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Who is laughing at whom?

12 June 2004

12:00 AM

12 June 2004

12:00 AM

Cooking with Fernet-Branca James Hamilton-Paterson

Faber, pp.296, 10.99

Doctor Johnson’s excellent recipe for cucumber: ‘a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.’ Some readers will doubtless cry, ‘But what about sandwiches?’ There is, as we are all aware, no accounting for taste.

Taste is a moot point for readers of James Hamilton-Paterson’s satire, Cooking with Fernet-Branca. Our feeble hero, Gerald Samper, lives on a Tuscan hilltop from which he looks despisingly down on ‘un-reddened Brits’ who flock to the lower slopes for their hols. Gerald considers himself a cut above the hoi polloi, but the joke is on him; he has fallen into the trap of thinking that only other people are tourists. He is a ghost writer for celebrities, and also fancies himself as a bit of a chef. One of his disgusting recipes every so often finds its way into the text: mussels in chocolate, garlic ice cream, otter with lobster sauce. Each recipe requires a dose of Fernet-Branca, hence the title.

Gerald’s peace and quiet are continually interrupted by Marta, a ‘Voynovian’ composer who lives next door and keeps popping over on flimsy pretexts. We get to hear her side of the story too, and of course she claims that he’s the one who keeps interrupting her, with incessant tuneless singing and his own line in flimsy pretexts. Naturally enough they fight like cats for a good two-thirds of the novel, but then, mind-bogglingly, they begin to spy redeeming qualities in one another. About 80 gallons of Fernet-Branca later … well, I’ll leave it there.

So this is a satire on the Englishman abroad, the joke Englishman with a pink face and a drink problem, who makes a stereotype of every ‘foreigner’ he encounters. Thus the heroine has long greasy hair, an incomprehensible accent, and a penchant for strong sausage; the Italian landlord is a slippery crook; an autocratic (shock!) film director whizzes about in a sports car; the lead singer of a boyband is a paranoid cokehead. But quite where the author/satirist places himself is a puzzle. James Hamilton-Paterson is a writer, living in Tuscany. Is he sitting on his (even higher) hilltop, sneering at Gerald? Is he satirising himself, as a Gerald-alike, living and writing in Tuscany? Is he laughing and pointing at the reader, who naturally won’t admit to being remotely similar to the Sampers of this world? Or is it all just a little bit tiresome?

Doubtless there are readers who will choke on their cucumber sandwiches as they laugh at the antics of Gerald and Marta. As for me, I’ll be trying out a new recipe. Take a strutting English cock and a gamy Voynovian hen. Place these two unappealing old birds on a hilltop in Tuscany. Marinade for 296 pages in Fernet-Branca. Leave well alone.

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