Friday, 9 March 2018

Estoril by Dejan Tiago-Stankovic

Estoril by Dejan Tiago-Stankovic
First published in Serbo-Croat as Estoril by Geopoetika izdavaštvo in November 2015. English language translation by Christina Pribichevich-Zoric published by Head Of Zeus yesterday, the 8th March 2018.

Where to buy this book:

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Set in a luxurious grand hotel just outside Lisbon, at the height of the Second World War, Estoril is a delightful and poignant novel about exile, divided loyalties, fear and survival. The hotel's guests include spies, fallen kings, refugees from the Balkans, Nazis, American diplomats and stateless Jews. The Portuguese secret police broodingly observe the visitors, terrified that their country's neutrality will be compromised. 

The novel seamlessly fuses the stories of its invented characters with appearances by historical figures like the ex-King Carol of Romania, the great Polish pianist Jan Paderewski, the British agent Ian Fleming, the Russian chess grandmaster Alexander Alekhine and the French writer and flyer Antoine de St Exupery, who forms a poignant friendship with a young Jewish boy living alone in the hotel.

It's becoming a repeatedly bizarre coincidence, having previously hardly noticed any references, that since I read The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery the book seems to be getting namechecked everywhere. In Estoril, Saint-Exupery himself makes an appearance and befriends a young Jewish refugee who may be the inspiration for the eponymous Little Prince. Tiago-Stankovic has certainly done his research for Estoril. The extensive cast of celebrity figures who found themselves benefiting from Portuguese neutrality during the Second World War are vividly brought to life here, together with spies and spymasters and the overworked local head of secret police for whom I frequently felt quite sorry.

Although obviously a work of fiction, Estoril is based in true events. What particularly interested me were the attitudes of many of the people who find themselves stranded in this Portuguese resort, especially in relation to the migrant crisis across Europe today. Mostly rich and well connected, several have lost their homes and anything they could not carry, yet they are not vilified as refugees in the West are today. Perhaps wealth or family history are their cushions or perhaps, with most of the continent seemingly on the move in one direction or another, expectations are different.

It took me a while to get used to Estoril not having a strong narrative thread that follows a single person. The storyline is set around the events of the war and we learn about these second-hand, the war itself being physically several hundred miles away even though the opposing nations all have active spies blatantly ignoring Portugal's neutral status. Chapters concentrate on different characters as they settle in or pass through so I thought Estoril often felt more like a collection of linked short stories than a novel. Tiago-Stankovic does well to impart as much background on these people as he can without resorting to lengthy information dumps, but I did find myself losing track of who was who, especially in the second half of the book. Estoril has a good sense of its time period, but I think I needed deeper portrayals of fewer characters in order to fully appreciate it.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Dejan Tiago-Stankovic / Historical fiction / Books from Serbia

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