What can you say about an Italian-set novel in which one of the characters considers borrowing the title of Frances Mayes' "Under the Tuscan Sun" for...
“Cooking with Fernet Branca”
by James Hamilton-Paterson
Europa Editions, 281 pp., $14.95
What can you say about an Italian-set novel in which one of the characters considers borrowing the title of Frances Mayes’ “Under the Tuscan Sun” for his autobiography, adjusting it slightly to make it “Under a Tuscan’s Son”?
Pretty silly, yes. But also pretty funny.
Indeed, a spirit of utter daffiness is at play throughout James Hamilton-Paterson’s “Cooking with Fernet Branca,” even as the author aims more serious salvos at a common human failing: being unable to recognize what’s standing right in front of you.
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“Cooking” portrays two battling expatriates (one British, one from a fictional ex-Soviet republic) living as neighbors high in the mountains north of Pisa. Gerald Samper, a ghost writer of autobiographies of sports stars, is in quest of a quiet retreat from a civilization he sees as being in irreversible decline. His neighbor Marta is a refugee from her native Voynovia, a former Soviet satellite where her thuggish family is finding that the eastward expansion of the European Union threatens their criminal future.
A Moscow-trained composer and recent winner of Voynovia’s Gold Stoat for best film score, Marta has been invited to write the score for the latest film by cinema legend Piero Pacini, hence her move to Italy. Gerald’s latest writing project isn’t for a sports hero but for a singer with a boy band called Freewayz — and his true passion isn’t writing at all, but cooking. His “cuisine of contempt” as he calls it (“designed, as any work of art must be, to remind us that the world is an unexpected place full of unfamiliar challenges”) includes such horrors as “iced fish cake” and “Kidneys in Toffee,” many of them liberally infused with the herbal liqueur Fernet Branca.
The misunderstandings between Gerald and Marta are also liberally infused with Fernet Branca. Each finds the other’s neighboring presence disturbing, and neither believes a word the other says about himself/herself. Gerald dismisses Marta as “a dumpy peasant from Mitteleuropa” while Marta derides Gerald as an alcoholic dudi (the Voynovian, apparently, for “homosexual”) incapable of serious effort at anything.
How will these two ever get the true measure of each other?
Hamilton-Paterson lets them explain that to the reader in alternating first-person narratives. Gerald’s is the tarter of the two, and more filled with clever word play, but Marta’s has its own bizarre high points. Lampoonings of celebrity vacuity, film-director pretensions, Italian bureaucrats and deluded UFO enthusiasts (a surprising number of Marta’s visitors arrive by helicopter) all figure in the action.
“Cooking with Fernet Branca” doesn’t probe as deeply as Hamilton-Paterson’s 1994 masterpiece “Ghosts of Manila,” which suggested the supposedly “backward” Philippine capital might be a preview of a decayed urban future awaiting us all.
Nor does it match 2001’s “Loving Monsters” which, in the most colorful terms, weighed in authoritatively on the hazards of writing someone’s biography.
But even if “Cooking” is Hamilton-Paterson Lite, it still offers plenty of comic outrage — and some recipes that are guaranteed to make you gag.