This past summer when I was trying to get my foot in the door and expand my manga horizons, I received a recommendation from my sister to read a little story called The Voynich Hotel. Within a couple of pages I found myself both laughing and intrigued, and I ended up blowing through the whole thing that day. This past weekend I re-read it thanks to some free time and quickly-acquired nostalgia, and it more than met the expectations my memory had set for it.
The Voynich Hotel is a story about the evolution of culture from one generation to the next, and the ways we come to coexist with the often-frightening implications of modernization, open borders and technology. It's particularly concerned with the way these modern forces impact areas that do not have the historical power or influence to maintain their own cultures and histories under the weight of colonization and imperialism. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though; The Voynich Hotel is a beautiful, heartfelt tale that frames the changing of the times and the disconnect between the past and present not as some sort of Faulknerian tragedy but as natural process that rewards open-mindedness and acceptance, though with a dash of stubbornness.
Our story takes place on the island of Blefuscu, a fictional island first mentioned in Gulliver's Travels and re-adapted for the purposes of this take into the object of Spanish Imperialism during the spread of European culture. This means that already we're set up in a place that doesn't exist: not just a made-up island for the purposes of this story, but an island that is explicitly fictional in its origin. An island that is steeped with legend and magic and mythos, complete with the story of The Three Mothers, witches who used to own the island and protected it for many years from Spanish invaders by massacring any foreigner who dared to step foot on the shore. Blefuscu is a place that wants to be set apart from the world, to exist in its own mystical time-capsule, and the attitudes of many of its inhabitants of all ages reflect that. However, times are changing in Blefuscu whether its citizens want it or not, and this causes them to lash out against the unknown and the intrusive in ways that they didn't know they were capable of. The duality of acceptance and rejection is perhaps best established in the relationship between the two sisters, Snark and Alice. Alice, the younger of the two sisters, is unwilling to confront the world: a sort of stand in for the soul-of-the-island and occasional narrator, Alice reflects the innocent unease shared by many of the older generation, but not so much held by the group of hooligans she wants to fit into. Her older sister, Snark, in an attempt to protect her sister from change and allow her to keep relying on the magic mask she uses to communicate, goes so far as to become a serial murderer known for her cruel, untraceable killings.
Snark likes to act as a sort of vigilante defender of the status quo, chasing away tourism and shutting down up-and-coming businesses with a flick of her claws, claws she notably attained from making a contract with a demon and selling her soul. In her mind, her cause is clearly noble, and her pastry shop acts as a haven for the locals. To those who love and support her cherished sister she is kind without reservations, truly acting as the force of good she strives to be and helping to make the island a better place to live.
Snark isn't the only one on Blefuscu who's ever killed outsiders though: the Three Mothers from the island's legend are still around, having suffered a noticeable dip in influence and power since they were eventually successfully overcome by the Spanish forces. This is where the story of Voynich is truly rooted: the Mothers, symbols of the island nation's legacy and tradition. Two of them, Elena and Beluna work at an old, shoddy hotel called Hotel Voynich run by (notably) a masked Spanish wrestler referred to only as 'owner', while the third sleeps underground, not yet able to traverse the modern world. Here Elena and Beluna whittle their days away preforming odd jobs and helping to keep the hotel running. Once the violent defenders of the island, they now work for a man who clearly came over from Spain and helped him to open a tourist resort to allow even more people to come infiltrate Blefuscu. Broken remnants of their past glory, missing parts and pieces, they should by all accounts be unhappy prisoners.
But they're not. The sisters aren't unhappy, and they're not clinging to the past as some sort of bygone glory days that the present will never be able to match. The owner is not seen as a tyrant or as a conqueror: he's a nice guy, and he cares for the people he employs and all the people of the island. In fact, by the time the story has begun he's already an established part of the island's culture, feeling as naturally a piece of it as the Three Mothers or Snark. His ancestors may have fought with the Three Mothers in brutal and selfish bloodshed, but he isn't his ancestors, and rather than being at odds with one another he and the Mothers help and support one another for the well-being of everyone. This was once a tale of imperialism and oppression, but it's not anymore. Blefuscu has long since integrated its Spanish colonizers into its culture. They aren't outsiders anymore. The owner didn't take over their land and force them into working for him: they came to him voluntarily because they were tired of being at odds with the outside world and wanted to adapt and become someone new. The Mothers themselves were not afraid of change. They adopted technology, became integrated with modern media and entertainment, and in some cases went to far as to engage in MMORPGS to the terror of all.
That's not to say that that the Mothers don't have a sense of identity or pride. They do have pride, but they have the pride of reason which causes them to interfere only when the situation actually threatens the livelihood of the people living in Blefuscu. They aren't pushovers who will stand for anything. When assassins from across the world gather to come seek out targets on Blefuscu, whether the targets be local or not the Mothers say enough, not permitting any kind of violence or persecution to unnecessarily stain their shores. When a demon erects a skyscraper hotel on top of a local donut shop and threatens to jeopardize the local economy while overrunning the island with excessive infrastructure and industrialism, the Mothers say enough. They care about is the island and everyone living on it, but they aren't obsessed with some idyllic notion of what the island is or what it's supposed to be. They accept that countless legends and traditions have intermingled over the years to create Blefuscu as it is today, and that it is the up-and-coming younger generations that should get to decide the kind of island they want to live on, not Snark's enforcing of the old ways and xenophobia. Blefuscu isn't anything-goes, and real demons will be ousted. But foreigners? Over the course of the story Elena learns to fall in love with a foreigner from Japan, expressing her excitement for connecting with his culture but not allowing that to wash away her identity as a witch. She professes to never have fallen in love before, but definitely isn't reluctant. In fact, she's excited: excited to have someone she can share and grow with, a completely different attitude than she had in the past when she unequivocally saw all foreigners as threats. Elena isn't a softie, but over the years she's become someone not all too interested in the past. She doesn't persecute outsiders anymore, but she now knows how to recognize a real demon.
