Knife Party at the Hotel Europa

By Mark Anthony Jarman

It’s unfortunate, but the qualities that make Mark Anthony Jarman the most interesting if not the best short story writer in Canada today, in particular his unorthodox, experimental approach to style and form, are what make him a challenge, and even off-putting, for the general reader.

Jarman is not a traditional storyteller. Narrative is not his thing, and Knife Party at the Hotel Europa is typical in this regard. It could be read as a novel, but is probably best approached as a series of linked short stories dealing with a Canadian tourist experiencing Italy. The narrator has left the ice and cold of his home and native land, as well as a marriage break-up and the death of a mistress, to melt in the sensual heat of Rome, Naples, and Pompeii. He finds the oven that is Italy turned up so hot it makes him wonder if Canada still exists.

But wherever you go, there you are. There are few writers who feel as compressed into a personal mental space as Jarman. And so while the narrator takes in all the touristy sites he feels he’ll never know “interior Italy” but only “the chaotic exteriors.” Not being familiar with the language or the local scene (which is awash with immigrants and other tourists anyway), the external world isn’t described so much as rendered as a reflection of “the racket and form held inside my quiet head”: a jumbled series of impressions, allusions, references to high and low culture (“upside-down-cake-brow”), erotic fantasies, and streams of word associations.

But what seems merely chaotic is usually well crafted and thoughtful. When, for example, the narrator calls Rome “this mammose mammering holy city!” it may sound like a bit of alliterative nonsense, but it’s worth unpacking the vocabulary to understand what’s being said.

Impressionistic writing, which is Jarman’s mode, doesn’t tell a story so much as it revolves around leitmotifs, images, and emotional preoccupations. A book by Jarman is a bit like a concept album, the language arranged in musical and meaningful ways. But also like a concept album, it takes some listening.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, February 2015.

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