It’s unfortunate, but the qualities that make Mark Anthony Jarman the most interesting, if not the best, short-story writer in Canada today – in particular his unorthodox, experimental approach to style and form – are the very things that make him challenging, even off-putting, for the general reader.
Jarman is not a traditional storyteller. Narrative is not his thing, and Knife Party at the Hotel Europa is typical in this regard. It could be read as a novel, but is probably best approached as a series of linked stories dealing with a Canadian tourist in Italy. The narrator has left the ice and cold of his home, as well as a broken marriage and a dead mistress, to melt in the sensual heat of Rome, Naples, and Pompeii. The oven that is Italy is so hot, he wonders if Canada still exists.
But wherever you go, there you are. Jarman’s narrator takes in all the touristy sights, but feels he’ll never know “interior Italy,” only “the chaotic exteriors.” Not being familiar with the language or the local scene (which is awash with immigrants and other sightseers anyway), he doesn’t describe his surroundings so much as render a reflection of “the racket and form held inside my quiet head.” What results is a jumbled series of impressions, allusions, references to high and low culture, erotic fantasies, and streams of word associations.
What seems merely chaotic, however, is actually well crafted and thoughtful. When, for example, the narrator calls Rome “this mammose mammering holy city,” it may sound like a bit of alliterative nonsense, but it’s worth unpacking the vocabulary to understand what’s being said.
Impressionistic writing, which is Jarman’s mode, doesn’t tell a story so much as it revolves around leitmotifs, images, and emotional preoccupations. A book by Jarman is a bit like a concept album, the language arranged in musical and meaningful ways. But, also like a concept album, it requires some close attention.