Random House Mondadori S.A. 2013
“A clever novel with a plot that a young Manuel Puig would have envied.”
— Martín Caamaño for Revista Brando
NO-TELL MOTEL is a beguiling semi-autobiographical bildungsroman set in a small town in the Patagonia region of Argentina. Its protagonist is young Florencia, whose father, Ñanco, owns the only pay-by-the-hour motel for miles around. Humorous and lyrical, the book allows the reader to share Florencia’s moments of elation and confusion as she confronts the nature of her father’s business on the playground at eight years old and reigns over the Motel Cu-Cú, racing through its halls with a Coca-Cola in one hand and tips filched from the maids in the other. We are also with her as she moves to Buenos Aires to train with the prestigious ballet program at the Teatro Colón, loses her childhood home to a fire, helps her family set up a store selling shoddy imports, and when she ultimately decides to abandon her stage career to finish school and help out with the family business.
Complementing the warm and witty portraits of Florencia’s inner circle, the world of this novel is populated by a cast of characters who remain in the reader’s memory even if they appear for only a moment on the page. From an adulterous couple whose secret is spilled when they get snowed into their room overnight, to a fledgling transvestite, religious fanatics, a young lady whose meal ticket dies on her (literally) during a date, and a whole host of others. Werchowsky’s prose is fresh and her narrative, balanced: the biting sense of humor with which she treats her characters (including her younger self, a vivid and disarming anti-hero) is offset by the fondness she clearly feels for each of them. Every character in the novel, however minor, is presented through details that makes them human (such as the morticians in the attached selection, who are never named, but whom we come to know through their efficient movements, their practical shoes, and the fact that one is a regular at the Cu-Cú).
In its depiction of the ethical complexities of a tightly knit community through the eyes of an intelligent young woman, NO-TELL MOTEL calls to mind Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, though its prose is considerably more playful. One of the novel’s greatest strengths is the way it gracefully joins the personal to the political: though it never resorts to patronizing depictions of small town life or sinks into historical exposition, NO-TELL MOTEL is a lucid glimpse into the social and economic climate in the provinces of Argentina during the 1980s and 1990s, when Carlos Menem took the country from neoliberal promise to complete economic meltdown (a memory that is all too timely under the current mandate of Mauricio Macri). We observe these cataclysmic shifts obliquely as the dirt road that connects Florencia’s small town to the rest of the region is finally paved, bringing in new perspectives and business opportunities, not all of which the residents are prepared to handle.
An excerpt from NO-TELL MOTEL appeared in Two Lines 23. In Spanish, the novel was featured in El País and Ñ, the cultural supplement of Argentina’s most important newspaper, along with its hip counterpart, Página 12. Among the abundant praise it has received, Revista veintitrés describes NO-TELL MOTEL as “a fun, hypnotic commedia dell’arte,” while La voz del interior celebrates Werchowsky’s prose as being at once fresh, modern, and well-paced.
The Author: Florencia Werchowsky started working as a journalist at the age of twenty-one, writing for Rolling Stone and the national newspaper Clarín, among other publications. NO-TELL MOTEL is her first novel; it has been profiled in major outlets like El País and Página 12, and its second edition was recently presented at the Guadalajara book fair and the Cervantes Institute in Japan. Werchowsky is currently at work on a film treatment of the book. Her next novel, set in the iconic Teatro Colón, was just published by Penguin Random House.
The bell rang and everyone went back to class, leaving me and my boyfriend suddenly exposed as the curtain of school uniforms was drawn back, displaying us to the grades that hadn’t participated in our battle of precocity. Had it been worth it?
I opened my eyes and we looked at each other. Neither one of us was thinking anything epic, I’m sure. I, for one, thought I’d never look him in the eye again, because nothing could possibly be worse than the shame I felt as I separated my lips from his in front of everyone, making history. The relief at the end of this torture, which is not the same thing as satisfaction, lasted only as long as it took protagonists and witnesses to break formation. A second later, I was ambushed by a public indictment when the unfamiliar, animal voice of a boy I didn’t even know buried me alive, yelling loud enough for everyone to hear, “Go to your father’s motel, slut!”
* * *
I went to my father’s motel every day. He’d say, “I have to pick something up at the hotel,” or sometimes, “I have to go to the inn to get somethinn,” which always made me laugh. I’d sit in the passenger seat, and when we got there one of the maids would bring me a Coke. Kissing Diego in front of everyone to prove that third graders could break the rules probably did make me a little bit of a slut, but that had nothing to do with the motel. I’d never connected those two worlds until that crass boy opened my eyes in the cruelest, most despicable way. Until then, I’d never needed to put into words the business that put food on our table. I knew, but I didn’t know. I understood, but couldn’t articulate it. At home they’d taught me that if anyone asked what my father did, I should say that he “ran a business,” and that would be enough. Anyway, the town was so small that anyone who would ask the child of the guy that ran the only no-tell motel around what he did for a living would take the cake for being an asshole. Keep the kids out of it, and all that. Of course, the answer didn’t satisfy me. It seemed a little vague, but I was in no position to do anything about it. I needed something to say and my parents were my only source of euphemisms.
So for a long time I told people that my dad “ran a business,” until he got a job as the town’s Secretary of Public Works—a political appointment that guaranteed me four years of better answers to that question. “Public official,” I’d reply. It felt great. Sometimes I’d even leave it a little ambiguous at the beginning, saying, “My dad works for the township,” only to immediately correct my interlocutor: “No, he’s not a municipal employee, he’s an official.” I must have been an obnoxious child.
At school, each grade would go on field trips to see where our classmates’ parents worked. We went to the bakery owned by Marcos’s father, to Esteban’s father’s clinic, Cecilia’s mother’s store, and a few of the farms run by the other kids’ parents. On these excursions, the parent we were visiting would lead us through the facilities, explaining what he or she did, and eventually let us participate in some child-appropriate part of the process, like kneading bread, watering plants, making bows, digging, or collecting eggs.
I knew we’d never go to my father’s motel. I didn’t even bother raising my hand when the teacher asked what our next trip should be. The restrictions surrounding the place had always been clear to me, but since I went all the time, I didn’t understand that the prohibition was for children. I was generally aware that there was some sort of moral issue about the motel, even though I still had no real idea what “moral” meant.
I began connecting the dots between what I knew and what I suspected with the same distaste as I had for those stupid magazine puzzles that I did even though they pissed me off. Why did the dots have numbers on them? Going from one number to the next is too easy. It would be way better if the dots were just there and you had to create an image from the chaos. Now that’s a challenge. How was I supposed to know what a “no-tell motel” was? What did I care about the social consequences of what happened, or didn’t happen, there? It was the others—the adults, the teachers, whoever—who got uncomfortable or whispered to each other when I passed by. They usually talked about my dad, not about me. But they forced me to think about something that didn’t matter to me, over and over, until one day it did.
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