Problemski Hotel by Dimitri Verhulst
Just like it says on the cover this is a story that pulls no punches, but there’s one little question that keeps niggling in the back of my mind: does it throw the right punches in the first place? Dimitri Verhulst’s Problemski Hotel (Marion Boyars) follows asylum seeker/photographer Bipul Masli as he spends time ‘holed up’ in a Belgium Asylum Centre, where he dreams of the perfect picture he nearly took and the perfect escape before he becomes just another used and abused statistic seeking a better life. This work is terribly current – the narrative voice Verhulst uses is enterprising and slick. We are reading something he knows few of us have seen and he can basically say what he wants – which he invariably does. You see, Dimitri Verhulst once spent time in a Belgium Asylum Centre at Arendonk for a Flemish magazine called Deus Ex Machina. Verhulst paints a grim, disparate picture [which is most probably realistic in its oppressive feel] of the everyday trivialities that occupy the minds and lives that reside within its confined walls – this is mostly a picture of nefarious violence, racism and vile misogyny.
Rather sporadically, at least, this is a sickeningly well written book, Verhulst’s turn of phrase is a page turner in itself [the whole book can be read in one sitting if you have a day to yourself] serving some purpose - if only to peek at how disgusting low and shocking he is willing to go. His startling use of incorrect humour for such a subject defuses the discord and harassment witnessed and felt by each character. Each human is basically thought of as a piece of meat – all smelling alike, all looking alike, all desperate to escape, to begin living again. The whole book is extremely crude, but then again, I guess it has to be – how can it not be? These are people who are treated appallingly. Problemski Hotel is a ragged mix of working men and women who have been rounded up like cattle and subjected to, on a daily basis, mindnumbingly tedious and nonsensical bureaucracy designed to make their lives living hell – there is no respect for human nature in here full stop. So, maybe, Verhulst is justified in his vulgarity.
What we do see is a definite culture of “us and them” [similar themes are echoed in the recent London short story collection Diaspora City]. Bipul, the photographer, takes a step back observing his subject. He is arrogant and uncaring, lending the narrative a harsh lens that scrutinises each character without mercy. The narrative voice concerning Muslims at Ramadan is harsh and unforgiving to say the least – but is born from base frustration rather than myopic racism. Although, most of the characters in Problemski Hotel are myopic and racist. For instance, this frustrating voice, Bipul himself, can be oddly forgiving:
“All the Muslims, and they’re definitely the majority around here, have gone to the computer class and checked out the Ramadan calendar for the year 1422 on www.mbs.maghreb.com. That is the year in which we are now living: the year in which they torpedoed the States with two high-flying shahids, whereas at the same point on their timeline, the old Continentals hadn’t even wiped out their first Indian tribe…” [Pg 74]
Or is that still unforgiving? And on the English and England:
“What do you want to go there for? The food’s hardly better than the fodder you get in the asylum centre. They lure in losers, you’re welcome there without papers, all you have to do is sneak into a container and make sure you don’t suffocate or freeze to death. It’s like a children’s game …” [pg 42]
Perpetuating the same crass generalisations? Possibly? All this leads to my next question: is this, then, a racist book? Race plays such a pivotal role and races of all creed and colour seem to hate each other throughout. But no, this is not a racist book, although Verhulst does play a part in the categorisation of race, possibly demonising others and humanising the rest. Everyone and everything is objectified through the eyes of one character, who only sees people as an image to be framed. Everything has its place and pigeon-hole in Bipul’s world view.
On the whole we do see, regardless of this singular view, a dehumanisation of each refugee – each is stripped bare of all individuality in the eyes of the law. All are uniform in this design. And all act accordingly. It is happening to countless asylum seekers as I write and there is nothing we can do about it. The crux of this book is that human beings treat other human beings badly; they always have done and, sadly, always will do.
So onto those wrong punches. The problem for me was Verhulst’s desire to shock. Far the most harrowing chapter of the book occurs towards the end. It explains, in explicit terms, the murder and disposal of a new-born child – the product of a rape. Bipul feels that even this is too much for him. The scene is gripping in the fact that it is well written but let down in its aim; to shock the reader. I suppose there is a point behind such a chapter: what chance does a new born child stand in the centre when no one else does? We are taken through the debacle of who will undertake the grim task of killing the child once she/he is delivered – the strongest of characters cannot bring themselves to do it. When it does happen, it happens quickly and without fuss, Verhulst enjoying the build-up rather than the finale.
The ending is a tad predictable, but fitting all the same. There is an ostensible predictability glued to each character. Each man, woman and child wants the same thing, they all want to escape, they all want a new beginning, to live their life. What else is left for them to do? This dark predictability is also mirrored in the joke about a black man’s genitalia that is juxtaposed at various intervals within the text. We see here a myopic ignorance, symbolised by this racist pub-joke scenario. Highlighting the sad fact that nothing changes on the outside, there is blind lack of knowledge everywhere, humans are objectified the world over. It seems that Verhulst has given up the ghost in fighting this ignorance and chosen another path, accepting the inherent racism in all cultures, choosing the record the distrust, violence and hatred this produces. It is a shame, more could have been said.
Dimitri Verhulst’s Problemski Hotel is worth reading because it is current and unashamed to retell a story. The prose is terse and witty, yet it is somehow let down by its propensity to shock or disgust at the turn of each page. It is shoe-horn braggadocio, image placed for effect. And just as Bipul yearns for a perfect picture, I felt myself yearning for more substance. Shock and awe prose. It seems that Verhulst has tried, in this respect, a little too hard.