Zenith Hotel ― Oscar Coop-Phane
‘When I wake up my teeth feel furry. There’s a foul taste in my mouth – a nasty sort of animal taste.’ – For Nanou, this is how each day begins. Nanou is a Parisian streetwalker ‘Not a call girl or anything. No, a real street whore, with stiletto heels and menthol cigarettes.’
In Zenith Hotel Oscar Coop-Phane details the not so glamorous life lived by Nanou. The book takes the form of a one day diary, interwoven with short portraits of the men who seek solace in the withered arms of Nanou. The book is original and incredibly moving, creating a world of solitude and sadness encompassed in the actions of just one day.
Nanou’s story is different to how you might expect. It is not a sob story dreamt up by Coop-Phane to make a reader feel better about their own sad existence – no, it is just a day. ‘I don’t intend to go into detail and tell you about my childhood, my love life and all my woes. I’m not going to tell you how I ended up like this’ say Nanou, she is clear that in knowing her past ‘you’d get too much of a kick out of it’, and she would not give you the satisfaction. Instead, all Nanou tells us is her day, so, – ‘If you were expecting me to talk about rape, being abandoned, HIV and heroin, you can fuck off, pervert’ – if you are looking for a misery maker this probably isn’t the book for you.
So why does Nanou write, if not to tell of her woes and mistakes in life? She doesn’t complain, and doesn’t even seem to see the worth or the point in her own writing. ‘I don’t know why I write. It churns me up, it soils me from the inside. To pass the time perhaps. That’s it. I write like some people do crosswords, it keeps me busy. I think about words, style and shape of the letters. I feel as if I am doing something without getting up off my arse.’
The book is structured into short chapters each detailing background of each Nanou’s clients – this is the only background information we are given, as though the messed up lives of her clients say more about her life than her own past – each chapter ends with a short interaction between Nanou and her client. Through each entry Coop-Phane digs into the very heart and soul of Nanou’s clients, voicing their innermost thoughts, desires and anxieties, while detailing Nanou’s complete lack of interest. These chapters come between passages written by Nanou herself, short ramblings scratched from the street corner, recording her day’s activities and musings.
Nanou’s life is routine, living hand to mouth with only but the smallest of pleasures to call her very own. ‘I drink my coffee all alone in my room. Smoking my fags. To cheer myself up, I tell myself I’m saving money.’ The reality is more depressing, it is not that Nanou cannot afford to drink her coffee out, but that she gave up socialising when the smoking ban was implemented, the pleasure of a combined nicotine and caffeine hit too great to spare for a chat with friends.
Her living quarters are dismal, the shared bathroom having fallen into the bleakest state of disrepair, Nanou resorts to borrowing the bathroom of another friend, where her morning wash routine is clinical, a mere formality rather than something to be enjoyed: ‘I wash with a mini soap. I like feeling the roughness of my skin, the way it goes taut and chapped after washing. Shower gel is too gentle. It leaves your skin slightly greasy, like when you oil it. I prefer it when my skin’s dry. I feel cleansed – disinfected.’
After leaving the discomfort of her living quarters for a day on the street Nanou meets an extraordinary circus of men. Among them Dominic, a young man who, having been convinced of his family’s desire to murder him, beat them to it and earned himself life in an institution, and Emmanuel a dreary school worker, who has no friends and spends each Saturday when his wife is away sneakily masturbating into their sofa.
Of course Nanou does not really notice these men. She is not really there when she sees them, making small talk, being kind and giving them what they want is all part of the service after all. It is just as much a part of prostitution as the selling of her body itself. These men use her as escape, as a method of running away from the harsh realities of life, which she herself has come to accept. The reality is that these men do not even come close to being with Nanou when they pay for her services: ‘I can tell you that when they screw me, when they get all horny jiggling about on top of my poor inert body, those sad suckers are well and truly alone.
Her work day is rhythmic, relentless and monotonous ‘like a factory worker in a production line. The same action relentlessly for years. No hope. A little factory worker of the flesh’. She gets no pleasure from the lifestyle, other than the cigarettes and coffee bought with her wages. As the day progresses Nanou’s thoughts become bleaker and bleaker, as though she has an intrinsic hatred of everything she stands for. She is not self-pitying, but self-loathing, considering herself to be of no worth other than a temporary recipient of other men’s primal desires: ‘I feel hollow – as commonplace as a chamberpot that you plonk down beside the bed.’
The day drags on, and the money comes easily, ‘but at what cost?’ she asks herself. She works the street all day, until finally, after her sixth client and a day spent absorbing the filth of the city, it is time to go home. ‘At last’ she thinks, ‘I can go to bed, turn on the television and light up another fag.’
Nanou is a streetwalker in Paris. Her heart has taken on the colour of the pavement. And when she falls asleep she knows ‘Tomorrow is another day.’
Taken at face value Zenith Hotel is a striking representation of the depressing life lead by a Parisian prostitute, but it is also deeply poetic, insightful, and beautiful in a way which speaks mountains about the work of Coop-Phane. Nanou is the picture of a life lost to the grime of the Paris streets, her ‘soul sweats the filth of the city’, and her words speak volumes.
I was given a free copy of Zenith Hotel by Arcadia Books, the publishers, in return for an honest review.