Bought in a bookshop in Caen, Normandy, to read with my lunch in a wine shop, Les Domaines qui Montent (which gets four stars from me as a restaurant), I have been reading the first novel by Muriel Barbery, Une Gourmandise (in English Gourmet Paradise translated by Alison Anderson) and needed to have several lunches there to make progress through the book and the menu.
The story is of a world-famous and very-much-feared critic whose verdict could make or break the reputation of a chef and his restaurant. And this particular Titan, or tyrant, is dying. As he lies in his room, he searches in the taste buds of his imagination for an elusive savour that he somehow cannot quite recall. Interspersed between the chapters of his reminiscences of meat, fish, soup, raw vegetables, mayonnaise and whisky, are the feelings of family and acquaintances whose lives he has affected, not forgetting his cat. They are a fascinating counterpoint and, together, paint a very different image of the dying man. Surprisingly, his wife still loves him. Not surprisingly for the loving way in which Barbery describes and makes us drool over the gourmandising, the book won a prize in 2000 for the best literary book about gourmet matters. I recommend a 2012 dry white wine from Gers to go with the book.
Barbery went on to use the technique of multiple narrators in another wonderful book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog which, like Gourmet Paradise won prizes for its author. I will give Gourmet Paradise 8 out of 10 (and The Elegance of the Hedgehog 8.8 out of 10).
I have to declare an interest in the next book, Quesadillas by the Mexican writer Juan Pablo Villalobos. I subscribe to the publisher And Other Stories who brings out around ten books a year and this is the second I have received. On the strength of the first two I am certainly looking forward to the third. Quesadillas is translated beautifully from the original Spanish by Rosalind Harvey. The little glossary at the back of the book explains that a quesadilla is a tortilla filled with cheese or other savoury ingredients.
The narrator looks back on his childhood experiences surviving on a diet of quesadillas whose quality and quantity varies according to the family’s finances and how many there are to feed. Academics tend to call such books Bildungsroman but we can simply call this an angry, scabrous but humorous account of a Mexican childhood far from the fleshpots and, often enough, the cheesepots as well. On no-cheese days, his mother would write the word ‘cheese’ on the inside of the tortilla. Orestes has a schoolteacher father who has given all his children classical Greek names, including ‘the pretend twins’ Castor and Pollux who are non-identical and, as the story opens, no longer there, having disappeared in a supermarket. A wealthy Polish family; father, mother, and teenage son the same age as Orestes, build a deluxe villa next door and tensions mount between the boys. Jarek has been everywhere while Orestes hasn’t been anywhere. Orestes’s visits to Jarek’s house are a torment for Orestes’s mother who is fearful he will break something (or maybe even steal something!) and his family will have to pay for it. Eventually, Orestes and his older brother, Aristotle, do rob the Pole’s house and run away; Aristotle seeking the pretend twins who have, he is convinced, been abducted by aliens and Orestes seeking just to get away. At this point, elements of South American magical realism enter the narrative but with a very light touch. The plot develops to a satisfying, and realistically magical conclusion that you will need to read the book to find out. I will rate this at 7.5 out of 10.
Book reading groups should seek to winden their reading horizons by including at least one, better two, “foreign” books every season. These two would do well for a start.