Nights at the Hotel Splendido | Sam Munson | Granta

Nights at the Hotel Splendido

Sam Munson

Horvath got there early, he told me. The reception clerk was eating but he put his food away when he saw Horvath and handed over the room key. There was a shining spot of grease on the key. Horvath’s room was quiet. It overlooked the hotel grounds. From the window he could see the four swimming pools and the meadows beyond them, and beyond the meadows the forest. He read a detective novel until it was time for the first panel. He looked around at the other early guests. He didn’t see anyone familiar yet. As the panel ended, a rich, heavy smell filled the air. The program said breakfast would begin afterwards. Horvath discovered that the staff had set up long tables in the hall outside the ballroom where the panel was held. On the tables were large metal chafing dishes. In the chafing dishes was a reddish stew containing ragged pieces of white meat. There were baskets of bread and silver dishes of crackers. Horvath never ate breakfast, he said. He was almost never hungry in the morning. But the smell of this stew excited his appetite and he filled a bowl. It was delicious. He mopped the bowl with bread and filled it again. He saw other early guests doing this as well. After he finished he felt stronger and clearer-headed, no longer half-asleep. He asked the waiter standing at the table’s end what it was and the waiter said: roast pork. The strength and alertness the roast pork provided lasted for the next few hours. Horvath sat in the ballroom and listened to the presenters, but their words did not seem dull or empty to him. He listened carefully and the words stayed in his memory when the panels ended. The ballroom got fuller and fuller. Horvath saw a few people he knew and said hello to them during the coffee breaks. He looked around for more roast pork but there wasn’t any, at least not in stew. But he noticed that during the late-morning presentations a sound, the sound of something being crushed between the teeth, rose up. At one presentation it was loud enough to disturb the speaker. She stared out as the noise died away, then smiled and pulled a small bag from her pocket. Horvath was sitting close enough to see it: it was yellow and red, with the word chicharrones printed on the side. He learned later that this was the Spanish word for pork cracklings. The speaker opened this bag delicately and inserted one of the chicharrones in her mouth. The crunching noise she made, amplified by the microphone clipped to her lapel, was exactly the same as the sound that had disturbed her. The audience laughed and the speaker went on with her presentation, accompanied by the continual crunching noise. Horvath himself found a large basket filled with these bags when this presentation ended. An acquaintance told him they had only been put out in the south end at first. The chicharrones were as delicious as the stew, and they tasted almost fresh (despite their commercial packaging). Horvath ate the chicharrones all through the afternoon presentations. They sustained his strength and mental energy. His neighbors ate them too. At moments he exchanged glances with other eaters. Their wide, happy gazes told Horvath the effects were not limited to him. When the afternoon presentations ended, the seminar delegates all gathered in the central ballroom for the traditional first-night dinner. Every year Horvath had previously attended, chicken fricassee had been served. Now, he saw the waiters wheeling out carts holding more covered chafing dishes from which came the same rich smell as had come from the stew tureens. From these dishes the waiters served up large sections of roast pork. Skin on, seasoned with salt and pepper. This was the most delicious preparation Horvath had tried yet. The waiters served nothing else, no potatoes or salad. Horvath ate two platefuls, then a third. Despite the heaviness of the meat, he knew he could have gone on eating for another hour, for two, without ever feeling full. His tablemates seemed equally hungry and eager. Even as he was preparing for bed, Horvath felt none of the bad aftereffects that accompany overeating. The idea of sleeping did not appeal to him. He sat up late doing nothing, reading the detective novel he had brought with him. Looking through the window at the huge moon and its fourfold reflection. He fell asleep late and woke up early, but was not tired at all. His dreams he did not recall, only that he had dreamed. In general, the darkest hours of the night – which before had always weighed on Horvath, crushed him almost, he said – passed like nothing. Like a single instant. Before the morning session, dinner was the main subject of conversation. Horvath discovered that, as he had suspected, the other seminar delegates enjoyed the same benefits he did. It was a mystery, no? But dietary science is always changing. Perhaps this meat came from pigs bred to contain hyperproteins (this was a word Horvath said he had heard recently from some business associates). Perhaps it was the thrill of eating meat and more meat, with nothing to distract from the meat. Maybe it was the sudden, rapid change in