COOKING WITH FERNET BRANCA
By James Hamilton-Paterson
Europa. 281 pp. Paperback, $14.95If one were to imagine the house of fiction, the Serious Novel would be the front parlor, a showcase of antique furniture, with a few well-chosen prints on cream-colored walls and a Steinway baby grand in the corner (note the Chopin Etude artfully displayed on the keyboard stand). The large but unfinished basement, distinctly cluttered and prey to mildew, would be Mysteries, Romance Novels, Science Fiction and Fantasy. The small sun-room -- lots of glass, a good view of the sky and stars, some potted plants, a cat asleep in a ray of afternoon light -- could only be Poetry.
Cooking with Fernet Branca might look as though it belongs to the kitchen (the domain of Comfort Books -- a hodge-podge category embracing all kinds of writing about food and drink, some travel literature, many collections of letters and diaries). In fact, James Hamilton-Paterson's latest novel settles nicely into the playroom, for it is a silly, amusing and utterly inconsequential jeu d'esprit. There's nothing at all important to the book, aside from witty prose and a broad but affectionate lambasting of some recent cultural manias -- boy bands, UFOs, Tuscan villas, cooking, Do-It-Yourself projects, filmmaking, sports celebrities, the new Europe, gay tastefulness. It's really a summer treat at heart, and a good one to stash away for some bleak October evening.
Our story opens with Gerry Samper -- English, well-educated, reduced to ghostwriting the biographies of downhill skiers and race-car drivers -- ensconced in a small, isolated cottage high up a mountain overlooking the Mediterranean. He's in Le Roccie to finish his latest work-for-hire, contemplate his somewhat uncertain future and, most of all, indulge his passion for creative cookery. Gerry's tastes are, shall we say, gastronomically adventurous, though virtually all his dishes require anywhere from a teaspoon to a bottle of Fernet Branca (which Gerry himself downs like spring water even though it appears to possess the alcoholic kick of grappa or slivovitz). "Mussels in Chocolate," "Fish Cake," "Garlic Ice Cream" and "Baked Pears in Cheese Sauce" are among his favored delicacies, and he thoughtfully provides directions for their preparation, often adding a bit of personal commentary:
"Incidentally, this is the only recipe I know [for "Otter with Lobster Sauce"] that is associated with a curse. Two acquaintances who tried to make the dish died within the month, one in Buckinghamshire and the other in Somerset. By the quirkiest of mishaps both fell into rivers in spate and vanished into millraces. The cleric's body was found three weeks later, much disfigured. The drama teacher was never seen again. On enquiring I discovered that each had used commercial mayonnaise purchased in a supermarket for this recipe, so there is some justice in this world after all, even if a bit on the lenient side. Certainly the Bishop should have known better. No decent cook gets to heaven by way of Hellman's."
By the way, you are right to detect a slightly camp, swishy tone to Gerry's voice. He is what his neighbor Marta calls a "dudi." He even sings snippets of opera while preparing his wondrous dishes. Naturally, we are treated to brief descriptions of his most coloratura showpieces, including "Ennio's exhilarating aria 'Non disperdere nell'ambiente, cara,' from Lo stronzolo segreto. It's when Nedda is threatening to throw away the little flask of tears she has wept for him and he begs her not to. By all means the tears (he sings), for roses will spring up wherever they fall to earth; but not the antique Venetian bottle I bought for you. . . . This may, in fact, be the earliest example of environmentalism in opera."
His neighbor Marta? Alas, Gerry's unscrupulous real estate agent Benedetti misled him about the isolation of his little villa. An emigre from the nation of Voynovia, newly liberated from the Soviet yoke, has moved into a similar hut quite nearby. In Gerry's eyes, Marta appears a semi-literate peasant, garbling broken English, constantly imbibing Fernet Branca. She is, in truth, a young composer and the eldest daughter of a great ancestral house, though her father has apparently served in the Soviet secret police and now oversees a mafia cell. Through a bit of luck, Marta has been invited to Italy to work on the score for a new film by the cult director Piero Pacini, best known for the saturnalian "Nero's Birthday."
But Marta, having grown up in a sheltered household, has never seen this film, nor any of Pacini's others. What's more, she is lonely for her sister and brother, for the sight of Mt. Sluszic, for the taste of kasha and shonka. We learn this through her letters home and through her own narration, which soon alternates with Gerry's. Neither artiste, it turns out, can believe that the other is anything more than a Fernet Branca-swilling dudi or a Fernet Branca-addicted slattern. And so the reader settles down to enjoy that ever fresh standby of light entertainment, the comedy of a couple who consistently misunderstand each other about almost everything. But, in this instance, especially about food: "I want to learn you all of Voynovia," says Marta to Gerry, "the fooding number one of all. Voynovian fooding best in all Europa, best in all of world. Is . . . mm."
This is the sort of English that Gerry hears, but in her own chapters, Marta writes perfectly grammatical sentences and is indeed quite an intellectual. She even has her doubts about those orgies that Pacini has inserted into a film supposedly about peaceful Green Party idealists, traditional fishermen and the legacy of fascism. Yet just as Marta soldiers on with her music, Gerry soon finds himself entertaining Brill, the leader of the world's most famous band (who wants the author of Downhill All the Way and Hot Seat! to write his biography). Before long, privies are destroyed and fences built, helicopters start to land regularly -- either piloted by Marta's criminal brother or bearing Pacini -- and film crews descend en masse, followed by Italian carabinieri. The humor grows funnier and, naturally, ever more tasteless: We learn that Brill was abused by druids, that Gerry wears trendy Homo Erectus jeans and once invented the LFM diet for a women's magazine ("Half a bottle of Fernet Branca a day, plus a single multivitamin pill and all the lard you can eat"), that vegetables have feelings, that Jane Austen wrote a novel called Donna and, not least, that "Jack Russells are absolute buggers to bone, notoriously so, but yield a delicate, almost silky pate that seems to welcome the careworn diner with both paws on the edge of the table, as it were." And lots, lots more. But don't even ask what an R rating stands for in Italy.
The wide-ranging James Hamilton-Paterson has published all sorts of books, from Gerontius, a Whitbread Award-winning novel about the composer Elgar, to a study of Ferdinand Marcos. His prose is always original and extremely winning, and he himself lives in Italy, to which, among other things, Cooking with Fernet Branca is a sly love letter. As Gerry says, when he joins Piero Pacini and company for lunch:
"A huge table is laid with buffet dishes from which we begin spearing and spooning liberal portions of this and that before seating ourselves with a large glass of white wine apiece. Be honest, who would live in England?"
Or in Washington? France maybe, though Italy is well-nigh irresistible. As is Cooking with Fernet Branca. *
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is email@example.com. His online book discussion takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.