Andorraby Peter Cameron
For mysterious reasons, a man forsakes his American life and arrives in a strange country called Andorra. He settles into the grand--and only--hotel in its seaside capital, and gradually makes the aquaintance of this tiny city's most prominent residents: the ancient Mrs. Reinhardt, who has a lifetime lease on the penthouse in the hotel; Sophonsobia Quay,/i>… See more details below
For mysterious reasons, a man forsakes his American life and arrives in a strange country called Andorra. He settles into the grand--and only--hotel in its seaside capital, and gradually makes the aquaintance of this tiny city's most prominent residents: the ancient Mrs. Reinhardt, who has a lifetime lease on the penthouse in the hotel; Sophonsobia Quay, the kayaking matriarch of an Andorran dynasty; and the Ricky Dents, an Australian couple who share a first name, a gigantic dog, and a volatile secret. As the stranger reveals himself to his new friends, and becomes entangled in their lives, the mystery of his own origin deepens. What is he hiding, and why? And when a mutilated dead body appears in the harbor, everyone is a suspect, including our narrator. Part thriller, part comedy of manners, part surrealistic dream, Andorra is "a work of remarkable and sustained invention and imagination . . . a nearly perfect book" (Robert Drake, The Philadelphia Inquirer).
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Many years ago I read a book that was set in Andorra and it introduced to me a notion of that country that remained in my mind, so that when I was compelled by circumstances to begin my life again in some new place, I knew immediately where I wanted to go. And it was not difficult to get there, the world being how it is these days, and I went; I left behind all that I needed to leave behind. Which is to say everything. It is remarkable, the ease with which one can change one's life, if one wants, or needs, to.
Yet of course I didn't actually change my life. I am living the same life, only in a different country: Andorra.
Andorra's dramatic topography makes it unapproachable by air, so I arrived via train from Paris, having flown that far. As a general ruleand I am afraid I am the kind of person who believes in general rulesI like to arrive in new places by train. There is something about literally crossing borders, traversing frontiers, watching the countryside hurtle by the window and become exurban, and then the gradual diminution of speed as the train approaches a city, that allows one to arrive with an experience of place that flying disallows.
Andorra is a small country and her cityfor there is only one: the capital, La Platais proportionately small. The train station at which I found myself was not the chaotic grand temple one expects in European cities, but simply several glass-roofed platforms separated by as many tracks, a whitewashed waiting room with worn wicker furniture and a ceiling fan that rotated at a speed that succeeded only in proving that it wasoperational. I was the sole passenger to detrain at La Plata; I thought this an odd, but perhaps good, omen: I liked the idea I was going to a place not frequented by others.
Until I had found a suitable place to rent I had decided to stay in a hotel, and I told the cabdriver to take me to the city's best hotel. As I later discovered, La Plata has only one hotel, but it was of a quality that suggested the best in any case. (La Plata, in fact, was a peculiarly singular city, I was to find: it had just one of almost everything, save churches and restaurants, of which it had only a few.)
The hotel was called the Excelsior, and the best room they had available was a large circular one on the top floor, in a turret. Its dramatic placement in the building made it almost inaccessible: I followed the bellhop from the elevator up a flight of stairs to the base of the turret. We ascended a wrought-iron spiral staircase to a little foyer with a grillwork floor. The bellhop unlocked the door and opened it into the room, moving aside so that I could enter first. The room was full of sunlight, and its rounded walls prevented the furniture from being arranged in a conventional pattern: the sofa and bed and desk and chairs were scattered almost haphazardly about.
A narrow wrought-iron balcony encircled the turret, and I stepped through the open French doors, which were slightly beveled to accommodate the curving walls. Directly below me, in front of the hotel, there lay a broad cobblestoned plaza, with a fountain at its center. Three bronze fishermen stood on a pile of rocks, casting lines of sparkling water into the air; flying fish rose up from the fountain's basin, exhaling spumes of water back at the fishermen. On the far side of the plaza, past a row of palm trees, a freshly raked red-gravel promenade surrounded the small harbor, which was full of small and colorful boats and a few ostentatious yachts. This promenade led in one direction to a flight of stone steps, at the top of which was a large, low building from whose open facade spilled an assortment of cafe tables and chairs. As I watched, a young man emerged from the restaurant and moved about the tables, unfurling red-and-white-striped umbrellas above them.
