THE HOTTENTOT ROOM By Christopher Hope
Farrar Straus Giroux. 218 pp. $16.95
WHAT HAVE WE here? Is this short, densely written work a novel? A collection of self-contained essays? A love letter to a lost homeland? A hate letter to London? A treatise on racism? All of the above?
All of the above. The book is technically a piece of prose fiction deriving not only from Christopher Hope's experience of exile in an hospitable land but also from the play of his imagination. As in any novel worth its ink there is a carefully constructed plot, though in fact very little happens: the work's progress is constantly slowed, if not stopped, by digressions about everything from health food to the Holocaust. The most interesting thing about this curious book (which probably won't be made into a film starring Mel Gibson) is not its plot but rather a collection of odd characters who gravitate toward the companionable place that provides its title.
The Hottentot Room is a pub in London where South Africans, or at least those who have been approved by Frau Katie, the presiding spirit, meet to reminisce and to imbibe strong spirits. Frau Katie is herself an exile, having had to leave Germany (and a Nazi husband) because of "impure" blood. Her experiences of both racism and exile are counterpointed by references to the history and current tragedy of apartheid (pronounced by certain British mouths as "appetite"). Frau Katie is the novel's dominating figure, and even after her death (the shocking cause of which I won't reveal) she pretty much steals the show.
The various other characters, "antediluvian oddballs who can never go home," are reminiscent of the motley crew in The Iceman Cometh who inhabit Harry Hope's bar, sustaining themselves on pipe dreams and cheap booze. Those who people Christopher Hope's fictional establishment also combine bibulousness with hopeless dreams -- of a temperate homeland to which they might return. They find themselves in a country that is "a greyish, penny-pinching island of antheads. A nation enthralled by accountants." Again: "But we are talking here of cold that is wet and grey and gets under the overcoat, under the nails, behind the eyes, which gathers in the joints, between the bones, a cold which . . . gives that lugubrious and characteristically damp texture to the English soul."
IT IS A mistake to confuse the views of writers with those of their narrators, but I think it is safe to assume that Christopher Hope is not altogether enamored of Great Britain, where he makes his home. Now 43 and the author of several works of fiction and poetry, including books for children, he has lived outside his native South Africa (where his work is banned) for a dozen years. His homesickness is as obvious as his hatred of bigotry. And just as Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth's American in London (The Counterlife), finds beneath the genteel surface of British life a virulent strain of anti-Semitism, so Caleb Looper, Mr. Hope's protagonist, discovers in Great Britain appalling evidence of racism.
Looper, a writer, has been hustled out of South Africa for reasons I will let readers discover for themselves. Like Frau Katie, he has learned that his blood is not "pure," and he brings a unique perspective -- both objective and engaged -- to questions of color and race. We see the complex world of exile through his clear eyes, and it is through his bold actions that Frau Katie is finally able to go home again. Although the narrative leading to this unexpected de'nouement moves slowly, it consistently displays moments of insight and wit that will more than reward the patient reader.
Despite an occasional "dangler" (e.g., "Sitting around the horseshoe bar Looper found most of the tribe"), Hope writes well, regularly revealing a poet's ear. He also shows a satirist's eye. Looking for a cemetery, Looper asks a jogger for directions -- and the reader is treated to the following:
"Here was someone who clearly lived on nuts and high-fibre grains, who observed a meatless diet, who neither drank nor smoked and refrained from all activities likely to damage the heart, the arteries, the liver, the lungs and doubtless even the cervix which, Looper knew, had of late also become a suspect. It seemed a dreadful imposition to ask such a question of a person so clearly determined to stride into her hundreds . . . as if he were discussing some thoroughly unnatural sex act with a nun."
Despite such engaging prose this is not a commercial book in any sense of the word, and it is to the credit of the publisher that it is now available in this country. The pleasures of Christopher Hope's text, and they are legion, are those that come from following the unexpected twists and turns of an intelligent (and troubled) writer's mind as he confronts a number of serious subjects. The Hottentot Room, in short, is a fine place to settle into for a stimulating visit.
Joel Conarroe is President of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and a member of the Board of American PEN.