The Mother's acceptance of the younger generation as the driving force for the nation's identity is reflected in the importance of the Sleuth Brigade, Alice's group of friends and the manifestation of the up-and-coming generation that has yet to really decide where they fall on the spectrum of vision for the island. Their leader's name is simply 'Leader', an unsubtle nod to his importance to the story, and it's he who struggles most with the conflict of change.
Surrounded by a spectrum of madness ranging from his peer 'Doctor' resurrecting the third of the Mothers, Tenebrarum, to the appearance of an aptly unsettling incarnation of discomforting modern technology in the form of Andybot, an android who seems to never be out of ways to be as unsettling, incompetent and creepy as possible, Leader hasn't really figured out where he stands in regards to what he wants Blefuscu to be like when he grows up. In many ways the growth and innovation unsettle him, as seen through his distrust of Andybot and his hatred for organized public infrastructure like the police that represent a quota for structure and order demanded by the modern era. He collects rumors of modern legends, ghost stories about robot factories and powerful poisons being distributed, and he feels resentful of the way some of Blefuscu's inhabitants seem to have accepted all this and moved on. This can be seen on a personal level in his relationship with Vixen, one of the members of his brigade. Vixen is modern: she's fashionable, spunky, comfortable with sexuality, and distrustful of rumors and superstition. Throughout the series Leader rejects her advances and pushes her to the side, reluctant to accept the new-age element in his very own brigade as part of his identity. He even has heavy suspicions that Alice's sister is Snark, but is unwilling to do anything about her killing spree.
Eventually though, Leader starts to grow up and realize that it's not all as simple as he thought it was. When he gets to actually meet a couple touring on their honeymoon he can see that these aren't invaders coming to mutilate the island. In fact, they're fascinated by Blefuscu's history, respectful of its inhabitants, and there to simply enjoy the location and have a good time. So, when the newlywed husband goes missing, Leader finally makes up his mind and goes to confront Snark. Snark, for her part, finally realizes that protecting Alice might not mean stuffing a mask over her face and dismembering outsiders, and, unwilling to lash out against Leader as it would 'hurt Alice', she finally gives up and lets both Leader and the young couple live. After this, her contract is up: she's no longer needed to 'protect' the island, because the younger generation doesn't want protecting. They want to meet these newcomers and make up their mind for themselves on whether they're threats or not. Snark at this point is only muffling their voices, making it difficult for them to speak. She goes to visit Alice one last time before she dies, asking forgiveness for her attempts to enforce her own vision on Alice and the difficulties that caused. Snark, for all her sins, just wanted to protect something dear to her. She might be an antagonist, but she's not a villain: Voynich doesn't frame the desire to protect and preserve the status quo as villainy, but it does see it as naivety with cruel consequences.
Leader eventually accepts that technology isn't as useless or scary as he thought, either. When Vixen steps on a landmine, threatening to repeat an incident several years ago when a friend of his suffered a quick end at the bad end of a minefield, Andybot steps in to shield her from the blast and change the outcome of the situation. Leader acknowledges that the technology he mocked played a key hand in preventing Vixen's death, and as a result he starts to learn to respect Andybot and see him as both competent and respectable. Leader even decides he wants to be a policeman: once he sees Andybot saving lives and comes to understand what being a police officer actually means, rather than the vague, oppressive notion he had in his head, he realizes that's actually the kind of person he wants to be.
As Snark dies she tears off Alice's mask and takes it with her, forcing her younger sister to finally address the scary, impending outside world. Alice takes a look at both the island's ancient past and the intimidating forces that threaten to change its landscape forever, she comes to realize that what she's most concerned with is not some vague sense of 'other', but simply her own life and the people around her. Her heart is tied to the Sleuth Brigade, to her friends, to the people she values in her life and wants to be with and protect. The island opening up to the world at large will come with difficulties and complications no doubt, but it also brings growth and new perspectives, technology that can make life easier, and a sense of security from the threats of the past like land mines. What the future requires is nuance: everyone has their own tendencies and desires, and creating a place where Vixen's contemporary attitude towards sexuality and fashion can coexist with Doctor's love of tradition and the past, as exemplified by his enduring visits to the third Mother, Tenebrarum, is more important than securing a sense of normalcy. Elena returns to Russia to meet her mentor and her own origins, and is finally able to open up a little bit to her lover, telling him that she is a witch; that at her core, she will always hold the history of Blefuscu to be important. He turns to her with his eyepatch, matching her own, and tells her that he already knows. He long ago accepted Blefuscu tradition as part of himself, just as she accepted Japanese culture.
Traditions change, cultures collide, and the future is as exciting as it is frightening. That Voynich manages to exemplify this in as concise, entertaining, and stylish a fashion as it does is a staggering triumph. The Voynich Hotel is a surreal and gripping experience from start to finish, functioning almost as well as a romantic comedy as it does an argument for the ethics of change in long-rooted cultures. It's really something beautiful.