Problemski Hotel by Dimitri Verhulst

Dimitri Verhulst was brought to my attention by two kind acquaintances of mine. One of them praised Problemski Hotel on his blog earlier, and the other recommended to me another novel by Verhulst, The Misfortunates. I started with Problemski Hotel, which was such an exquisite novel that soon after finishing it I bought The Misfortunates as well, and it didn’t have to lie around for long before I got down to reading it, either. Anyway, this post is about Problemski Hotel.

This short documentary novel tells about the residents of a Belgian refugee camp. The camp houses all kinds of refugees: people from Africa, Chechnya, Albania, India are crowded together, men and women are thrown together, and people from Christian and Islamic backgrounds engage in sometimes violent conflict on a daily basis. The everyday life of the refugees is predictable and immensely boring, nevertheless, it is filled with the most diverse stress factors. The refugees have nothing to do, they have nowhere to go, and in their life there’s definitely no point in trying to get close to anybody, since there’s no telling when someone receives the long-awaited letter telling them whether or not they can stay in Belgium. It doesn’t matter whether the answer is positive or negative, sooner or later everyone leaves the camp, so it’s no use forming friendships or long-term plans.

In the camp everything is transitory, and even though each refugee left a terrible past behind, this doesn’t matter to anyone at all: the other refugees don’t care as they all have horrible life stories of their own, therefore they can hardly be expected to be surprised or shocked by the horrors others endured; the immigration officers don’t care because they are overburdened and are lost among the bureaucratic procedures; and the locals don’t care because all they understand is that with each new refugee, there’s one more useless dipshit treading the Belgian land.

All this could serve as the basis for a brutal, heart-wrenching and unsettling novel, and indeed, Verhulst’s book is such a novel. But not in the way you might expect: there’s not a bit of pretended shock or hypocritical, effusive pity over the misery of others, and there’s no word written in the book which is only meant for effect. This may partly be so because the narrator of the book isn’t a clever external narrator who explains everything (and most certainly it’s not Dimitri Verhulst, the journalist) but Bipul Masli, an acclaimed photojournalist and himself a refugee from Africa. Even though he sees a possible cover photo in each of his refugee camp acquaintances due to his professional background, he still manages to treat every one of them like a human being, and not like an example case offered by some humar rights organization to the public to be shocked by.

And of course we cannot ignore Bipul Masli’s style and humor. His style is cruelly cynical, and his humor is such that made me wonder how Kurt Vonnegut could be considered the master of black humor when authors such as Dimitri Verhulst exist. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kurt Vonnegut (though not as much as I did when I was a teenager, but I still like him well enough), but he simply doesn’t seem to be playing in the same league as Dimitri Verhulst, as regards both his humor and his oft-praised humanism.

Anyway, the usual thing happened to me while I read Problemski Hotel: it was such an excellent and stunning book that I find it extremely hard to speak about it. I’m not Dimitri Verhulst therefore I cannot write without a lot of over-dramatization about the things he handles so easily and naturally. And if there’s one thing I don’t want to do with this book, it is to spoil it with my tearjerking and dramatic words. Therefore I stop writing now.

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