BOOK REVIEW / Symbols that dog everyday life: In a hotel garden - Gabriel Josipovici Carcanet pounds 12.95

BEN IS the kind of person who regularly troubles his friends for advice without ever taking it. 'Is it just me,' he muses, 'or is it our whole society . . . that makes us have to decide all the time?' A textbook case of emotional vacillation, Ben is afraid to come to the point in case it turns out not to exist. On holiday in the Alto Adige, Ben finds that his affair with Sandra is rapidly dying out, as she takes issue with the weather, the hotel, the way the tea is served (each problem carrying equal weight in their neutral world). Ben quickly becomes fixated with Liliana, who has wisely left her partner at home and come in search of a piece of her past, the garden in Siena where her Jewish grandmother from Constantinople was engaged in conversation by a young man at the other end of the century.

Once he gets back home, the only past Ben can muster is a distracted retelling of those meetings with Liliana (Sandra simply disappears from the narrative). Rick and Francesca, who represent the companionable stability that Ben's own home life doesn't provide, listen to his story at the family dinner table. Like In A Hotel Garden itself, Ben is all saying and little doing. Factual, steady lines of dialogue link the old friends, without filling anything in. When Rick and Ben go out to the common to walk the dog, its antics and disobedience punctuate the conversation, but we never know the animal's breed, colour or size. It is simply 'dog', and in much the same way the people are not particularised - question marks more than characters.

But none the less the ciphers are powerful: Liliana's dog draws her back to her life in London. And events themselves quickly become symbolic. When Ben surveys the turmoil in his flat after Sandra's sudden, final departure, 'it was chaos telling you it was chaos'.

But behind the understatements lie larger histories. Largest of all is the shadow of the Holocaust, falling between Liliana and her great- grandparents' own tourism. There is the suspicion that the man in the Sienese garden might have been Liliana's real grandfather. Then it transpires that the dates wouldn't have fitted, and eventually Liliana wonders if she even visited the right garden.

When she agrees to meet Ben in London for a walk along the Thames, her main purpose is to make that doubt clear to him. She has overcome a crisis which she never confided in him and returned to her own life. Ben, on the other hand, is left in an apologetic limbo.

Josipovici stretches out the ambiguities of conversation - with strangers and friends alike - with intriguing aptness. The narrative holds the attention, but hints at motives and desires are left vague. Instead of pulling together historical threads, the book leaves the reader with a group of everyday people failing to come to grips with life's imponderables.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century