If you’ve spent time in Southeast Asia, you’ve certainly met the likes of Julian Lockhardt, the protagonist and narrator of Samarang Hotel. He’s the jaded 56-year-old general manager of the premier hotel in the Laotian capital of Vientiane.
Lockhardt is shallow but generally affable, possessing the valuable expat and hospitality-industry skill of getting along with people he dislikes. The social lubrication brought by alcohol is very much central to this, and when he dismissively refers to the previous manager as “a whoring old drunk,” he is—with a remarkable lack of self-awareness—describing himself.
Despite his plum position, he moans about being a refugee stuck in a foreign territory. Lockhardt calls himself “a colonial orphan”.
People think this is amusing and so I tell it and retell it at cocktail parties. Born in Rhodesia. Left it as Zimbabwe. Spent my young adulthood in South Africa. I carry a British passport – a legacy left me by my parents. It’s an undeserved document. I’ve only ever been to London once and hated it. Got fleeced at one of those strip clubs in Soho. England must be one of the most sensually austere countries in the world. Right up there with Iran.
He goes through work and life slotting people into convenient nationality and personality categories, but is stymied by the arrival of a middle-aged female guest, the mysterious and phlegmatic Nancy Bacon. This difficult-to-pigeonhole and austere guest has the hotel staff on edge from the moment she arrives. And horror of horrors:
I look back at the screen. Nancy Bacon is booked in for three months! Three! That’s impossible! The bitch. No one stays at the Samarang for three months… At best, we have those consultant types that stay for a month. The NGO crowd. They arrive and are chauffeur-driven to and from government ministries… Then they go home again—a few grand the better for it, while their venerated report sits in some cupboard eaten alive by worms. This is what they call the ‘liberal world order’ hard at work. But Nancy Bacon is not a consultant type. She’s too prickly, too obstinate. She’s not pretentious enough.
Lockhardt soon has something more than Ms Bacon to worry about. A Russian guest is found dead, and the foreign diplomatic and intelligence community take an interest in the case, with some suspicion falling on Lockhardt. He starts to crack up, drinking more heavily than ever, and is unsettled by a vision of a river during a cleansing ceremony at the hotel performed by chanting monks. After making a scene while drunk and stoned, he is put on “an extended leave of absence”.
He ends up taking what will prove a life-changing road trip to northern Laos with Nancy Bacon, first to beautiful Vang Vieng on the Nam Song River, and then further on to Pho Daeng village and the foothills of Phou Nang Fa. I’ll not say more for fear of spoiling the pleasure of reading this light but enjoyable book.
Samarang Hotel is a quick feel-good read told in informal prose. Although the stream of consciousness first-person narration is often too choppy for my traditional tastes, it does come across as authentic and contributes to the fast pace. Author John Webb also drives forward through the storyline with admirable focus, resisting the urge common these days to veer off on Wiki-esque tangents, overstuffing pages with research and embroidered description.
Having said that, readers looking for specifically Laotian color will be disappointed. The setting is rather generic, with little sense of place. I don’t recall a single named temple in the whole book, nor a named road, and so on.
What Webb does do well is balance philosophical questions with humor through the stories of flawed but basically decent people. The themes touched on in Samarang Hotel—facing death, the nature of civility, the importance of symbols and myth, and redemption—could be heavy-going without the levity. Serious matters are not taken too seriously. Some of the novel’s character names are proof of this; Nancy Bacon has a funny ring to it—it reminded me of the comical Agatha Raisin mystery series. And then there’s a regular at the Destiny Pub, Lockhardt’s favorite watering hole, who goes by the name of John Webb (yes, the author’s name):
I see John Webb sitting at the counter. He’s always sitting there, smoking cigarettes and drinking his French aperitif. ‘Pastis!’ he always says. ‘It’s cocaine-ish, that’s why I drink it.’ He calls himself an author. I even googled him once and couldn’t find a single work he’d written. He likes me and I like him, even though he’s a South African. He thinks he knows everything. Bumptious twat.
An expat writer who has never had anything published? That has the sting of familiarity. Lockhardt calls out Webb on the latter’s proclamation that words are meaningless.
‘But you’re supposed to be a writer!’
He grunts. He suddenly seems enraged. He gulps down his drink, slides a fifty-thousand kip note across the counter and leaves without another word.
Sometimes, I wonder if John Webb is the only person in the world who’ll tell me that he hates me.
I wonder if the author, an attorney from South Africa who has lived in Laos for about seven years, is recalling his own earlier embarrassment at being unpublished for so long. Regardless, he’s certainly making up for a late start. Samarang Hotel is Webb’s third novel: the first, Lotto, was self-published in 2018, and Nine Letters by Penguin in 2020.