diet. That alone can induce euphoria, well-being, and clear-headedness. No matter. The benefits were real, everyone agreed. And if this was merely the start of the week, then they could not wait to see what came next. This good humor changed the overall tone of the second day. Traditionally the second day represented what Horvath thought of as ‘the return to seriousness’. After the excitement of arrival and the overindulgence of the first day and night that had always previously characterized the seminar, the second day usually reminded attendees that they were here on business. The presentations were longer and more serious in tone; the speakers adopted solemn voices; the audiences sat in silence. Not now. No, the good humor that filled the breakfast salon spread out into the seminars as well. The audiences murmured to each other, held long conversations, told jokes. The speakers adopted this attitude as well. One, a tall, cadaverous woman Horvath remembered from previous years, abandoned her regular demeanor and opened the floor to any and all questions halfway through her talk. Someone sitting a row ahead of Horvath shouted out – she did not bother to raise their hand – that she wanted to know about the pork, the excellent food they had been eating. The cadaverous woman leaned back in her chair and shouted in response that she was as surprised as anyone else: The seminar food was normally shit! This provoked laughing and applause in the audience, and the rustling of the chicharrones bags grew louder as well. Rumors began to spread in the afternoon that there would be another dinner that night. This would have been unprecedented in the history of the seminar, and Horvath dismissed it. Wasn’t it enough that they had the breakfast stew and the chicharrones? Why did they demand some sort of dinner? Yet he kept his mouth shut. In part because he disliked arguing with people. And in part because he found himself hoping for another dinner as well, and this disqualified him from criticizing. He ate as many chicharrones as he could during the afternoon and early evening presentations, assuming that he would have to find his own dinner. The thought depressed him. He pocketed a few bags. Some to save for later and some to bring home. Otherwise no one would ever believe him about the marvelous food. I told him then that I in fact did not believe him – where were these bags of chicharrones? I reminded him that he had a terrible tendency to exaggerate, everyone knew it and people talked about it when he wasn’t around. Horvath said he did not care, he did not care if no one believed him, because it was true. Absolutely true, everything he was saying. And he went on with his story (though I was making a wry face), he kept on explaining about the second day and its denouement. As the presentations began to reach their end, Horvath said, he could feel the dense anticipation in the air. The delegates rushed out of the ballrooms and annexes and formed a large crowd in the hallway. They all had their eyes aimed at the doors closing off the northern end. Beyond those doors lay the great dining salon where they had enjoyed the simple and delicious roast pork the previous night. Horvath heard whispers: Look, look, there are people moving around in there! This was true. Horvath himself saw the shadows of legs striating the tawny light leaking out from under the saloon doors. But that didn’t mean anything, it could be another dinner, or hotel staff doing general cleanup work, or the kids the hotel employed, the busboys and coat-checkers, fucking around. (Horvath had once worked in a hotel and he knew what the young staff got up to.) Yet his chest was tightening, his breathing was fast. He found a grin stretching his face. And when the doors did open, and two waiters wearing black dinner dress bowed at the entrance and beckoned the delegates onward, Horvath could not abstain from the general happy gasp that went up from the crowd as it rushed forward. As soon as he was seated, he smelled it again: the sweet, rich smell from the platters of simple roast pork, the skin brown-red and crispy, the meat tender. The delegates all fell silent as they ate, and the thick noise of their chewing filled the dinner salon. Horvath got his plate from a smiling waiter, also in black dinner dress. The waiter’s teeth, he saw, looked sharp and green. That’s common among waiters and other people in their trade, Horvath knew from his own years spent working in hotels. And the waiter vanished before Horvath could examine his teeth more closely. He was about to cut up his portion of pork leg when he saw on the red-brown skin covered in fat droplets giving off a golden light (as if from within) a series of blue-black marks. Horvath put down his knife and fork and looked at them. Almost obliterated by the cooking process. Horvath guessed that this was the mark of the farm where the pigs had been raised. Probably on the most advanced and arithmetical principles. New farming methods and philosophies were springing up all the time. They had never before made any difference to the taste of his food. But this time they had. Horvath saluted the arithmetical farmers who had raised