A Perfect Waiter
Erneste is a perfect waiter: now, in 1966 at the Restaurant am Berg; in 1934, at the Grand Hotel in Giessbach, Switzerland; and in the thirty-two intervening years. Shadowlike, he appears to meet the needs of diners and guests before their requests are voiced. Unflappable, impassive, he remains quietly in the background in the lives of all around him—and, it turns out, his own as well. For Erneste is indeed a perfect waiter, not only as one who serves others, but as one who postpones any action on his own behalf.
Where Erneste prefers to linger, mentally and emotionally, is the halcyon period in 1935 when Jakob, a young German seeking to avoid military conscription, arrived at the Grand Hotel and fell under the tutelage of the perfect waiter. For his part, Erneste, while teaching Jakob the skills of diplomacy, averted eyes, and the best way to sweep the stairs in this glamorous hotel, falls under the spell of Jakob. Although their relationship is brief, and Jakob soon leaves Erneste and his quietly broken heart behind, it remains Erneste’s raison d’être three decades later, when he one day receives a letter from his erstwhile lover. Jakob is in America, in some sort of trouble, and he claims only Erneste can help, by approaching the famous author Julius Klinger—the very man who took Jakob away from him.
John Brownjohn’s spare translation is riveting: for a novel in which not very much happens (other than waiting), a lot actually does transpire, in the form of flashbacks and a final confrontation, in which Erneste is forced to acknowledge that the past is over, that all humans are flawed, and that forward movement, while perhaps slow, is inevitable.