Mealtimes can be the setting for the gamut of human performances. Norwegian artist and author Matias Faldbakken captures the show: the hilarity and pathos, the monotony and the bizarre, the nostalgia and the sanguine, narrated by a neurotically observant waiter at a high-end but old-fashioned and fading Oslo restaurant called The Hills.
At the sharp end of experiencing how people behave when they feel the need to preen in public but let their guards drop, he misses nothing as the staff and diners interact in a microcosm of the weird, the worst, and a pinch of the best, in humanity.
Superficially expert, he maintains deadpan decorum, in keeping with the establishment’s cultivated norms and his own understanding of roles and responsibilities. He is acutely attentive in the silences, nobly deaf to calamitous sounds of kitchen meltdown, and respectfully standoffish with the patrons. Recognising stereotypes and complexities in the characters of regular customers, sharp aphorisms accompany his internal dialogue as they arrive: “I don’t know what a genius looks like, but I can recognise one when I see it.” He’s scathing of a famous actor, now fallen on hard times: “Only a scoundrel gives away more than he owns.”
He is also tautly attuned to his own sensibilities, waitering providing “my imaginary armour and shield of service, routine and predictability”. But things go awry when a new patron arrives, an enigmatic, glamorous young woman he calls Child Lady. She inserts herself mysteriously among other tables; summoning his powers of deduction, the waiter concludes “She is optimistic, positive, satisfied, enthusiastic, cheerful. In other words: she’s suffering.” With bravura and panache she orders oddly (plates of mushrooms, quadruple espressos). The waiter is intimidated and confused.
Other distractions prick into his neuroses, and soon his sense of place, poise and professional calm dissipates. He dithers; service solecisms are accompanied by screwy dialogue with customers, escalating to blundering hilarity in bouts of slapstick chaos reminiscent of the Peter Sellers film The Party, or echoing the waiter Manuel in Fawlty Towers.
Alcohol, exasperation or exuberance fuel the diners’ unsubtle shenanigans too. The waiter is acerbic: “The farce of everyday life seeps in, even here at The Hills where we try to keep it at bay through rigid routines.”
Indeed, the restaurant has a rhythm — service must continue — and Faldbakken underscores people’s powers of recovery by counterbalancing the quirky confusion with a minor heroism which emerges in our waiter-narrator when faced with an unrelated, modest, but important challenge.
Largely plotless, the book blends superficial farce with a touch of satire and dollops of incongruent dialogue or non sequiturs. It also conveys the sadder textures of modern life — class differences and prejudices, loneliness, human frailties and foibles, an existential emptiness — in its contemplation of the fraying manners of mild men and their coping mechanisms to mitigate their disconnection in a hyper-connected age: “I’m repeatedly having small doses of the loathsome present forced upon me. Nowness makes me unwell,” the waiter admits.
There are no dramatic twists, or life-changing rites of passage, or a resolute crescendo: the uncertain, inharmonious conclusion mirrors the fate of The Hills and, probably, our waiter.
The Waiter is enchanting, philosophical, whimsical and withering. It will reverberate with most readers for at least their next few dining-out experiences.
SIDE ORDER: Liked
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