Visions of Italo Calvino’s seminal postmodernist romp Invisible Cities arise as the reader enters the cleverly fabricated world of this novel, originally published in French in 2004, from Rolin (Paper Tiger, 2007, etc.).
The book’s modus operandi is explained in a mock-editorial foreword declaring that “each [chapter] describes a hotel room in minute detail…then goes on to relate an anecdote involving the author and this particular location.” Thus protagonist and narrator “Olivier Rolin” trots around the globe fulfilling miscellaneous diplomatic and criminal missions, indulging varied sophisticated tastes, including gratifying dalliances with often exotic, occasionally dangerous women—a blissful exception being his “ever-endangered” girlfriend Mélanie. Our antihero gets awfully cozy with “discount dictators” trafficking in WMDs and other bad stuff, but he’s basically an amiable thrill seeker who prefers uninterrupted creature comforts to inconvenient derring-do. Individual episodes offer differing degrees of smash-mouth action and risibility. It’s hard to top an adventure in Helsinki where Olivier recovers from “a brawl over the interpretation of the Sibelius concerto for violin in D minor with some sailors in a bar.” But we are treated to a Catholic plot to convert Muslims by bombarding them with “religious trinkets”; a Siberian scheme to clone mammoths from prehistoric DNA and sell the hybrid beasts to U.S. theme parks; a weird rescue operation accomplished in Hanoi’s Natural History Museum; and an eye-popping sex scene performed under a table in a Montreal restaurant. An extra dimension emerges in Olivier’s pilgrimages to locales associated with favorite writers, and due homage is paid to such prankish experimentalists as countrymen Boris Vian, Henri Michaux and Georges Perec (who, the foreword explains, was this book’s major inspiration).
Elegant fun, and one of the most enjoyable “serious” novels in many seasons.