HK Hollow does begin as “a simple love story” – but as the pages flow and as the narrative proceeds, it becomes obvious for the readers that the sum of printed words in their hands is unquestionably a lot more than merely “a simple love story.” Because Dragoș Ilca’s first novel does not necessarily tell a boy meets girl kind of story, but rather a story of boy meets Hollowness & girl meets Solitude – thanks to whom they eventually meet nobody but themselves, or at least certain sides of them they had not been aware of until then. However, love is far from being a missing piece in this story – it could even be said that, somehow, it is exactly the element that glues together all the other pieces of the puzzle. And this love is not only about that kind of romantic connection whose tension builds up to the big kiss which creates the illusion of a “happily ever after” ending, but also precisely about what follows after that: the slow yet factual disintegration of the butterflies in one’s stomach, the unbearable routine that turns kisses into automatisms and, eventually, the anxiety paradoxically caused by both the presence and the absence of the partner.
This is where Guy and Carina, a young Czech couple living together in Amsterdam, find themselves right at the beginning of HK Hollow – he, a literature student who likes to read “books and people”, lost somewhere between laziness and brilliance and she, a hard-working economics student and a morning person obsessed with order and productivity. The innumerable differences between them are striking and rather contrasting than complementary, but at the same time these dichotomies are the very fuel of their relationship, the perfect antidote for the boredom that seems to threaten their shared existence at every corner, constantly reminding them that they have a so called expiration date. While Guy seems to barely know what he will be doing the next day, Carina has a well-developed plan for her life, and, zealous as she is, she follows each step thoroughly. In the foreseeable future, this plan includes studying in Hong Kong for a semester. However, what had once been a convenient remedy for l’ennui becomes the origin of a life-changing event. Last minute, Guy decides to fill in an application for the same exchange programme, consequently becoming his girlfriend’s rival. Had they both been rejected, the matter would have surely ended up being condoned – but one day Guy comes home to the heartbroken Carina and tells her he was selected to study literature in her dream city. On one hand, his decision to try his luck seems perfectly rational: just like Carina, he has the right to apply absolutely anywhere he wants to. On the other hand, why did it have to be, of all the places in the world, Hong Kong? Why the exact same city that he so well knows his girlfriend is so desperate to go to? Since he willingly becomes her enemy in this competition that he ultimately wins, could this still be said to be love? Had he still loved her, he wouldn’t have consciously chosen to become the one standing between Carina and her dream, right? At first glance, the answer might seem like a no-brainer, but, before we hurry to label his gesture as an obnoxious and heinous one, let’s ponder on the fact that things are not so easy when, as Jeff Buckley once said in a legendary song, people are “too young to keep good love from going wrong.” Ironically, Carina’s name is actually a derivation from the Latin word “carus”, which means “beloved.” After all, perhaps Guy does not even think of himself as a traitor. Perhaps, for him, romantic love and career are two parallel dimensions of his life. And maybe when he returns to Amsterdam everything will go back to normal and Carina will eventually come to understand that he did deserve to go there and will get over it. Or maybe not.
From this point onward, the narrative is divided in two salient stories: Guy’s fascinating and mind-expanding experience in Hong Kong and Carina’s pitiful struggle to keep herself together in Amsterdam, in the room that functions as a constant reminder of her irrecoverable life with Guy, whom she might have lost forever. This is when the third protagonist of the novel, Fei-yān, is properly introduced to the reader. Being a literature student herself, she starts a serendipitous friendship with Guy, with whom she obviously has a lot more in common than Carina, whose passion for the accuracy of numbers could not meet Guy’s love for the countless and daedal possibilities of language. Caught between the bitter ending of a romance and the sweet beginning of another, Guy finds himself in this almost surreal city, to a certain extent reminiscent of Baudelaire and T.S Eliot’s Unreal City, not quite sure whether he is lost or just wandering about. There is something hauntingly poetic about the way in which Dragoș Ilca writes about Hong Kong, somehow managing to portray this whole conglomeration of feelings in which one can no longer tell the difference between myriads of people and mere isolation. The most crowded locations prove to be the best places in which one can experience not only overwhelming loneliness, but also ideal intimacy, just like in one of Jay Gatsby’s famous parties.