this pig and then cut into the skin and ate his portion. It made him feel healthy and strong, like the other portions he had eaten. The colors of the sunset seemed clearer. The grass of the lawns looked greener. The faces of his fellow delegates no longer looked stupid and ugly. Horvath’s face, too, changed as he told me this part. It lost its normal expression: furtive and vacant. The change was quick and brief, and I dismissed this as another of his tactics and said nothing as he went on. That night and all the next day he wandered around in a state of complete relaxation and happiness. He did not sleep much, because he was so happy, but that did not affect his mood the following day. There was more pork for breakfast and more pork for lunch, and the atmosphere in the lectures and discussions was still more informal and jolly than it had been before. He struck up friendly conversations with strangers, something that he always tried to avoid. He found himself in a long discussion with a married couple, one he recognized from previous seminars. What did they talk about? Nothing and everything, said Horvath. The food, the weather, the hotel rooms, the pool. And various other trivialities from their lives. Yet Horvath and this couple stood in an almost frightening closeness. At least, that’s how he made it sound. He didn’t say it frightened him, he looked happy once more while he spoke. Because there was no reason for it other than the liberated mood he was in. He also opened an acquaintanceship with a young woman he met by the pool. Neither was wearing a bathing suit, they were both still in street clothes, and this fact served as a jumping off point for another conversation that meandered endlessly without becoming boring. I started to object, because this sounded like a real lie. Horvath, though long married, was famously inept with women. But Horvath held up his hand and said he knew very well what people thought about him when it came to having affairs, and this was not that, nothing like that. He and the young woman talked for almost an hour that night and for almost an hour the following morning at breakfast. They talked about her schooldays, and also about his schooldays, and how things change over time and never go back to the way they were. A vague, repulsive mistiness came into Horvath’s eyes as he recounted this part, and I had to look away. He went on to say that the woman was a journalist. What she was doing at the seminar she was shy about. Maybe, Horvath thought, she had been sent there against her will by an editor. To this backwater, this elegant but second-rate hotel. Anyway, they talked a lot about numerous small subjects. The presentations kept going on, though people paid less and less attention to them. And three times a day, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the waiters presented the roast pork. Its effect never diminished. If anything, it got stronger. Horvath was expected to deliver reports to his home office about the seminar, in order to justify his attendance. This process had always filled him with dread before, so that he could hardly say anything and his boss always got pissed off at him. This time it was different. He spoke to his bosses easily. He told them everything he had seen and heard: the food had improved his memory too, he said, it made it simple to remember even the dullest presentation. And he was not afraid when he reported. All in all, he did better this year than he had ever done before. His boss congratulated him, he said the seminar sounded great, and he made no slighting remarks about how expensive it was. He kept Horvath on the phone a little longer than usual to bullshit and to give him some praise for a piece of work he had completed before leaving for the seminar. The one problem, if you could call it a problem, was that he did not need to sleep as much as he had before coming here, and the other delegates did not seem to need it either. He realized this because he heard noise coming from the lawns, the pool plaza, and the hallways at all hours. Two, three, four in the morning. And this was not ‘youthful excess’. No one was acting stupid, no one was drunk. There was no need to sleep. The day extended itself into the night. Day at the same time as night, Horvath said, and night at the same time as day. He felt shy about joining these gatherings at first. But he got over it quickly and soon he was out in the halls, on the lawns, by the pool. He talked to the journalist and the married couple, he found out more about their lives, they found out more about his. He attended a dance in the hallway outside the main dining salon, and danced with the journalist there. It never went any further than that, he said, and how could it: a woman her age and a man his age. The music came from other guests. Two had brought their guitars and one had brought their fiddle. The fiddler Horvath recognized as well from a previous seminar because he was an epileptic and had had an epileptic seizure during the keynote speech on the final day, and the hotel had called an ambulance to take him to the hospital. He played now with speed and skill. But most of the time, Horvath