The food-writer's manual from hell
Courtesy of Aussie baggage handlers' strikes, and an apparent go-slow in airport control towers, last week's journey from Fremantle to Wellington was a 48-hour marathon of missed connections, revised itineraries, and no luggage. I had a vicious chest infection, and was carrying purse, passport, laptop and a copy of Catastrophe. And that was it. My luggage, apparently, was lost forever. Ideal circumstances for reading Ian Wedde's latest novel? Surely not -- but somehow, the book proved that wrong.
For a start, this book is beautifully written. There is also a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humor, complete with luscious puns and other plays on words, which makes leisurely stop-and-start reading a very good idea. The food-writer, for instance, is Christopher Hare, an ex-pat Kiwi who has lots of Maori cuzzies with Italian names on the East Coast of the North Island. When we meet him, he is eating rabbit -- a Provencal braised rabbit, complete with "winey sauce, bay, thyme, juniper," accompanied with a Rousillon Coulet Rouge. He reminisces often about his ex-wife, a condiment by the name of Mary Pepper. A fraught figure with a hidden Jewish heritage, she is a food photographer with an unaccountable grudge because she is never in her own photographs.
When a mysterious woman enters the braised-rabbit-restaurant and assassinates a couple of other diners with a gun, Christopher is seized with a mad impulse to be "here" and not "there," amd rushes into an unknown future by following the assassin into her getaway car.
This poses a problem for the murderess, as she is stuck with a witness. For some unknown reason, she does not knock Hare off and turf his body into the street, but shoves a fake Gucci bag over his head, and takes him to her hideaway. There (or Hare's "here"), she forms an uneasy alliance with her prisoner, during which they both explore the strange circumstances that led them to this comic catastrophe.
The real catastrophe, however, is al-Nakba, the catastrophe of 1948, when Palestinians were first driven into exile. Hare's captor is Hawwa Habash, a paediatrician who works in the camps of Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza, coping all too often with malnutrition. While the contrast to the routine gluttony that is Hare's working life is unmistakable --and particularly so during a glutinous and glorious description of an extravagant feast staged by rich Jordanese for Hare and Pepper in a Bedouin tent -- most intensely compelling is Hawwa's memory of her grandmother's ritual mourning over a box holding the key to the house the family abandoned in Lydda.
Hare has memories of his own, of course -- of his own grandmother, who could silence a rooster by dropping a cardboard box over his head. And so this crazy, convoluted story winds in and out, and on and on to an ending that is unexpected, and yet predictable, demanding the same slow, judicious digestion as Hare's remembered exotic, vividly flavored dishes.
For me, it was a feverish journey, with an unanticipated benefit.
Because of my wayward sinuses, I couldn't taste a thing. Airport and airplane food, not particularly palatable to start with, had no smell or flavor at all. And yet, while reading this truly remarkable book, my taste buds were alive.
And oh, that braised Provencal rabbit, with its wine, its bay, thyme and juniper. How great it tasted in my mind.