The Stranger at the Palazzo d’Oro and Other Stories
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004
Paul Theroux’s 39th book, The Stranger at the Palazzo d’Oro, is a collection of four stories all hovering around a central theme: sexual awakening and male frailty. The erotic nature of the stories affords us a glimpse of the author in sexual crisis. However, far from being just a collection of perverted tales, Theroux’s writing touches a nerve of sensitivity and longing in males that we would normally have to locate on Oprah. More D. H. Lawrence than “Girls Gone Wild,” Theroux casts a net of sexual longing and fulfillment into waters long abandoned for the banality of television.
The Stranger at the Palazzo d’Oro would be far less interesting if we ignored its context and read it simply as Theroux’s most recent collection of short stories. The title story was written in Theroux’s “spare time” while traveling through Africa researching his recent travel book, Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town. In fact, all throughout Dark Star Safari we hear Theroux comments upon the progress his is making on his “novella.” This reviewer suggests that we read The Stranger at the Palazzo d’Oro as a companion to Dark Star Safari. This is not to say that the short stories fail in some way as stand-alone pieces, they each work in interesting and thought-provoking ways. Yet, while reading the short stories, particularly the title story, I found myself constantly going back to Dark Star Safari to consult his progress. When read simultaneously, the two books give us a rare glimpse into the actual writing process.
The title story, “The Stranger at the Palazzo d’Oro” begins with a confession: “This is my only story. Now that I am sixty I can tell it.” From there we are told that the narrator, then a young artist traveling alone through Europe, finds himself at the Palazzo d’Oro, a hotel in a small non-commercial town in Sicily. A stranger named Haroun who is traveling with a beautiful female companion, a countess known as “The Grafin,” approaches the young man. Haroun makes the young artist an offer he can’t refuse: to seduce the countess. After several false starts the artist finally worms his way into her good graces. At this point the story gets interesting. After nearly a hundred pages Theroux has seduced the reader into wandering through the paths of sexuality and identity. You see, The Grafin has a secret—a secret which lies somewhere on the border of attraction and disgust. The tale’s resonant postmodern “secret” is slightly predictable, but it works nonetheless.
The three remaining stories, while not insignificant, offer little in comparison to the title piece. They are all variations on the theme of male sexuality in late middle age. Haunting the landscape of these stories, and far more interesting, is the African continent. It is the author’s obsession. One would hope that he would be more forgiving of difference than his famous former mate, V. S. Naipaul. However, Theroux never allows his reader the chance to forget that he is always there, quietly judging difference, ethics, and sexuality. Theroux is a wander in the most complicated sense. He brings his American-ness with him wherever he goes. These tales offer the reader a chance to observe and judge (how could we not, Theroux leaves us no alternative) wandering, errancy, in a world that is witnessing an alarming resurgence of fundamentalism, both Islamic and American.