride,” a touching, piercing rumination on divorce and new beginnings, he really nails it. The best story in the collection, “Pompeii über Alles,” is also its funniest. Here, the narrator recounts a flight in which he meets a most daring and eccentric woman, a German professor, in the seat next to him. The story pivots on the professor’s inability to gain access to the first class section’s loo, and the revenge she takes on the flight attendants by urinating in the open galley area by the cockpit as she exits the plane after landing. The piece doesn’t really connect to the broader superstructure of the book’s narrative, but it doesn’t need to. It is pure, delightful entertainment, and showcases Jarman at his comic, linguistic best.
Knife Party at the Hotel Europa will be, and should be, categorized as a short story collection, but the close linking of these tales nearly makes it a novel. Jarman has just one published novel under his belt, Salvage King, Ya! (a brilliant book with a badly chosen title and cover), but he reaffirms here that he’s perfectly capable of sustaining a longer narrative arc. Unfortunately, that’s part of the problem. In trying to pull double duty in telling a larger story, the pieces in this new collection often fail to achieve the same crystalline singularity of Jarman’s previous short stories. Still, that larger story is compelling, and one that will linger with readers after they finish the final tale. Knife Party at the Hotel Europa is a memorable addition to Jarman’s growing and impressive corpus of work.
From CNQ 95 (Spring 2016)