Revolutionary Love in ‘I Hotel’

The fifth novella in Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel, the California Book Club selection for March, revolves around the love story of two activists.

karen tei yamashita
CHRIS HARDY

Revolutionaries are merely humans. Like the rest of us, they breathe, they eat, they fall in love, they’re petty, they fail. We forget that. When gazing back at the righteousness of the civil rights era and contrasting it with the present moment, where we feel the sting of failures every time we log on to social media, the bygone era can take on a romantic sheen. Free love, they say about those years. But love is not often free, bound up as it is in mortal bodies, and if that makes historical failures seem inevitable and physical, there’s also a timeless beauty to this limitation. A melancholy and contentious yet arresting Bay Area love story arises between an unlikely pair, Olivia Wang and Ben San Pablo, in “1972 Inter-national Hotel,” the fifth novella in Karen Tei Yamashita’s provocative I Hotel.

Olivia is the granddaughter of a failed generalissimo. She moves “through any space with the glint of her privilege cast from her shoulders like sharp stings.” Ben is a true believer, the grandson of a manong, a Filipino first generation immigrant, whose heroes are Lenin and Marx. He perceives everything from behind an opiate haze. Due to their different ethnic backgrounds, Olivia and Ben’s love story wouldn’t have been possible in another time and place, but “these were times of war, and in war, the impossible becomes possible if only because the stakes are higher and there is nothing to lose.” Lest we read this as a fairy tale—suggested, I think, by the notion of the impossible becoming possible—the next subsection has an epigraph by Sun Tzu: “All warfare is based on deception.”

Are they deceiving themselves or each other? They meet standing side by side at a rally in Chinatown. They move in the same radical circles and have seen each other from afar—he’s besotted by her hair—but she calls him a political tourist. It’s an amusingly ironic but realistic touch, since she treats others in the movement as if they were the help and drives her father’s gold Mercedes-Benz. Yamashita, with trademark wit and humor, repeatedly undercuts any self-seriousness in Ben’s infatuation, noting, “He who forsakes his duties for the curiosity of a woman’s hair may find himself holding a wig.”

And the war to which the novel is referring is not only a revolution, or a class war, or a gender war, or wars in ancestral countries or with colonial powers, but the war between the “political training of the mind” and its “psychological training.” While the prose here has a cerebral, philosophical quality, posing conflict between two abstractions derived from Greek, “political” and “psychological,” Yamashita pulls us quickly back to an awareness that we are watching, for all their lofty thoughts, lovers with bodies. Olivia gives birth, and when she’s nursing the baby, Malcolm, named after the revolutionary, Ben says, “This is a clear example of controlling the means of production.” Upending any pretension, Ben’s and maybe ours, too, Olivia sneers, “What bullshit.

For I Hotel is a political novel, but if its politics reveal deep compassion and sympathy for the cause, it is, equally, a playful and honest rendering, tangling every turn with humor and irony and canny detail. Even Ben and Olivia’s wedding is disrupted by Imelda Marcos’s statements in the Philippines. In Yamashita’s vision, mortality and memory and cyclicality complicate any mental image of utopia.

Will a heroic individual bring about change, or does change require collective action? The collective may be insufficient and fractured, but so too are individuals, forever at war within their own psyches, plagued by doubts. When Olivia later develops ovarian cancer, she has a revelation, or perhaps finally admits, in a heart-wrenching exchange with Ben, “I wouldn’t tell anybody but you, but I don’t think we’re ever going to win this thing. It’s all about the struggle. But we can never win.”

None of us humans are able to make reality match the splendor in our minds—yet we can sometimes make an end run around uncertainty, convince ourselves we can. Perhaps as long we live, we need to believe in trying.•

Join us on March 17 at 5 p.m., when Yamashita will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. As you read, please visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss I Hotel with your fellow California Book Club members. We hope you enjoy this novel!

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i hotel, karen tei yamashita
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