Although Dejan Tiago-Stanković’s Estoril is named for the Hotel Palácio Estoril, the plot is all about the people who stay, however briefly within its Art Deco walls. Tiago-Stanković uses actual history (and real historical figures) to hang that plot all, while the Hotel Palácio provides the setting. I think that this book would have been a great read, but learning that it’s based on real history added a lot to the power of the story—a feeling similar to the one I felt when I learned that many of the actors in Casablanca were European refugees.
Near the beginning of Estoril, the manager Mr. Black is told that there is a delicate situation that he must handle. (This is not the first and is far from the last delicate situation that demands his attention in this book.) This delicate situation is a very young Jewish Belgian refugee named Gavriel. He arrived, without his parents, with instructions to wait at the hotel for them. He has a suitcase full of thousands in various currencies and diamonds to pay his way. Mr. Black knows what would happen to young Gaby if the boy is sent back into the maw of Europe—and so the boy begins his five year sojourn at the Hotel Palácio, essentially raised by the hotel staff.
Gaby is unusual in many ways. He is very intelligent and very stubborn about getting answers to his questions. He also has no compunctions about asking anyone he runs into about their jobs, what they think of literary passages, or anything that piques his interesting. Which leads me to the most unusual thing about the character: Gaby seems to exist, for most of the book, as a means to introduce the historical characters who stayed at the Hotel Palácio between 1940 and 1945. Over the years, Gaby meets author and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; Carol II, the former King of Romania; double agent and possible inspiration for Ian Fleming’s (who also appears in Estoril) James Bond, Duško Popov; and chess grandmaster, Alexander Alexandrovich Alekhine.
Tiago-Stanković doesn’t just sample from history to create content for his novel. He riffs on Casablanca (and even directly references it more than once). There are corrupt officials everywhere and plenty of double-crossing. Boldest of all references is a scene that recreates (in a hilariously vulgar way) my favorite scene in Casablanca, when the patrons of Rick’s cafe sing La Marsaillaise over German officers singing Wacht am Rhein. There’s even a local police officer who, while not as foxlike as Captain Renault, who serves much the same role for the hotel’s Mr. Black.
Estoril is a strange book, but I loved reading it. It was so cinematic—not just because of the Casablanca and Bond references—because the plots played out like episodes. This is natural given that people are always coming and going from the Hotel Palácio. Tiago-Stanković stuffs a lot into those 400+ pages, but I raced through the book in about a day. I just had to know what would happen next. And, once I finished Estoril, I felt like I had finally found a World War II novel that didn’t have miraculous endings, wasn’t mawkish, and dodged all of the usual clichés of the sub-genre. I would definitely recommend this book to other readers who are looking for original historical fiction about World War II.