The Colonial Hotel takes a classic tale and recasts it in a form both episodic and abstract. The names are borrowed from Greek mythology, though the Trojan war parallel isn’t developed much beyond that.
A doctor, Paris (son of Priam), accompanied by Helen, a nurse who is also his lover, find themselves in the midst of a civil war in a developing nation. Helen gets pregnant, but is separated from Paris, who ends up in a prison camp. There he experiences various horrors, meets a man named Hector, and, after his release, finds himself in a relationship with a local woman named Oenone, with whom he has another child.
Just as the names suggest elemental types rather than conventionally realistic characters, the setting is left deliberately generic and vague: it’s never specified where or when the action is taking place. We are told the aggressors are from the north, or the mountains, and are murderous and corrupt, engaging in the kind of ethnic cleansing and bloodshed familiar in many spots around the globe.
Adding to the sense of storybook indeterminacy is the elevated language, which seems at times as though it is being translated from some ancient text. Oenone, for example, nurses Paris back to health by making him “eat the root of the tree that heals,” and a page later joins the women of her village to help “gather the fruit that was ripe on the trees in the next valley.” That is as specific as the floral references get.
Originally conceived as a poetic sequence, the writing is also frequently pitched at a stilted rhetorical level: “As the rain falls into the sea, as the dead animal seeps into the ground or is eaten, as fire makes way for tiny green shoots, so love once shared and accepted becomes all other loves that came before.” A lot of the book sounds like this.
One can understand Bennett’s desire to write a political fable both contemporary and timeless, but his intensity and moral earnestness can be burdensome. The Colonial Hotel aches for a lighter touch, a sense of humour, and a less formal mode of address.