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The Colonial Hotel: A solid novel on morality in our not-quite-postcolonial world

The Colonial Hotel
Jonathan Bennett
ECW Press
227 pages

In the classical telling of the fall of Troy, it's all on Paris. You can shift some of the blame to the gods, but ultimately it comes down to a fault in Paris's judgment: He really ought not to have accepted Helen as a bribe – she was already taken. Often forgotten in retelling this story: Paris was already taken, too – married to the mountain nymph Oenone, whom he abandoned when he stole Helen from King Menelaus.

Paris, Helen and Oenone again find themselves in the midst of war in Jonathan Bennett's latest novel, The Colonial Hotel – or at least there are characters with those names. Set in the present, here Paris is a freelance doctor who has signed on with a medical NGO after falling for Helen, one of the NGO's nurses. At the novel's outset they are in an unnamed country and staying at the Colonial Hotel as a respite from their fieldwork. When militiamen from the country's north storm the hotel, the guests find themselves captive in what will turn out to be full-scale civil war.

The purpose of literary allusion is to provide additional depth to a work: by similarity or contrast to what came before, the reference provides commentary that would not otherwise exist in the work itself. With an extended allusion such as Bennett's, then, it is worth considering what has changed and what has remained the same.

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Paris is still the focus here – the novel's structure gives him the most airtime, though his testimony is bookended by that of Helen and Oenone – he still pursues Helen into war; he still must choose between the two women; his judgment remains at issue. But in their individual characters and fates Bennett's trio strays far from its classical forebear. One has the sense Bennett began with the idea of adapting the classical tale for a contemporary setting, but in his effort to provide counterpoint he lost the original tune. Too bad he didn't just change the characters' names. The adapted Greek mythology now seems a superficially complex distraction, which is unfortunate, as it's the biggest drawback from what is otherwise a solid novel on morality in our not-quite-postcolonial world .

To what extent is his predicament Paris's fault? Unlike the classical Paris, he is not personally responsible for this war – the immediate, local cause is indignation in the country's north over crop taxes enacted by the government in the south. But the larger cause is a power imbalance caused by the presence of the white foreigners at the Colonial Hotel, including the doctors.

The hotel itself is less important to the book as a setting – Helen and Paris spend little time there – than as a symbol for the foreigner's relation to the country. From the architecture around the hotel we can ascertain that the country was once part of a European empire and gained independence in the last half century. Those taken hostage at the hotel are white (or, as in Helen's case, pass). They are foreign-aid workers or they are employed by the development bank or the oil company – interlopers who are in the country for outright imperialist reasons or because they are the beneficiaries of historical imperialism. We are in Graham Greene territory. (Yes, the cover blurb compares the book to Greene as well as J.M. Coetzee. Both are apt references – the latter author especially for Paris's tone.)

"Helen and I had come to accept our station in these places," Paris writes. "Staying at the only affluent hotel as expected. To forgo the status and safety it afforded would be to risk becoming, or appearing to become, a political player. Even if creating political change was morally right, doing so would have placed us in danger. Our reasons for being there were medical. We treated only the effects.

"The gaps in this logic seem larger to me now," he adds, in retrospect.

In the country's local dialect, the word for a white person is the same as that for blindness. White people are "erased by the light," white on white, and therefore "the blind." The secondary meaning is obvious: white people are not only unseeable but also unseeing. "Was I blind?" Paris asks on realizing he failed to read the signs that he and Helen were in danger.

The language Paris uses to describe the country and its people is stripped back and utilitarian. Initially this seems to arise out of indifference. Later, he reveals it as purposeful concealment to render unidentifiable the country and the people he has encountered, as a matter of safety.

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Paris repeats one of his father's aphorisms, "Home is accommodation." Its meaning could go both ways: home is where one is accommodated; to make a home is to accommodate oneself to others. In the end, Paris's relationship to the country has changed – no longer a guest at the Colonial Hotel.

Jade Colbert is The Globe and Mail's small-press-book reviewer.

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