I’m a streetwalker. Not a call girl or anything like that, no, a common streetwalker with high heels and menthol cigarettes (p. 5-6, Arcadia Books)
Zenith Hotel, a raw and powerful novella by Oscar Coop-Phane, introduces us to Nanou, a Parisian streetwalker. By following Nanou’s movements over the course of a day, we see a microcosm of her life presented as brief, yet piercing, vignettes. She lives in Zenith Hotel, but there are no soft towels or creature comforts here. Her lodgings are squalid. The communal toilet is ‘not a proper toilet, just a hole in the ground with two little white ceramic footrests’ and the floor is always wet.
The narration starts with Nanou, so we gain access to her thoughts as she starts her morning in her room with a coffee and cigarette, a routine she maintains from one day to the next. Once Nanou heads out for the day, the focus shifts and much of the narration comes from the perspective of Nanou’s clients. We meet a high-school teacher crushed by the administrative burden of his job and a slightly stale marriage. We see a moped-loving man in his late thirties who has moved back in with his parents following the failure of his relationship. And there’s a bar manager in the process of leaving his current role to open a café with his brother. Cooper-Phane sketches these distinctive pen-portraits with a striking combination of insight, compassion and raw honesty; he shows us the lonely, the disconnected, those bruised by the harsh realities of life.
Perhaps the most moving and memorable of these portrayals is ‘Victor and Baton’, in which we encounter a solitary man as he cares for his one friend in life, his dying dog – this is a deeply affecting picture of an isolated individual desperately trying to escape the ‘crushing burden of solitude’. (p. 47):
Baton was abandoned at birth. Victor took him in and washed him, caring for him like his own son. He raised him in his little apartment in the 11th arrondissement. He made him a space in the sitting room, in his life, in his heart. When he went off to work, Baton waited for him, the only soul who has never deserted him. (p. 44-45)
At the end of each client vignette, we return to Nanou and briefly glimpse her thoughts as she continues to walk the streets. Once again, there is a raw candour to the writing; it’s spare and direct, but penetrating, too:
They find it comforting to taste destitution, to defile themselves a little. When they get home, they’ll have a shower and forget all about it.
I wash myself too, but it doesn’t come out. Their filth is under my skin, under my nails, in my hair. Their smell clings to my body. I scrub myself raw but I can’t get rid of it. Even though I’ve been doing this for a long time, you don’t get used other people’s filth. It contaminates you as much as it did on the first day. (p. 41)
Nanou turns to writing as a way of squashing time; it’s a means of getting through the day:
When I get home, I’m going to burn all this. I don’t want anyone to read it. So why write? I don’t know, it’s stupid.
I will have managed to talk about myself, though, a few pages of self-indulgence. I didn’t think I was capable of it.
Forgive my style and my mistakes. Don’t feel sorry for me either, that’s not why I’m doing this. Like I already said, I write to kill time, so don’t go thinking it’s for sentimental reasons or anything like that. (p. 57)
Zenith Hotel is a very good novella. At just under 100 pages, it’s a one-sitting read which manages to convey so much emotion in such a brief space. Cooper-Phane writes with brutal honesty, and yet there’s real compassion and humanity here, too. One of the things I most admire about his writing is the way he uses realistic details to flesh out his characters. Cooper-Phane avoids cliché to show Nano’s clients in a way that is believable and feels true to life. He also writes with raw candour about the grime and stench of life in the seedy side of Paris – brace yourself, as some of these images may not be for the weak stomached.
Zenith Hotel (winner of the Prix de Flore in 2012) is this author’s first book, and it’s all the more impressive to discover he penned it at the age of 23.
My thanks to Stu at Winstonsdad’s who recommended this book – if you’d like to read his review of Zenith Hotel, just click on the link. I’ll finish with a few final thoughts from Nanou as they seem to capture the essence of this story:
I’ve got no nerve. Maybe one day I’ll develop some. And I’ll follow it outside my body, wherever it leads me. What else can I do but wait? I harbour my little woes, caress my little scorchmarks. I don’t try and heal them. I wait for them to leave my flesh. You live with your burns. What else can you do? (p.19-20)
Zenith Hotel is published in the UK by Arcadia Books. Source: personal copy.