Perusing a menu in a small eatery earlier this week, I came across the following item: ‘Paella, possibly with prawns’.
Putting aside the potentially promising proliferation of the letter ‘p’, let us consider instead the remarkable hesitancy of the statement, reminiscent as it is of a famous fictional food file.
I refer, of course, Marcin Woo’s ‘Maybe Menu’ – the prime draw of the ‘Hotel Vague’, a four storey hotel in Gdansk, the setting of more than several subplots in Wdj Szesz’s epic and as yet unending novel Gdansk Haunting.
Marcin Woo, the half-Polish, half-Chinese proprietor of the Hotel Vague has, rather like his creator, a deep fear of solid facts. He will not be tied down. And thus he runs his hotel ‘according to a set of everchanging rules’, making sure that almost nothing is set in stone; that nothing runs true to popularly conceived form.
This applies, in particular, to the hotel restaurant, whose eighteen page menu offers a large range of products that may or not actually appear on the customer’s plate. One can order, for instance, ‘duck, or chicken, or possibly coot, with a sauce made from ingredients that may or may not include saffron, basil and liquorice’. Having ordered this, there is every chance that one may receive a bowl of baked beans instead. Or maybe you’ll get roughly what you asked for. Who knows. There is really no way of knowing. That’s the way the Hotel Vague goes. You receive the key to Room 204, but you’ll probably find yourself sleeping in Room 43. You take the elevator to the second floor, but you might end up in the basement. And maybe you’ll like it down there. Maybe not.
In a novel renowned for a frightening attention to detail – and seeming obsession with sordid social issues, the slightly surreal Hotel Vague is a never less than a breath of fresh air: a magical lantern sitting on a shelf alongside a load of lightbulbs. But it is also, as noted, a pretty fair symbol of Szesz’s ambitions; his simultaneous desire to grasp life by the scruff of the neck, whilst admitting that it is, at bottom, unknowable; that the novel can no more pin life down than any menu can adequately describe the culinary delights it may contain.
Read Adrian der Linger’s review of the novel here.