A Dutch-born immigrant to the Ligurian capital, best-selling author Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer knows first-hand that our identity is tied to our sense of place – and of history. In his latest novel, he interrogates what it means to belong in a modern Europe haunted by its past glories.
A sweeping end-of-an-era novel, Grand Hotel Europa is a nostalgic musing on the old continent’s place in the world. It is told through the metaphor of a storied hotel, an institution of rarefied, faded grandeur, which can only survive by catering to the mass market. Here the protagonist takes refuge from tourists and a failed love affair, only to find that both follow him inside. Written by Dutch novelist Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, the book has been on bestseller lists in Belgium and the Netherlands for more than two years. Now it has finally been published in English.
For the past 14 years, Pfeijffer has lived in Genoa, a city that has provided a fascinating, if somewhat melancholy, backdrop to his stories. His 2013 novel La Superba was set in the port city and examines both migration and tourism – subjects to which the author returns in his latest work. At the heart of both books is the question: what does it mean to feel European? In a place with so much history, it can seem as though there’s no space left for looking forward and that the most realistic perspectives on the future are offered by the past.
Looking out on the Ligurian Sea, Genoa is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities and it remains one of the Mediterranean’s most prominent ports. Pfeijffer first came here while cycling from the Dutch city of Leiden to Rome; wanting to avoid mountains, he took a huge detour around Switzerland via Belgium and France, and through the Ligurian capital. The 2,600km journey took him 41 days. When it was over, he returned to Genoa, intending to stay for a couple of months. Yet something made him settle here.
Today we are sitting at his favourite café in Piazza delle Erbe, deep in what he calls “the labyrinth”. It is here that he began the first sketches of La Superba, inspired by the fact that Genoa has always been a point of departure and arrival, a city from which Crusaders set off for Jerusalem. Millions of Italians left from here hoping for a better life in the US at the end of the 19th century. Now, Genoa is where many immigrants find a new home, right in the city centre, a medieval maze of alleys. Different groups from all over the world inhabit each part of Genoa: there is an area primarily housing migrants from Senegal; there is the former Jewish ghetto, now home to a community of trans prostitutes, among others. Each of these micro realities has a unique character.
To change location is to change personality, says Pfeijffer: identity is bound up with a sense of place and history. He prompts us to think more deeply about this in what might be the book of the year.
What inspired ‘Grand Hotel Europa’?
The basis of the book was a personal question. After my translocation from the Netherlands to Italy, I began to feel a bit less Dutch and a bit more Italian. Most importantly, I noticed that I felt more European. I asked myself, “What could European identity be?” I concluded that it had a lot to do with our relationship with the past. In Europe, we live in the midst of the tangible past. When you spend your entire life surrounded by the beautiful remnants of glorious centuries past, it’s tempting to conclude that the best times are behind us. But nostalgia is a constant factor: Europeans have always thought that the past was better. Even the ancient Greeks thought that the golden age was behind them, when the gods were roaming Earth. So I realised that a novel about European identity should be about our relationship to the past and nostalgia.
So what does it mean to be European?
Many things but pre-eminently it involves the awareness of our history. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that we’re wiser. But at least we’re more conscious.
What are the implications of this for the future?
Europe has arrived at a point in history where it has to redefine itself as a geopolitical power. It needs to find its position between rising and declining superpowers. That is what we’re trying to do with the painstakingly difficult but incredibly beautiful project of European unification, of which the UK is unfortunately no longer a part. But there are always arguments that we have seen better times and this is perhaps more visible in the south, around the Mediterranean, than in the north of Europe.
A country such as Italy has increasing difficulties maintaining an old-fashioned economy. One that is based on heavy industry and shipbuilding doesn’t make sense any more; you cannot keep up with the competition from the emerging economies in the East. So Europe has to redefine itself. For an alternative economy, they revert to the main characteristic of European identity – the omnipresence of the tangible past. That’s something that you can sell. You can sell tickets for your museums, for your monuments. I realised that my novel would inevitably touch upon tourism. In Italy the city centres are rapidly turning into open-air museums, theme parks. The question that I asked myself in the book is whether this is the destiny of the entire continent. Are we are bound to be the theme park of the world?