said, he wandered around. Enjoying the night air and the world of the night that had previously been hidden from him by his need to sleep. A need driven by his having to get up and go to work in the morning. The moonlight on the grass. The moonlight on the trees. The rough, slapping noise the pool water made as it got sucked through the filters. And the faces, Horvath said – the human face changes at night, that’s a fact. Everybody’s face looks different at night, especially outside. You see their real faces. That’s why he wandered around, to see these faces. And he saw a lot of them, he sought out new faces to see. One night he was wandering around the pool plaza. It must have been, he said, close to three in the morning. He was as energetic as if he had just woken up after a long, deep night’s sleep. There were dozens of other delegates out on the plaza and lawns. He exchanged friendly greetings with all of them as he drifted from conversation to conversation (always participating). It was a warm evening. The air smelled like plane trees and chlorine. The delegates walked the circular paths between the pools. A few had taken off their shoes and rolled up their pants and were trailing their feet in the water. Others stood beyond the lighted-up area around the pools, out on the dark, gleaming lawns. Horvath had stopped for a while to listen to a new story he had wandered into the middle of. A delegate was holding up a gold wedding band and saying he had found it in the bottom of his plate, that it must have slipped off the hand of the chef. But who was the chef? Who had seen him? And he, the delegate, had tried to return it but the waiters informed him that due to hygiene regulations non-staff were not allowed in the kitchen . . . it sounded dubious to Horvath. As though the delegate were making things up under the influence of dietary euphoria. But he did have the ring, he was holding it between his thumb and forefinger and the moon was shining on it. Horvath decided to head back, but he wanted to test out the delegate’s claim that non-staff were not allowed in the kitchen. All hotels say this. Yet each hotel enforces the rule with different degrees of energy. It forms an essential part of the bond between host and guest, and as such both extreme laxity and extreme strictness both bring dangers with them. In hotels like this, reasoned Horvath, not at the level of a truly great hotel but not a shithole either, one might expect overlaxity. Due to incompetent imitation of the truly great hotels, whose management knows the precise moment at which laxity becomes weakness. That incompetent imitation defines hotels of the second rank. Horvath felt, he said, a sudden desire: to test this theory out, see if he was right, and to take a peek into the kitchen, the nighttime kitchen. He had not felt a desire like this since he was a young man. But he obeyed it without any hesitation, after saying a cheerful goodbye to the delegate who told the ring story. There was a curving path that led through the swimming pool plaza and lawns around the southern face of the hotel. Horvath calculated that the delivery truck bay and other staff entrance and exits should be there. And he was correct, he said. As he walked deeper and deeper into the shadow the hotel cast (so dense it seemed to absorb the moonlight) he saw the grounds fall away sharply to a dusty concrete loading zone lined with green trash cans and covered in the glare of a security light. All as expected, he knew such areas well. There should, however, have been a ceaseless murmur and hum from the comings and goings of staff, of talk from the smokers gathered there, of laughter from the delivery men, and of growls and barks from the dogs that hung around all such loading zones and ate scraps. Horvath saw nothing. The loading area stood in perfect, somnolent order. This caught his attention, and he decided to investigate further. The loading zone doors were not locked. Once inside, he soon found that path to the kitchen. Also silent. For the first time, he felt anxious. Perhaps this hotel did follow a strict philosophy, you could never be absolutely sure, some second-rate hotels went the other way down a path leading to total discipline. Still, he had come this far and the effervescent well-being the pork and chicharrones brought him had not evaporated. He pushed open the kitchen door and went inside. The kitchen was dark and quiet. The rich smell of the pork lingered, sparking Horvath’s hunger yet again. He spotted a large platter on which meat was piled and was about to eat some when a flashlight beam came through the windows in the doors at the other end of the kitchen. Fuck! Horvath slipped under the long table next to him. His fear was gone. He felt a happy exhilaration. He had not gotten up to any stunts of this kind since his own days as a kitchen boy. The light, heavy steps of the watchman (like the steps of the dead) soon echoed in the silent kitchen and the flashlight beam bounced up and down, here and there. As his eyes adjusted Horvath found he could make out the watchman’s face and body, he was a tall, fat, strong-looking man with a totally bald head that gave off (it seemed