Friday, February 10, 2012

The Gourmet (Muriel Barbery)

Hungry to remember the most delicious meal he's tasted, a dying food critic trawls through his memories in Muriel Barbery's The Gourmet. In Pierre Arthens, Ms Barbery brings to life the passion, arrogance, and harshness of a talented mind, told not only through the protagonist's recollections, but also through the thoughts of those around him -- wife, mistress, son, nephew, doctor, servant, beggar, cat.

The Gourmet is a book for the senses. It meticulously recreates details meant to entice the reader, bring her closer to Arthens' world. Taste is a given, of course, since Arthens recounts his favorite meals for that singular moving flavor, but that does not mean that the other senses are abandoned. Consider scent:

'...rub the leaves between my fingers: slightly acid, sufficiently tart with a vinegary insolence... (p420)'

Or touch:

'A sensual dust tinged the pinky copper of the crustaceans with an exotic gold: the Orient, reinvented (p58).'

When Ms Barbery describes (this edition is translated from the French by Alison Anderson), she does not scrimp; she infuses the each page of Arthens' memories with incredible detail. Whether she's talking about bread or whiskey or mayonnaise, the language cannot be faulted.

But what richness and fondness Arthens has about food is certainly missing in his relationships with his family. Told in alternating chapters are the perspectives of the people closest to him, each showing vignettes of the food critic as they knew him. It paints a clearer picture of the dying man, how loved he was or how reviled, depending on whose perspective you take. Here resides anger, loss, and regret.

In the end, when Arthens finally remembers his most delicious meal, you realize that the novel isn't just about the significance of food. It's also about the events that shape our character and the things that we value -- and how these define the life we've lived. The Gourmet is exotic, pleasurable, intense.

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