The Hills, a very old restaurant in Oslo, Norway, is an institution. The walls are covered in art from and portraits of old guests. Layers of food smells and smoke are baked into the walls. The staff wear traditional uniforms and scurry around with crumbers. The ones who’ve been there a long time, like our narrator, have a second sense for when they should appear table side to take an order or present a bill. In The Waiter, by Matias Faldbakken and translated by Alice Menzies, gives us a few days in the life of The Hills while the eponymous server’s routine starts to spin off its axis. Menzies perfectly captures the subtlety of Faldbakken’s prose.
It’s clear from the first chapter of The Waiter that our narrator is used to routine. He worries when his regulars don’t arrive on time and gets flustered when they bring or fail to bring their usual group. He likes nothing more than saying the same things, hearing the same responses, and fetching the same drinks and dishes. Things start to go awry when Graham, a regular know for his good taste but known as the Pig, asks for a table for four but only two additional diners join him. A young woman who becomes known as the Child Lady is absent. When she shows up the next day and the day after and the day after that, the wheels of the narrator’s routine start to come off.
While the Child Lady starts to break boundaries that really only exist in the narrator’s mind, bring together groups of regulars who the waiter does not want to see come together, another problem is brewing. His friend Edgar, another regular, starts to take advantage of the narrator’s good nature and essentially has the staff mind his daughter while he flirts with the Child Lady.
As The Waiter continues on its microcosmic way, the narrator starts to lose his grip on himself. He gets overstimulated and is increasingly unable to stop himself from making mistakes or gushing the trivia that has collected in his head over the years. If we were outside of the narrator’s head, I think we would have seen a bunch of regulars and members of staff spending time in The Hills with occasional interruptions from an odd waiter.
I asked to read The Waiter because I was chasing some of the Old World charm that filled A Gentleman in Moscow. The are moments where I got that. My favorite moment occurs when two of the regulars via to be the most discerning patron of fine food and drink. But the overall book has more in common with a strange little story the narrator tells early in the book, about a farmer whose operation breaks down due to sudden mental instability. To me, The Waiter is a brief novel about a character who suddenly loses his emotional equilibrium but still tries to fulfill his function as a waiter in a venerable Continental restaurant.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 9 October 2018.