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A Preposterous Man Of Mystery In 'Hotel Crystal'

Translated from the French, Olivier Rolin's Hotel Crystal purports to be assembled from papers discovered in a Paris lost-and-found six months after the "disappearance" of Rolin himself. (In real life, Rolin is a reporter and novelist esteemed for work notably more straightforward than this droll frolic.)

Each of the book's 43 chapters proffers a description of a hotel room and retells an anecdote concerning the author's escapades thereabout. Typically, a clinical summary of a room's dimensions opens onto a meticulous account of its decor — light fixtures that might recall cognac glasses or jellyfish, carpet patterns too often evocative of vomit.

There's the radiator, the television, the enchanting or vile view, and a mirror in which Rolin can revile his reflection — the "walrus-like countenance" depressing him in Cuauhtémoc, Mexico; eyes, in Montreal, resembling "melted candle wax"; the neck-up apocalypse greeting him as the dawn call to prayer sounds in Beirut: "sitting atop my shoulders is a wrinkly, reddish sack-a mushy, wine-soaked pear-crested with scarce, bristling strands of hair."

As Gore Vidal once noted, such looking-glass scenes are staples of the hack novel, and Hotel Crystal's bag of intertextual tricks includes many a parody of (and homage to) the spy thriller.

Rolin looks so rough because he's been out partaking in a preposterous range of capers involving fake Semtex, fly-sized surveillance drones, cloned mammoths and the like.

But sometimes he's simply ravishing the chambermaid or stealing a suitcase of cash from his own publisher — who'd been planning to bribe a prize jury on his behalf — so that he can pay a ransom to terrorists and recapture his ever-imperiled true love: "Mélanie must still love me as long as she continues to put herself in harm's way just so I can rescue her: the ultimate in generosity!" What a cheeky exclamation point that is!

With a voice that is frisky, rakish and astronomically arch, Hotel Crystal is about seduction — the lure of fiction and the charm of lies, the escapist possibilities of even the dullest suite at any dreary lodge. Call it The Bourne Identity by way of Borges, a room-service delight liberally seasoned with highbrow mischief.

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