For mysterious reasons, a man forsakes his American life and arrives in a strange country called Andorra. He settles into the grandand onlyhotel 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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About the Author
PETER CAMERON is the author of several novels,including Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You and The Weekend. He lives in New York City.
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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 rule — and I am afraid I am the kind of person who believes in general rules — I 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 city — for there is only one: the capital, La Plata — is 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 was operational. 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 façade spilled an assortment of café 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 snowcapped 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.
BY THE TIME I EMERGED FROM THE HOTEL ONTO THE PLAZA the day had grown so warm that I found myself turning around to face the mountains, half expecting to discover them melting, for it was impossible to believe that the luxuriant heat that surrounded me didn't extend as far as the eye could see.
I circumnavigated the plaza's perimeter, noting the variety of shops, which seemed to be a perfect combination of the practical and the decadent: cobblers and stationers were the immediate neighbors of furriers and jewelers. I decided to visit the stationers. The front part of the store exhibited the expected paraphernalia, and a hall led to a room in back which contained fine paper from around the world. These papers were draped over wooden rods that skirted the room at various levels: one sheet of each, on display, like paintings. In the center of this room a glass case displayed an assortment of journals of varying sizes, bound by a variety of materials. It was not until I saw these journals that I realized that I wanted to write a book to record my new life. I wanted to put down, hour by hour, day by day, in some artful way, what I encountered, what had meaning to me, what I said and what was said to me, how I felt, and what I saw, so that if this new life failed, I would have a record, something left: a souvenir.
The books were all beautiful: bound in various leathers and fabrics, but one in particular drew my attention. It was a tall volume, almost twice as tall as it was wide, and its boards were covered with an exotically patterned fabric, in shades of rust and indigo. At my request a young man extracted this book from the case and explained to me that it had been created in Florence, from Japanese paper and Balinese fabric. I liked the fact that materials from the East had converged so beautifully in the West; it seemed to me to be a book of the world, and I bought it. From a case in the front of the store I selected and purchased a fountain pen made from some amber resin, which a clerk carefully filled with thick black squid ink, and I carried my two purchases out onto the plaza with a feeling of euphoria and expectation.
I completed my inspection of the plaza and walked along the promenade, which was bordered on one side with palm trees and the other by a low stone seawall against which the green water of the harbor listlessly insinuated itself. The red-and-white umbrellas of the cantina had all been hoisted —
It occurs to me as I write this that I may be overdescribing everything, relying too heavily on colors, and that the scene may appear garish and smudged. These descriptions may seem forced, but they are not, for Andorra was a place that forced me to describe it to myself as I experienced it. It was impossible to walk along that gravel path by the sea and not think palm frond shadow, for not only the path but I, my skin, was laced with it, a sort of breathing, shimmering tattoo. Colors had a boldness: nothing was pale; the sun seemed not to stun but to energize surfaces. Even objects had a heightened clarity, and if I am paying too much attention to the way things looked, it is only because in those first hours I felt myself in the world as never before. The world was vivid, all about me, as alive as I, and I felt myself, as if woken from a coma, alive in it.
The umbrella-shrouded tables outside the restaurant were all occupied, so I ambled through them and stood at the entrance. The interior was dark and comparatively empty. A long, deserted bar stretched across the back wall of the room, with tables scattered throughout the middle and placed evenly along the walls, one below each window. As no one appeared to seat me, I assumed a small table adjacent to a window that looked out onto an alley, on the other side of which was a tall stone wall almost completely covered with ivy.
The luncheon menu was not extensive; I ordered the table d'Hôte and a pichet of native rose wine. When the waiter brought my wine he also brought me a copy of the local English-language newspaper: The La Plata Herald. Apparently I had appeared to him in need of entertainment. A disturbing story on the first page related how a young man's body had been found, apparently murdered, in the harbor that morning. Citizens were urged to take caution when walking alone at night. Another front-page story reported that the director of the opera had either been fired or resigned after a dispute regarding a controversial staging of Nabucco.
The large face of a dog suddenly appeared beside my newspaper and I looked up to see a tall blond woman escorted by this animal. The dog sat beside my chair and stared at me. It was the largest dog I had ever seen — its face was level with my own.