I thought I might have my lunch there.
At one end of the plaza stood a majestic building adorned with flags that suggested government, and facing it, at the opposite end, stood a correspondingly majestic building with an ornate glass-and-iron marquee that suggested entertainment. Assorted shops and some market stalls completed the square.
I walked a few steps along the balcony and a new and entirely different vista came into view: the stone houses of the town, which rose up from the plaza in a series of terraces. Each terrace was a subtly different shade of red, varying from terra cotta to maroon. Behind the last row of houses was a rather sheer cliff traversed by a funicular railway, the cars presently motionless, resting on the face of the cliff in vivid dots of red. There seemed to be a plateau at the top of the cliff, but I could not make out its character. Beyond that, though, higher up still, shimmering in the strong morning light, stood snow-capped mountains, and behind them, at the top of all this world, a sky of almost unnerving blue.
I had arrived with only one trunk, waiting until I was properly settled to have my belongings shipped. When I returned to the room I found a valet unpacking the trunk, which the bellboy had left at the foot of the bed. "Does the view agree with you?" he asked.
"Yes," I said, searching for a more enthusiastic affirmation. "It's very beautiful. Not at all what I expected."
"People are always surprised by Andorra," he said. "It is part of its charm." He unfolded my shirts, shook them crisply in the air, and then hung them in an armoire. Both mirrored doors of the armoire were flung open, so that there seemed to be several of him, and as many shirts. I stood and watched the spectacle of this. "Will you be having lunch with us?" he asked.
"I don't know," I said. "I thought I might try that place across the plaza. With the tables outside."
"The cantina," he said, "is delightful for lunch. Less formal than the hotel dining room. Although you might have a very nice lunch in the hotel garden. I could reserve you a table in the shade, if you would like."
"I think I'll venture out," I said.
"Of course." He took my shoes out of their cloth bags and lined them up across the bottom of the armoire. Then he closed the doors, latched my trunk, and said, "I'll bring this down to the cellar. Is there anything you need?"
"No," I said. "I'm very happily settled. Thank you." I gave him what seemed to me a large tip, which he accepted without comment.
"Enjoy your stay in Andorra," he said.
"Thank you," I said. "I intend to."
When the valet had departed I examined my interior world. The room had none of the lack of character one usually associates with a hotel. It was full not only of furniture but also of objects: Chinese porcelain bowls, alabaster eggs, a large leather-bound book on a wooden stand that I assumed was a Bible but was in fact a beautiful collection of sixteenth-century maps, with yesteryear's obsolete countries oddly elongated or squat, delicately colored in pastel hues. There were no cheap paintings bolted to the walls; in fact, the slight yet constant curve of the walls forbade paintings. They were decorated instead by a gilded cornice that encircled the ceiling, and a fresco painted in triptych, with a panel occurring in the few expanses of wall that the doors and windows allowed. Upon closer inspection I realized it was a depiction of Joan of Arc: a visionary Joan, a militant Joan, a Joan in flames.
I stood in the center of the room for a long time, allowing the glorious feeling of arrival to wash over me. Because we never know if we will get where we are going, it is always a relief to arrive there. I felt that I could live contentedly in this turret room of the Hotel Excelsior; perhaps I would stay there forever and allow my things to rot in storage, for after all, they were the things of my old life and I was starting anew.
Before I ventured out I took a bath in the large red granite tub in the bathroom, which had one window high up the wall, a window through which sunlight poured down into the bathwater, onto my body. I washed away the dust and grime of the past and I felt anointed, and welcomed; I felt that tragedy can be transcended, forgotten, annulled.
For the first time in a very long while, I felt calm.
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