In ‘Grand Hotel Europa’ you tell the story of a bellboy called Abdul, who is a refugee from the Middle East. His experiences show that choices and alternatives exist by virtue of having a future. But for Abdul, the future can only exist by the grace of a past that needs forgetting.
Abdul is on the cover of the book. He is reluctant to tell his story and he is the only character who doesn’t have this connection with the past. For him the past is an ugly place; he is looking towards the future. It is very difficult to find words for this situation, so he borrows them. The reader eventually realises that he is actually following the story of Virgil’s Aeneas. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that the Aeneid, the ancient text on the myth of Rome’s foundation and one of the founding myths of Europe, is a story about a war refugee.
Many of Europe’s ancient myths and historical events are echoed in modern life – for instance, there are parallels between what happened with the bubonic plague and coronavirus.
The plague of the 14th century came into Europe via Genoa. It was the most active port city at the time. Italy’s first coronavirus cases were close to Milan Malpensa Airport. That’s the modern port. What could be the long-term effects of this plague? One of its short-term effects was that it put a total stop to tourism. We saw Venice empty, which was breathtakingly beautiful but also breathtakingly sad because the city cannot survive without tourists. It’s not even a real city any more; nobody lives there. These pandemic years have given us an excellent opportunity to think about these issues. But I don’t see any trace of this kind of reflection, especially among Italian politicians and policymakers. The only thing they can think of is a restoration of mass tourism as soon as possible.
What’s the alternative?
It’s a myth that tourism is a viable alternative economic activity. It brings in some money and creates some jobs but it’s mostly part-time work at a very low level. Much of the income goes to a few big players based abroad. Tourism is by no means innocuous: it creates a lot of damage to the social texture of cities. Airbnb should be prohibited. If you want to control it, you cannot leave that to the free market because its rules dictate that we will have more and more of this type of activity. Politicians have to intervene, to keep things under control and liveable. The alternative is not easy because it means that you have to be more creative about bringing about different opportunities for economic activity. But tourism is the easy solution – and it is not a real solution.
One of the ways you tackle this in your novel is by writing about making a documentary on tourism.
A large part of the story is set in Venice, because it is perhaps the most spectacular example of a city that irreversibly surrendered to mass tourism. You see the same phenomenon in other European cities, among them Amsterdam, which is rapidly becoming a theme park. Residents have moved away from the centre. But its city council is aware of the problem and it is now trying to discourage tourists from coming by convincing them to visit other parts of the Netherlands. Not far from Amsterdam, there’s the town of Zandvoort, which has a nice beach. If you call that Amsterdam Beach, you can make tourists go there. There’s the city of Muiden, where there is a castle. That became Amsterdam Castle, and so on. It has worked, in the sense that Zandvoort and Muiden now have the same problems that Amsterdam has. But tourist numbers in the capital didn’t fall.
The novel’s Grand Hotel Europa is taken over by a Chinese owner who changes its character. Is this a metaphor for China’s increasing global influence?
China is buying Europe, which is perhaps not necessarily a bad thing. The Grand Hotel has been bought by a Chinese investor, who wants to improve it. So he tries to make it even more European. There is a lovely 19th-century Chinese room; he rebuilds that as an English pub.
Do you think that the Chinese money flooding into Europe is a threat?
I am worried about things that the Chinese government has control over, such as the 5G network. But I don’t see much danger in Chinese individuals buying shops, bars and restaurants in Italy and turning them into flourishing establishments. They’re often an improvement.
What is the heartbeat behind both works?
Both La Superba and Grand Hotel Europa explicitly want to relate to the times in which we live. I want to raise questions about modern life, globalisation and Europe. But both are novels. The motor of Grand Hotel Europa is a heartbreaking love story. Margaret Atwood was once asked by an interviewer whether she thought that it was the task of a writer to talk about the world today. And I liked her response very much. She said, “No, that is the task of me as a citizen. My task as a writer is to make you turn the pages.” I will be very grateful if readers, if only for five minutes, stopped to think about the questions that I raise. Perhaps I don’t have the answers; perhaps it’s not my task to provide the answers. But let it be my task to pose a couple of very good questions.
‘Grand Hotel Europa’ is published in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the UK by 4th Estate. Listen to the full interview with Pfeijffer on Monocle 24’s ‘Meet the Writers’ at monocle.com/radio or as a podcast.