The Third Hotel luxuriates in the fertile narrative ground of the uncanny, the phantasmagoric and the depths of grief.
A literary novel for cinephiles, The Third Hotel revolves around film and a film festival, its characters super-fans and its imagination straight out of the cinema. Laura van den Berg’s prose style, which takes after David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock, stand out in a genre where the signifiers are more often Faulkner and Kerouac.
Clare is a recently-widowed elevator company executive. Prior to the events in the book, she was really married twice over: once to her husband, a Film Studies professor, and to her work, which had her travelling all over the US selling and repairing elevators. The Third Hotel, then, features her as twice-widowed, because not only has her husband, Richard, died suddenly, but she has also abandoned her job to attend the Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana.
The novel finds Clare exploring the freedom and anxiety of becoming unmoored. While she is excited to step away from the daily grind, and in a place as singular as Cuba, she is terrified, too, her identity constructed when she was a wife and businesswoman. Who is she if she is a widow traipsing around Havana’s boulevards and lunching in the shadow of Soviet-era brutalist apartment blocs? Even her native language is no good here; Clare is completely reinvented.
Van den Berg centers the plot on one particular film at the festival, a horror movie called Revolución Zombi. Prior to his sudden death, Richard had planned to come to the festival in Havana with his wife in order to analyze the film, interview its director and presumably write an academic publication about the whole thing. After he dies, Clare goes without him.
But things get weird when Clare glimpses a man who looks the spitting image of Richard—in fact, she realizes that heis Richard, but that is obviously impossible. She stalks her late husband’s doppelgänger, who seems like a normal person with a quotidian existence. Yet, as he soon makes clear, he knows Clare like a husband knows a wife. There are all kinds of terrifying implications that rise to the surface, and other strange events occur at the festival: the breakout star of Revolución Zombi has gone missing (though Clare sees her walking around in disguise), animals escape from the zoo and a train derails in the Cuban countryside.
Zombie metaphors constitute the major foundations of the plot, but what really makes The Third Hotel a novel for cinephiles is its dedication to film culture. Van den Berg pays homage to dozens of beloved films and directors, some (Mulholland Drive) more exciting than others (Up in the Air). More importantly, references are heavily skewed towards filmmakers from Mexico, Brazil, Cuba and Argentina. Van den Berg is clearly well versed in crucial cultural theories about the nature of the camera and the importance of film for the Latin American New Left of the ‘60s; for instance, she makes repeated reference to the idea that the camera was like a surrogate gun, a device to speak truth to power, an idea that comes straight out of Argentina in ’68. Memories of Underdevelopment and its centrality to Cuban film culture is another major theme.
The Third Hotel luxuriates in the fertile narrative ground of the uncanny, the phantasmagoric and the depths of grief. Van den Berg explores the contours of the most intimate human relationships: between married couples and between parents and children. This is heavy stuff, but Van den Berg also delights in her fluency with film culture and Latin American modes of expression. She evokes the colors, sounds and tastes of Cuba without exoticizing the island and winks repeatedly at Latin American culture without appropriating it.