The Waiter by Matias Faldbakken
Reading The Waiter by Matias Faldbakken reminded me of one of my favourite short stories: ‘The Luncheon’ by W. Somerset Maugham. Set in the Paris restaurant Foyot’s (which sadly no longer exists), the story tells of the quiet despair of a writer having to foot the bill for a lunch he can’t afford. Translated from Norwegian, The Waiter is also set in a famous (in this case fictitious) European restaurant, The Hills in Oslo. Like Maugham, Faldbakken is witty and observant, and writes about a protagonist for whom the restaurant environment induces anxiety and tension.
The nameless waiter of the novel’s title serves all the regular customers at The Hills. There is the Pig, an elderly gentleman who has lunch at the same table every weekday; Tom Sellers, who has donated many of the paintings that hang on the restaurant walls; and the friendly Edgar and his nine-year-old daughter Anna. In addition to meeting the diners’ every need, the waiter guarantees everything is perfect; from his immaculate uniform and the crumb-free tablecloths to ensuring each napkin has the correct number of creases. One day, a young lady joins the Pig at his table. Her unpredictability challenges the waiter’s ordered world and everything starts to unravel.
Reading The Waiter is a bit like experiencing a degustation menu. We are presented with small, sharp chapters which vary in flavour and texture. The initial chapters set up the history and physicality of the restaurant, and are followed by those with a focus on daily routines and practices; these are more reflective and almost melancholic in nature. Once the characters are established, the action becomes erratic and surprising as we move towards a chaotic finale. As the waiter himself comments, it is sometimes ‘not really possible to distinguish between genuine statements and parody’ but this is part of the appeal of this quirky and surprisingly thought-provoking novel.