The ins and outs of a hotel full of monarchs, spies, and refugees: “Estoril” by Dejan Tiago-Stanković4 min read

 In Review, Reviews, Southeastern Europe

In the 1940s, the Hotel Palácio Estoril, located on the neutral Portuguese riviera, became a haven for those fleeing World War II. Various members of European royalty flocked to the hotel, as well as numerous British and German spies. In Dejan Tiago-Stanković’s third novel Estoril, originally published in Serbian in 2015, history meets fiction as he reimagines life in the hotel during the war years.

By the spring of 1940, refugees and exiles fleeing the war had begun to inundate Lisbon and the coast, leading the Portuguese authorities to effectively close their borders by stopping the issuance of visas. From a small Jewish family from Antwerp, only the nine-year-old son Gavriel “Gaby” Franklin was able to be smuggled across the borders, arriving at the Hotel Palácio Estoril on his lonesome, to the shock of the hotel management. It is through his eyes, the eyes of a child, that we see time progress at the Hotel Palácio Estoril.

During what would be an eight year stay, Gaby meets a number of historical figures, including former Romanian monarch Carol II, French writer and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of Le Petit Prince), and world chess champion Alexander Alexandrovich. Tiago-Stanković goes to great lengths to imagine what these figures were thinking as they passed through Estoril, what their hopes and dreams might be in the midst of a Europe at war. Though such encounters were fictionalised, Tiago-Stanković has based all of his writing on real events by reading the press of the day, daily weather reports, lists of hotel guests, calendars, and ship and flight schedules, as well as countless biographies and history books. To enhance this feeling of authenticity, the author places certain newspaper clippings and the portraits of some of those Gaby meets throughout the novel, reminding the reader that these figures did in fact exist and lead the lives they did. 

Perhaps the most important individual Gaby meets is Duško Popov, the real-life inspiration behind James Bond. (Ian Fleming does indeed appear in this novel as well, operating as a bumbling desk agent for a bit of comedic effect.) Popov was a Serbian playboy who, after being recruited by the German Abwehr, became a double agent for the British. He was one of the most important assets during the war, warning the U.S. of Pearl Harbour (though such information was ignored) and helping convince the German military planners that the Allied invasion of Europe would take place in Calais, not Normandy. For much of the second-half of Estoril, the focus is on Popov’s spywork and his experiences trying to survive as a double agent and protect his family still located in Yugoslavia, while still living his trademark promiscuous lifestyle. 

Tiago-Stanković does appreciable work in balancing the multiplicity of narratives explored in Estoril, and the multitude of emotions. Though set in a time of tragedy, which Tiago-Stanković fully explores, the novel also shows moments of brevity and lightness, which helped those who fled survive. In one chapter, Tiago-Stanković describes an officer’s daughter, homeless and with no knowledge of her family’s whereabouts, her eyes “full of suppressed sorrow.” Yet for a moment in Estoril, she could be regenerated by the sea, “happy and smiling, she could forget, if only for a moment, that she did not know if she was all alone in the world or not.”

One of the reasons Tiago-Stanković chose to set his novel entirely in Lisbon, rather than follow his characters around the world, was due to his long love of the Portuguese capital. Born in Belgrade in 1965, Tiago-Stanković spent much of his later life in Lisbon, where he passed away in December 2022. As he stated in a 2018 interview, “I am not a fabricator, but a confabulator [. . .] All the stories I tell or will, I’ve already heard, read, or myself experienced. I’ve likely told them to someone already. That is what storytelling is; not making up stories but finding ways to tell the stories that already exist without boring the reader.” This aim is fully achieved in Estoril, which credibly blends the historical reality with the fictional additions, creating a work any lover of history or historical fiction should appreciate. 

Book details: Tiago-Stanković, Dejan, Estoril, 2018, Head of Zeus. Buy it here.

Feature Image: Estoril
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