‘Knife Party at the Hotel Europa’ by Mark Anthony Jarman
In Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, a nameless narrator retreats to Rome after his wife and his girlfriend leave him at more or less the same time. This might sound like a familiar story—confounded middle-aged male desire, that old thing—except that Mark Anthony Jarman’s fierce, focussed prose is pretty much impervious to straight-up plot summary. Far from feeling outworn, this work proves that language can make everything new.
In his eighth book, the Alberta-born, New Brunswick-based Jarman pulls off some ferociously good writing. His style is singular. It feels compulsive, crowded, frenzied, fast. But there’s a sharpness to it, a startling specificity, a stealthy discipline to the rhythmic way fragments build into indelible images and lingering moods. Though Jarman has written non-fiction (Ireland’s Eye), poetry (Killing the Swan), and a novel (Salvage King, Ya!), he is known best for his work in the short story form. Many of the stories in Knife Party have been published separately; brought together here, these linked pieces could be read as a sideways approach to long-form fiction.
Jarman is playing around with the conventional notion that travel broadens us. Certainly, that titular knife incident is broadening, in a bloody, visceral, scary kind of way. “The knife must have met an artery, severed an artery,” he writes about an impromptu stabbing at a coked-up house party on the outskirts of Rome. “We meet in a rented room of blood, blood so scarlet on their white floor and dark rug and a trail as he heads to the door, to another country.”
But Jarman also suggests that travelling throws us back onto ourselves, into ourselves. Taken from his habitats and habits, the narrator exists in an odd emotional waiting-room, part escape, part imprisonment. He has lost not just his home but his idea of home, with his girlfriend gone, his wife back in Canada moving out of their old house. He lives a lot in his head.
Knife Party is ostensibly set in Rome, and it gives vivid life to the city’s clamouring sounds and sights (“warm Roman colours and spinning tires and spooky statues with eyes staring overhead), its smells and tastes (“I’m never eating a tomato in Canada again,” declares one character.) But the real location is the narrator’s mind, crammed with observations, memories, stray quotations. His thoughts tumble over each other, jostling, journeying from the furnace heat of Rome to the cold of the Alberta mountains or a blizzard-wrapped eastern city, sometimes within one sentence.
He riffs on high and low culture, combining pop ephemera with classical allusion. (He’s crazy for Pliny the Elder, fascinated by St. Valentine, martyred Roman namesake of romance.) He references book, movies and especially music (The Kinks, Townes Van Zandt, Cat Power, Portishead). There are mentions of Byron and Caravaggio, histories of murdered and murderous popes, musings on the last days of Pompeii. It says something about the energy and ease of Jarman’s voice that he can do all this namedropping without seeming either self-consciously highbrow or desperately hip. It feels more like a Falstaffian form of intellectual gluttony.
Knife Party also functions as a highly idiosyncratic travelogue, recording modern tourism’s pains (the hermetic nightmare of airplanes) and pleasures (“Ah, hotels: the towels so brisk and young”). Many of the vivid descriptions suggest Jarman’s work as a poet. Take this breathless rush of geography and history: “Italy, Italy, Italy, all the glittering kingdoms shaken and mixed in my head, the long love song and boot and heel into the sea, the north, the south, the mountain kingdoms and wooden fleets resting under the cliffs, men and women draped in corvid clothes shrugging off the stunning heat to gather grain and grapes and olives, Marc Antony lying with Cleopatra (we have used our throats in Egypt), Caesar stabbed in the back, Il Duce hung like a side of meat at the outdoor market, crack Nazi paratroopers hiding in the rubble of the Hitler line, young Canadians and Poles killed trying to climb bombed slopes and cliffs, the living forced to strip ammunition from the limp bodies of dead friends. Barbarians milling at the bronze riveted gate, armies on the azure beach, so many invasions, so many lost fleets, so many prayers to the wind.”
The narrator speaks of Rome’s luxury. It is “a city plated in gold. Gilt frames, hammered gold, coins and tribute, sunlight and gold chalices filling family chapels, museums, galleries, churches, palaces.” He also describes its squalor, the thronging poverty of beggars and hawkers and immigrants and refugees. He writes about the press of Rome’s past: “Rome is piled upon Rome, a field of broken crockery, a ruined kitchen.” But he’ll add, in an anticlimactic update, that Tom Hanks is “filming some Dan Brown crap in a nearby piazza.”
Things do happen, often shocking things, set at an operatic distance. They can be violent and terrible, like a road accident. Or they can be outright hilarious, like an agitprop protest at the arbitrary cruelty of airline policies. Several stories are suffused with the narrator’s erotic longing for Eve, a fellow traveller who also happens to be his cousin. Their relationship is delicate, doomed, maybe a touch weird (depending on where you stand on the cousin-cousine thing).
Knife Party offers very few conventional narrative through-lines or obvious epiphanies. (Occasionally there’s the comic opposite of an epiphany—“I stared into the abyss and the abyss tried to sell me life insurance.”) Mostly, the book is about the sprawling, surging contradictions of Rome, which allow the conflicted narrator to come to some kind of provisional understanding of himself and his life. “I travel so large a world,” he says in one quiet, rather sweet moment. “But my favourite is the tiny world we create when two people are kind to each other.”
Goose Lane | 288 pages | $29.95 | cloth | ISBN # 978-0864929181