“The Waiter” by Norwegian artist Matias Faldbakken uses a group of zany eccentrics and their favorite shabby, old-world restaurant to zero in on a contemporary danger.
Faldbakken’s novel contains so many oddities, strange characters and bizarre details that it’s easy to read it as a romp through a lost Europe where fine china and artistic graffiti both had their places in upper-class restaurants.
The unnamed narrator, a waiter, works at Oslo’s the Hills restaurant. “My job has two key criteria,” he tells us. “I have to show pride in my work, and I have to be self-effacing.” Could there be a better statement of paradox describing post-World War II Europe? As customers “gorge themselves in surroundings which are rich in tradition,” they are able to segue from morning coffee and pastries to five-course lunches, onto long evenings saturated with pork fat and fine wines.
The waiter observes and the waiter comments, almost all of it in his own head. He calls one regular “the Pig,” another “the Child Lady.” As the book’s sections progress, so does a typical day at the Hills — but almost nothing happens. Why must we read an extended passage about the waiter excising his own terrible blood blister? What purpose to his offhand babysitting of an old friend’s daughter? Why is he obsessed with a Romanesco cauliflower?
There is some satisfaction in reading “The Waiter” as a quirky slice of life. Imagine the waiter and his colleagues in their starched jackets, “from a time when things had to be durable and settle through use. Find their form. Not useless and disposable, like most things today.” The restaurant doesn’t even offer its own city’s papers: “We try to maintain a Continental standard.”
The cutlery, the glassware and especially the crockery are all the finest, the latter monogrammed and available in many forms, down to persnickety little pewter butter plates, and they hold the finest ingredients, like that fresh Romanesco cauliflower, with its unexpectedly artistic pale-green whorls. Old Johansen plays the piano upstairs, the Widow Knipschild fusses over her postprandial glass of port, and Chef grumbles about the freshness of cherry tomatoes. What larks!
Beneath the whimsy and strangeness lies a much darker story, one that involves many of the guests at the restaurant. During the somewhat slack hours between coffee and lunch, the waiter agrees to watch his university pal Edgar’s young daughter, Anna. How hard can it be, after all? Anna is an obedient, bright child who feels comfortable at the Hills. Her father promises he will be back to pick her up after she’s spent a couple hours doing her homework and having a snack.
How anodyne. Just another slice of life added to the teetering stack therein, if you’re not paying attention to the sinister undercurrents. Look closely at the Child Lady, whom the waiter first notices when she arrives too early for a meeting with the Pig and “just sits there as though on exhibit, sipping her coffee with calm movements.” Although he never describes her as “beautiful,” he describes her in every way that might be construed as beautiful: “symmetrical,” “elegant,” “unstoppable.” His gaze on her is unstoppable, captured by her every gesture. Her disdain for newspapers and her preference for quadruple espresso drinks shock and awe him in equal measure.
Who is the Child Lady, and why is she meeting with the Pig and his associates? The waiter says, “It’s hard to say whether she’s a lady or a girl. Child or lady. She’s some kind of child lady. In every respect, she’s an adult.” He adds that her aura of youth “seems cultivated, and in a refined rather than innocent way. A professional way. Dare I say a speculative way?”
The Child Lady dines with Graham and company on the same evening that Anna has been left in the waiter’s care. At this point, Faldbakken has littered his book with clues, some physical, some philosophical: There’s danger afoot. While the waiter obsesses over his cauliflower and tries to keep the bandages on his blister clean, he senses a negotiation underway at the Pig’s table. The Pig has evidently used the Child Lady to persuade a rich man named Tom Sellers to join them; the negotiation involves fine art.
Or does it? If you follow the author’s clues, you may feel a chill up your spine. You may see the waiter in a different light. Maybe. Just because the clues are there doesn’t mean they’ve been used to best effect. You can read this surprising book several different ways.
Patrick is a writer and critic whose work appears in the Washington Post and on NPR Books.