This short, evocative novel combines a romantic melodrama of homosexual love and betrayal with deeper meditations on the passage of time, the essence of truth, the deception of desire and the inevitability of death.
Originally published in Germany in 2004, this is the first novel by the veteran Alsatian author to be translated into English. The “perfect waiter” of the title is Erneste, who has spent his life serving guests at a Swiss resort hotel after his sexuality estranged him from most of his family. With the approach of World War II, an irresistibly attractive young German named Jakob arrives to work at the hotel. Though Erneste has long kept the guests, his fellow employees, even life itself at what he considers an appropriate distance, he can’t keep his eyes off Jakob. And then his hands, though it isn’t until the more impetuous Jakob makes a reckless advance that Erneste becomes his lover as well as his roommate and mentor. The ambitious Jakob quickly joins Erneste in the dining room, where they are careful to keep their relationship secret. The narrative alternates between the mid-1930s, when the two began their seemingly insatiable relationship, and the mid-1960s, when Erneste hears for the first time in 30 years from Jakob, who had abandoned him almost as abruptly as he seduced him. The opportunistic Jakob had attracted a hotel guest, prosperous German novelist Julius Klinger. Two desperate letters from Jakob (now “Jack,” apparently on his own in New York) bring Erneste and Julius together. The extent of Jakob’s duplicity comes as a shock to the impeccably mannered, brokenhearted waiter. Had Jakob ever loved either man? Was sex simply bait or a bargaining chip for him? Did either of the men he seduced for his own advancement know Jakob at all, or had desire blinded them both?
For all the sexual intrigue, Erneste seems a bit like a Camus character in a Thomas Mann setting.