"I'm sorry," said the woman, tugging, to no avail, on the animal's lead. "Dino's rather a creature of habit. This is usually our table."
"Oh, pardon me," I said. "I'll move."
"No, no," the woman said. "Don't think of it." She looked around the room, and though there were many empty tables, none of them seemed right for her. "But perhaps we could join you?" she asked. "If you wouldn't mind. Otherwise I'll have to keep tugging Dino out of your face."
"That would be fine," I said. "But I really have no problem with changing tables."
"Oh," the woman said. "I'm sorry. You don't want company."
"No," I said. "It's not that at all."
"Good," she said, and smiled at me. "Down," she said to Dino, who sighed and very slowly lowered his body to the floor. I folded the newspaper and stood up as the woman sat opposite me. "Oops," she said, reaching beneath her, "what's this?" She held out my package from the stationers, which the clerk had wrapped in gold paper and tied with a scarlet ribbon. "What a lovely package!"
I took it from her and laid it on the windowsill. The woman sat down, and as I did, she reached out her hand and said, "My name is Ricky Dent. It's very nice of you to share your table."
I shook her hand and told her my name. "It's you who are sharing your table," I said, resuming my seat.
"Well, you got here first," she said. "What do they say: Possession is the better half of ownership?"
"Nine-tenths," I said.
"Well, that's certainly the better half." She laughed. She had an easy friendly laugh, and a slight awkwardness about her I found endearing. She had an odd angular face that could appear either plain or attractive, depending on her expression and the angle from which it was regarded.
"So you come here often for lunch?"
"Every day," she said. "Every weekday, at least. Unless it's raining, which of course it never is. Dino and I make a walk out of it. I don't believe I've seen you in here before."
"I've just arrived in Andorra this morning."
"Have you? From where? For how long?"
"Most immediately from Paris. And the United States before that. I'm in the process of moving to Andorra. I plan to live here."
"Good for you," she said, as if I were a child who had done something not very difficult well.
"I take it you live here?"
"I do," she said. "Or have been, and seem to go on doing. For quite a while now. My husband and I retired here from Australia."
"You seem awfully young to be retired," I said.
"We got lucky," she said, "and made a big pot of money — Ricky did; my husband's also called Ricky — and decided to chuck it all and come here."
"And are you happy here?" I asked.
Before she could answer the waiter appeared. Mrs. Dent told him, "As usual." She looked down at her empty hands for a moment and then looked up at me. "Actually," she said, "I'm not very happy at the moment."
"I'm sorry," I said. "It was a rude question."
She gave a quick, sad smile and shrugged. "Who's the lovely package for?" she asked.
"For myself," I said.
"And what does a man like you buy himself?"
"I bought a journal. I thought I'd keep a record of my —"
"Of your new life?" she suggested.
"Yes. That's what it seems like to me."
"It seemed that way to me, too, when I arrived. How quickly new lives become old lives! I kept a diary when I was a girl. Filled it with nonsense. What will you write in yours?"
"Oh," I said, "I don't really know. It was a whimsical purchase. I thought I'd keep a record of my days. I want to try to live my life more deliberately, more consciously. I thought keeping a journal might help."
"If you spend all your time recording your life, you'll have no time to live it," she said.
"I hope it won't come to that."
Our food arrived: a broiled trout for me and a chicken-and-avocado salad for Mrs. Dent. "Where are you staying?" she asked, as we began eating.
"At the Excelsior," I said.
"How posh," she said.
"Yes," I said. "It's quite beautiful. I'm thinking about staying there awhile, although I intend to find a place of my own before too long."
"It isn't easy to find places. Especially at this time of year." She speared a piece of chicken with her fork and held it down to the dog, who devoured it in a single bite. "For how long do you want a place?"
"Forever," I said.
"That's a very long time," she said.
Excerpted from "Andorra"
Copyright © 1997 Peter Cameron.
Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART ONE - THE HOTEL EXCELSIOR,
PART TWO - NO. 16 SAN JULIAN DE LORIA,
ADDITIONAL PRAISE FOR ANDORRA,
Also by Peter Cameron,
About the Author,