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The Star: "Desperately Seeking the Most elusive Taste"

Date: Sep 20 2009

Given such popular but lighter cinematic fare as Julie & Julia and Ratatouille, it can be tempting to forget that food in France remains an almost sacred subject. You can still cause jaw-dropping shock in an Air France attendant simply by ordering the cheese and the coffee together. If the English empire left the world its language, then France's legacy is surely its food.

French philosophy professor Muriel Barbery first impressed readers and surprised booksellers everywhere with The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The novel examines the underbelly of a Paris apartment building with a Tolstoy-addicted concierge, a suicidal child of the haute bourgeoisie and a redemptive mystery man from Japan.

In Gourmet Rhapsody, Barbery's second novel, she returns to the Rue de Grenelle, this time for a closer look at the restaurant critic whose death figured in her debut, albeit further off-stage. Her rhapsody sings of Pierre Arthens, "the supreme monarch" (his words) during his final 48 hours on Earth.

The satire is broad but effective. Maitre Arthens proclaims, in the first of his series of monologues, that he reigned "for all eternity" but, alas, will soon die of a "heart insufficiency." How ironic, how ignoble, for a critic who valued "heart" in cuisine above all else.

But this dying Roman consul (another of his analogies) is frantic. He must remember a certain elusive flavour that will reconcile him to his fate. This search to remember, assisted by a growing chorus of voices that prove our critic was a near-complete failure as a man, drives the narrative forward.

Short chapters reveal the man behind the palate. Family was a disappointment: As a father he was cruel; a daughter approaches his bedroom but then turns back; a son cannot will himself to come any closer than a nearby cafe; his wife plays mouse to her King Rat; his mistress abhors his character. Untroubled by his human failings, Maitre obsesses on the missing flavour, taking us on a time journey to his granny's kitchen, to his mother's native Morocco.

The novel celebrates, in images both eloquent and repellent, what happens when food becomes a religious or sexual equivalent. Passages include the following: "meatballs, grilled with the utmost respect for their firmness, had lost none of their succulence during their passage through fire, and filled my professionally carnivorous mouth with a thick, warm, spicy, juicy wave of masticatory pleasure." Arthens also describes the "unctuous bell peppers, subjugated by the virile rigor of the meat." Freud would have a field day with the Maitre, who confidently pronounces "the entire history of humanity, or our tribe of sensitive predators, can be summed up in these meals in Tangiers."

Sometimes his thoughts soar into poetry. There is the gnomic, lyrical, "Meat is virile, fish is strange and cruel." A lifetime of judgments has created this omnivore wordsmith. He can be touching, when he describes the joys of a freshly picked garden tomato ("a horn of abundance of simple sensations") or his excitement on discovering whisky (""an explosion of piquancy and seething elements ... my organs no longer existed"). But all aphorisms are not created equal. We also get "With bread, as with everything, it is the first time that counts."

Checking though a lifetime of meals, Arthens remembers and slowly discards, among much else, ice cream, sorbet, sushi, sashimi and Proust's "abominable Madeleine." He wonders "if the thing that's taunting me is not even tasty."

Good insight, dying master. The wickedly witty Barbery serves a feast for foodies and foodie-haters.

By Nancy Wigston