to Horvath) its own underearthly light. The watchman opened a steel door. Beyond the steel door was a walk-in refrigerator, filled with its own light. The light cast the shadow of the fat watchman on the floor. The door stayed open as the watchman moved into the refrigerator. Horvath was able to see, once the watchman moved, its contents. Near the front, on the right, were skinned carcasses on hooks: chests and thighs. Farther in was a wall from which hung long, pale forms, skin on and heads downward. Their heads, armpits, chests, legs, pubic mounds had been shaved to the scalp, and the blue-black of shaven hair looked like dirt on the skin. The watchman prodded each with a finger as he passed. The bodies swayed on their chains, and their swaying shadows joined the swaying, stalking shadow of the watchman. Their arms, frozen, moved slightly at the shoulders as they swayed. Now I really felt I had to object. Human corpses? But Horvath did not seem concerned, his face did not contort into its usual guilty position, a position all his acquaintances knew well. He told me that I should let him finish and everything would be explained, including the corpses. Yet I had to ask him, for the sake of reality: what did he do? What on earth did he do? If he was telling the truth he must have done something. He must have faced some inner impulse while facing this insane barbarity. But that, he said, was the trouble. His ‘first impulse’ – he had no first impulse! He sat, he said, beneath the table and looked into the freezer at the human bodies on their hooks. Each swayed in response to the pressure from the watchman, and then it stopped. When the watchman had examined each body, he left the freezer and closed the door. Horvath stayed where he was until he heard the watchman’s steps die away. Once he was back in his room – he spoke to no one he saw along the way, he ignored every delegate who called out to him or invited over for a drink – he ran into the bathroom. He expected himself to vomit, but he did not. The steady, flowing happiness and comfort the food induced in him did not abate. When he phoned the police, a doubt sickened him. Was he guilty of the crime too? Ignorance did not excuse you from such things. Yet given that he had nothing to do with the act itself (except at one remove), perhaps they might forgive him. A young man answered and asked what the emergency was, and Horvath said he did not know if this qualified as an emergency but the hotel he was staying at was serving human flesh as food. The dispatcher asked him to repeat himself, and then said he needed to speak to his supervisor. The supervisor, a woman, did not wait for Horvath to speak before she announced that filing false police reports over the phone was a crime. Then she hung up. Horvath decided to leave. At once. He put his clothes in his suitcase and gathered his toothbrush and razor. Before he left the room the phone rang. He answered it. The same woman’s voice spoke to him. She apologized for her anger before. They had gotten a lot of complaints about this recently. And it was understandable because people did not know how things were. But despite what Horvath thought, everything was in order. The hotel had a contract with a number of local towns. The kitchens and the meat had all been inspected (they were due for another inspection soon, in fact, right after the seminar ended) and the police were well aware of the situation and regarded it as legally normal. There was no need for further reports or phone calls. Then she hung up once more. At the front desk Horvath jabbed the silver service bell until a clerk appeared. She wore dinner dress and Horvath saw shining grease on her fingers. Horvath asked her for his bill. She said, once she had consulted her computer, that he still had a number of days left on his reservation – had there been some problem? Horvath stared at her, trying to see if she was smiling. If that plain, round face concealed some shitstained and devilish vastness . . . no, nothing. He told her he needed to leave earlier than planned. But there were no refunds without a valid reason, and she had to put a reason in the field marked REASON on the cancellation form. Horvath told her he did not want a refund, he wanted to check out. The clerk said she could not interrupt the cancellation process once it had been started, and that he still needed to provide a valid reason for the REASON field. Once he did that he was free to go. Horvath shouted as loudly as he could that he refused to stay in a hotel like this one, he had found out everything about the roast pork and he had no intention of staying a moment longer. The clerk said that all food and drink issues were covered under the general indemnification he had signed after checking in. She showed him a form with his signature on it. He recognized the paper and remembered not having read it before he signed. As such, said the clerk, food- and drink-related issues could not be entered in the REASON field. Horvath picked up his suitcase and ran through the main doors and outside without saying anything else. The hotel drive was short. It led to a curving, tree-lined lane that led, in turn, to