By James Hamilton Paterson
Reviewed by Alexandra Mullen
January 6, 2008
Rancid pansies: Put that phrase on your tongue and roll it around for mouthfeel. Musky, dark, smooth, even unctuous; a bit, hmm, malevolent, perhaps, and yet amusing in the close. If you'd like to develop your taste sensations in this direction, I'd recommend the book of the same name. It's the next thrilling adventure in what I hope turns out to be the very long saga of Gerald Samper, expat Englishman, celebrity biographer, fearlessly inventive cook, and misanthropist extraordinaire. Rancid Pansies follows in the primrose path of the equally ineffable Cooking with Fernet Branca and the only marginally less brilliant Amazing Disgrace.
Fernet Branca is not a Mallorcan celebrity chef but a bizarre -- and to some, including me, disgusting -- Italian alcoholic concoction purported to be good for hangovers. The proprietary recipe includes rhubarb, aloe, and myrrh. Bitter and aromatic, it is appropriately Gerald Samper's favorite drink. I called him a misanthropist just now, and it's true that his beady eye misses very little of the ridiculous, ignominious, and pretentious in human life. Plant nurseries, for example: "Garden centres have become the new cathedrals of the secular age, combining as they do the worship of shopping with ecorectitude." And yet he can be a generous-hearted misanthropist, perfectly willing to share the fruits of his labors in the kitchen. He's given us Garlic and Fernet Branca Ice Cream and Badger Wellington with Gundog Paté. In this volume he teases us with his Men of Violence appetizers: "Pol Pot Noodles, Somozas, Shin Fein -- a divine junior cousin to ossobuco -- Papa Duck, Kim Jong Eel and my celebrated Mobster Thermidor." Other amuses-bouches include Mice Krispies and vole-au-vents. Misanthropy and gastronomy mixed together can lead to some novel flavors: "Anthropophagy would definitely be a small but decisive gesture towards dealing with the population explosion. We could start by putting environmentalists into the pot.... "Eat up your Greens!" could once again become a nursery injunction."
We first met Gerald in his Tuscan hideaway. Not in Chiantishire but in a far more dramatic and insalubrious locale high up in the Apuan Alps, with only the eastern European émigré composer Marta as a neighbor. He and Marta have a magnetic relationship, although it can be hard to tell at any given moment whether their poles are attracting or repelling each other: Gerald at one point assumes Marta "takes the odd lover prophylactically, much as people put studs in their earlobes to keep the holes from closing." Their interlocking and self-serving first-person narratives form the duet of Cooking with Fernet Branca; I think the duet I have in mind is Rossini's party piece for two cats. Marta disappears for much of Amazing Disgrace, but she is replaced by other musical folk, something alluring in the amatory line, and what is, to that point, the dinner party to top all others -- with a finale even more earthshaking than the Bombe Richelieu in Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?
Rancid Pansies takes up Gerald at a particularly low point: homeless and back in England. This combination leads to a buffo start with an English dinner party that, drop for drop, exceeds that earlier Italian one. After his recent travails, Gerald is hoping to find a new world far from his humiliating hackery, and opera seems to fit the bill. As he says, it's "a scene more in sympathy with my true talents, where serious people discuss serious things like portamento and whether Tito Gobbi was incontinent onstage singing Scarpia to Callas's Tosca at Covent Garden in 1964."
Operas come expensive, but with the kind of serendipity that seems to find Gerald out, the subject of his most recent celebrity bio, the "around-the world one-armed yachts personality" Millie Cleat, has died, providing a financial windfall. Meanwhile, the spirit of Princess Diana seems to be hovering over his former property in Italy. These unlikely continental plot shelves start grinding together and a volcano starts rising from the teeming murk, spewing aperçus and absurdities with all the tender care of Mother Nature.
Comedy really can't run too long, especially high-style tightrope farce. Even Oscar Wilde cut The Importance of Being Earnest from four acts to three. James Hamilton-Paterson has the wit to keep his comedy brisk and short. I experienced few longueurs in Samper's 300-page adventure. I wasn't so keen on the textual interpolations of the other narrator, but as everybody seems to be saying these days, your mileage may vary. The novel ends with two bangs. One concerns Gerald's sui generis opera on the life and death of Diana, Princess of Wales: "surely," he preens, "the only possible operatic subject for Gerald Samper, mischievous tragedian!" Consider the arias: "Don't cry for me, Kensington" and, from a Pakistani beggar girl, "There's not much Versace / Here in Karachi." What should it be called -- Dodi and Aeneas, perhaps? The vagaries of putting on an opera fill the last bit of the book, although things become smoother once "the Di is cast." The opera's a hoot, but since we know Gerald's verbally clever or we wouldn't be reading him, our pleasure isn't really a surprise. The other twist is completely unsuspected: Gerald has a redemptive moment! But I'm not worried. I'm sure Gerald, Samper fidelis, will remain true to himself when he rises again.
Alexandra Mullen left a life as an academic in Victorian literature to return to her roots as a general reader. She now writes for The Hudson Review (where she is also an Advisory Editor), The New Criterion, and The Wall Street Journal.