Hotel Hastings (a poem in 49 cantos)
by Eduardo Padilla (in Spanish)
Reviewed by Gary Gautier
As a second-language speaker of Spanish, I may have got it all wrong, but if you want to know what I thought and what I like, I will tell you and you can listen.
Hotel Hastings reads more like a novella, less “poetic” in rhythm and form than Padilla’s other poetry that I’ve read. It has the easy flow of narrative, but with little Pound-like hooks in imagery and free associations across the page that remind you – it is related by, and you, the reader, are locking consciousness with, a poet.
The first part is masterful in its integrated vision of street-level grit and Kafkaesque surrealism.
“En el norte me dicen Ed y acabo de enterarme de que los cartógrafos le dicen Ed a las islas de Existencia Dudosa,” reads the epigraph (in my amateur translation, “In the north they call me Ed, and I just found out that cartographers call islands of doubtful existence ‘Ed’”).
Is he the island of doubtful existence, or is it his shadowy gray setting, Vancouver, whose existence is dubious? Either way, the epigraph sets me up for a surrealistic journey. This is supported in the first line of the first canto, when Ed leaves school (presumably from Mexico) to go live in East Hastings “con los demás fantasmas” (“with the rest of the ghosts”) in a mausoleum-like hotel above a butcher shop where flies dance on the floating heads of bodiless pigs. The characters who populate his floor have a symbolic, dreamlike aura, despite their grit – the pimp’s apprentice, the drug dealer, and at the end of the hall, the drug dealer’s only client, “vive y muere” (“living or dying,” depending on how you choose to look at it). Also, the pickpocket, “with hands more beautiful than those of a mannerist saint,” and the Invisible Man, a “human hieroglyph,” who walks only in straight lines, turns only in 90-degree angles, and looks, if you can catch a glance when he takes off his glasses, like a Dustin Hoffman lookalike. Here, among this range of low-life archetypes, the narrator, though a foreigner, finds for the first time in his life his own element 😊
Thus begins our hero’s tale, scrounging for jobs, or better yet unemployment checks, trying to sell the CDs he’s been carrying around for five years, one eye forever on the next cheap beer. The surreality persists (e.g. in Canto 12, where “tourists pass through my room and around my bed, taking pictures of me,” although this may have been presented as a dream – don’t ask me, my Spanish isn’t good enough to get all the context). But gradually it becomes clear that this is not a bizarre alternative world being recorded in the simplest terms possible, as in Kafka, but a gritty real world of Vancouver streets being recorded by a batshit crazy poet, a poet who ponders how he fits into his 2-story hotel and concludes, “I am the 13th floor,” a poet who “was born [with an unfulfilled desire] to see Eraserhead,” a poet who at one point admits his memory is shattered and asks the reader to step in and help him sort out the pieces.
I like the first half of the book better, where the language has me flying in Kafka space rather than walking the grungier streets of the actual city of Vancouver, but the second half, which smacks more of William Burroughs’s Junky than of Kafka, brings me closer to the poet, to the human element underneath it all. Maybe you need both halves, the yin and the yang, the id and the ego, the world of make-believe and the world that hits you in the face. Maybe the batshit crazy poet knew what he was doing.
x x x
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