a large commercial street. He would be able to find a taxi there. The drive was quiet. Old-fashioned gas lamps lined the sides. Their small yellow flames did not light up much. The short drive was quieter still: the trees blocked out sound. Horvath ran down the narrow, even footpath next to the asphalt. The branches had not been trimmed back recently and several struck him in the face, lashed him across the eyes, as he ran. When he reached the middle of the short drive, he was forced to stop. A fence, a chainlink fence, stretched across it. Quite new, it was held up by concrete stanchions. Large yellow signs hung from it. asphalt rehabilitation ahead: danger area. The fence, which must have been erected during the first days of the seminar, stretched off into the woods in either direction. Beyond it the road had been torn up, excavators and bulldozers were parked in uneven rows, and rubble and dirt lay in large piles. Horvath tried to climb the fence. No luck. He could not get more than halfway up holding his bag. He threw his bag over the fence. It landed on the other side, next to a green barrel. He tried again and still could not climb it. He heard a distant sound, accompanied by a disturbance in his peripheral vision. At the junction of the hotel drive and the leafy lane, he saw a bouncing point of white-yellow light and heard the light, heavy tread of the watchman. Horvath jumped down from the fence and rushed into the woods. The fence must end somewhere. He would run along it until he reached the end and then turn downhill until he found the commercial district the hotel had segregated itself from. The ground here was uneven and rocky, and Horvath stumbled again and again. The flashlight got closer, then farther away. The noise of the watchman’s steps grew louder, then fainter. Horvath ran as fast as he dared. Still he saw the fence glinting in the moonlight the leaves allowed through. It seemed to stretch in a straight line through the woods surrounding the hotel, its height was uniform, the concrete stanchions spaced with terrible regularity. Once, when he had put enough distance between himself and the watchman, Horvath tried to climb it again. His plan was to grab for a branch and use it to lever himself over. Again he failed. He fell and knocked the breath out of his lungs. By the time he had composed himself he saw that the flashlight was closer than ever before and he had to start running again. Branches struck at him. His feet got stuck in the soft dirt and leaves. A rock tore open the skin of his ankle. He saw the glow of lights up ahead and ran faster still. When he came to the treeline, he stopped. He was back where he had begun, at the edge of the hotel lawn. Some delegates walked lazily around, smoking and laughing. Three sat on the edge of the fountain in the center of the lawn and passed a bottle of red-black wine from one to another. The fence ran in a long curve, Horvath now understood – a curve he had mistaken for a straight line in his hurry and terror. The delegates spotted him and called out. Horvath! What on earth are you doing? Come and have a drink, shouted a wine drinker. The walkers and smokers waved to him or ignored him completely. Horvath sat with the wine drinkers, because he needed to rest. Although, he discovered now that his calm was returning, he still felt awake, alert, stronger and better than he had in years. He sat silently next to the laughing drinkers until someone came up to them. It was a waiter, in dinner dress. He was carrying another bottle, which the drinkers accepted with cries of delight, and also a round platter with bowls of roast pork in clear broth. These too the drinkers took up and began eating. The waiter said both these and the wine were complements of the house. Horvath refused the food. The waiter asked what the matter was. Again, Horvath stared, looking for some sign of what he suspected. Nothing. In the reception area, a different clerk in dinner dress was behind the desk. Mr Horvath, said this new clerk, we hope you are finding everything to your liking. Horvath ignored him and went back to his room. He unplugged the phone and fell asleep. In a single instant. Someone knocking on his door woke him up. It was a waiter, also wearing (despite the early hour) dinner dress. He was carrying Horvath’s bag, the bag he had thrown over the fence the previous night, and he said that one of the construction workers doing asphalt rehabilitation had returned it – Horvath should consider himself lucky. The porter left the door open after he walked away. The rich smell of the roast pork drifted into Horvath’s room. He started to salivate. Down in the hallway outside the grand ballrooms, more bowls of stew stood on the usual tables. Waiters, in dinner dress, walked around, handing out spoons and bread. Horvath took bread and ate it as he watched everyone else eat the stew.


Image © Eduardo Francisco Vazquez Murillo

Sam Munson

Sam Munson is the author most recently of Dog Symphony (New Directions, 2018). His story ‘Nights at the Hotel Splendido’ is taken from A Vindication of Natural Society, a novel in progress.

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