While Guy lives this bohemian and often enviable life in one of the greatest cities in the whole world, Carina is far from being this lucky. Although she does find out what it feels like to stand on her own two feet and finally experiences a weirdly satisfying feeling of independence, the gap caused in her life by the absence of Guy still seems impossible to fill. Somewhere between getting drunk and staying responsible, she meets Jan, a Burger Bar employee, whom I found to be the most tenuous character in HK Hollow. Since Guy is telling the story, he is the one describing Carina’s new companion, and his male ego does not even paint him all black, but rather deprives him of any colour whatsoever. Even though Jan is indeed meant to be a superficial character – because a superficial relationship is exactly what Carina is looking for – the way in which he is portrayed and described does give the impression that Guy tries maybe a little bit too hard to look like the better one, in comparison. Thus, as his character seems to be poorly built, Jan could be considered by some to be HK Hollow’s weak spot, although the fact that we know that his description is provided by Guy makes the story become even more raw and human than it already was. Because while, at a first reading, HK Hollow seems to tell the story of an individual called Guy, both his suggestively chosen name and the emotions he feels are, to some degree, unexpectedly relatable and even touching at times.
And all these are expressed through impressively neat writing that flows naturally, page after page. Although it could be said that, being anything but redundant or bedizened, the writing style is mostly accessible, there are undoubtedly some challenging aspects that erudite or fastidious readers will find to be to their delight, including the numerous literary references, sometimes subtle, other times obvious that create eloquent dialogues between HK Hollow and the works or writers referenced. Furthermore, Carina’s mesmerizing monologues, lacking any punctuation marks, feel like tortuous walks through the maze of her puzzling consciousness and are highly reminiscent of both the interior monologues in Joyce’s Ulysses and even Lucky’s speech in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. At the same time, the extracts from the often acrimonious virtual conversations between the characters give the novel a strong feeling of authenticity, challenging the reader to find answers somewhere between the words that the protagonists cannot take back and the ones that they have left unsaid. However, one of the most interesting and thought-provoking aspects of HK Hollow lies in the fact that the reader cannot always be 100% sure when it comes to interpreting who exactly is telling the story, especially since Carina and Guy are shadowed by Solitude and Hollowness, who are expressively and originally introduced as abstract characters who live lives of their own. That is to say, HK Hollow is definitely too well written to be considered a light-reading book. For this reason, Dragoș Ilca’s luscious debut novel made my window seat of my flight to Rome seem like a waste, since the captivating way in which the story unravelled made me forget to look out and enjoy the cloud baths that the plane was taking – clould baths which I usually cannot get enough of.
When I finished reading HK Hollow, I knew I eventually had to get around to writing about it, but for some reason whose meaning I could not quite grasp yet, I stared at a blank Word Document page by far more than I have ever done before in my life. For the first time in a long while, I was at a loss for words. After all, where was I supposed to start? And what was I to say? I did not know. All I knew was that HK Hollow’s dominant feeling of combined Hollowness & Solitude proved to be a little contagious. And it was only when the bittersweet yet pleasant effect it had on me started to lay off that I was able to actually put pen to paper, just like you can only talk about a dream you had in your sleep only after you have awakened from it. And now that I have awakened from this dreamy mood that my reading of HK Hollow put me into, I can finally wholeheartedly recommend this printed breath of fresh air to all literature lovers around the world.
Dragoș Ilca was born and raised in Romania. At nineteen, he went to study literature in Amsterdam for his Bachelor’s Degree. Somehow, he ended up as a teaching assistant at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he talked about books and his students’ writing once a week. He still thinks he can write his Master’s thesis in a week with the proper inspiration. Way to go, Dragoș. He played in a band once but he won’t admit it. He started a lasting love affair with Hong Kong style milk tea, and that is enough reason to keep him there a while longer. HK HOLLOW is his debut novel.
The Kindle edition of HK Hollow is available HERE.
Paperback copies are available HERE.
Also, do feel free to let me know if you might want to borrow my copy. After all, I’ve got a book dealer reputation to uphold.
P.S. When you’re done reading the book, try listening to Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright. It definitely worked for me.