(Viviane Hamy, 340 pages, 2018)
***SHORT LISTED FOR THE 2018 GONCOURT PRIZE***
Jeff Valdera starts receiving mysterious postcards from Zurich. They are inscribed with cryptic messages, and while he does not know who sent them, he immediately recognizes their provenance. They were offered for free in the reception area of Hotel Waldheim in Davos, the Alpine resort where he used to spend his summer vacations with his aunt Judith. Now forty years later, he is compelled to revisit this formative period of his life that may not be as an innocent and innocuous as he likes to remember.
The first postcard triggers an instant flow of memories: the arousing sight of girls undressing in the night train to Davos, the ritualistic welcoming plate of sliced Grisons meat offered by Herr Meili, the hotel’s owner, and the stiff politeness of the hotel guests. There are those Jeff remembers well, and those who only left a vague impression. When Jeff finally meets the sender of the postcard, a woman obsessively searching for answers, he is caught into a spiral that will lead him to question the person he thought he was. Based on the evidence she retrieved from the recently digitalized Stasi archives, she claims that Jeff must know something about the disappearance of her father, a German Democratic Republic dissident who was last seen at the hotel. Will she succeed in convincing Jeff that he is hiding something from her, and from himself? And can youth alone absolve him from the consequences of his actions?
Set against the backdrop of Swiss neutrality, 1970s Cold War intrigues, and the shadow of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Hotel Waldheim unfolds with the suspense of a spy thriller. François Vallejo unravels his hero’s confrontation with the past with lapidary precision, and, along the way, offers an astute reflection on the workings of memory, its forgetting mechanisms, and the many ways it can be instrumentalized.
François Vallejo is a French professor of literature, and a writer. He has published a dozen novels, including Madame Angeloso (long-listed for the Prix Goncourt and selected for the Femina and the Renaudot Prizes, 2001), Groom (Libraries’ Prize, 2003), Ouest (Livre Inter Prize, 2007), and Un dangereux plaisir (2016). All his books are published by Editions Viviane Hamy.