Review: Cooking With Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

Michael Dibdin savours James Hamilton-Paterson's witty recipe for disaster among British expats, Cooking With Fernet Branca

Cooking With Fernet Branca
by James Hamilton-Paterson
256pp, Faber, £10.99

At one point in this wickedly witty novel, the British hack writer Gerald Samper remarks in his campy way that he has been contemplating a personal memoir to be entitled Under a Tuscan's Son. This is one of the best jokes in a book stuffed with them, but it also stands as an authorial statement of intent, for the Mayles of the literary world are clearly in James Hamilton-Paterson's formidable sights throughout. It is indeed set in Tuscany, but in the unfashionable northern tip of the region, far from comfy Chiantishire, and Hamilton-Paterson offers not a glossy commercial for the joys of expatriate life but rather a hilarious farce loosely based on its sometimes melancholy realities, summed up by Gerald's neighbour and co-narrator Marta as boredom, booze and loneliness.

That they are neighbours at all is what sets the plot rolling, for each had been assured by the slimy fixer who sold them their remote houses high in the foothills of the Apuan Alps that the adjacent property was only occupied for one month a year. Both have come in search of total peace and quiet, Gerald to write and mope, and Marta - a classically trained musician from a generic former SovBloc republic with a family to kill yourself for - to compose the soundtrack for a film. Neighbours are always a problem, but in expatriate isolation they can also provide much-needed solace, which makes the situation even more problematic when they turn out to have different ideas about how life should be lived. It is this dynamic that drives Hamilton-Paterson's delicious comedy of errors.

The plot is highly ingenious, completely wacky, and largely irrelevant. What is crucial to a piece like this is tone of voice, and with both Gerald and Marta we know that we're in safe hands from the beginning. While their names might suggest a duel by Edward Albee out of Beverley Nichols, the effect is of a classic Fred and Ginger duet: bitter-sweet and stylish, slightly edgy, expertly choreographed, moving forward at a perfect tempo, and never putting a foot wrong (although Gerald man ages to shoot himself in one of his). Hamilton-Paterson's control is so assured that he can even allow himself occasional moments of lyricism: "The quick white scars left by ships and pleasure craft are obviously some kind of sap or latex that the ocean briefly bleeds when its skin is broken and which hardens almost immediately on exposure to air."

But the subtlest aspect of the book is its underlying theme. It's no coincidence that the Italian words for "strange" and "foreigner" are cognate. Anyone able to gain legal entry to Australia can become an Australian, but however long you live in Italy and however proficient you may be in the language, you can no more become Italian than you can Welsh. Thus foreigners who live there have a tendency to become ... well, a bit strange. In Gerald's case this takes many forms, not least continually singing - very loudly, from Marta's point of view - extracts from imaginary arias whose lyrics consist of the Italian for "Please don't litter" and "See date on base of tin". Having played this game, my only regret is that no space could be found for a personal favourite, the very moving (at least to smokers) "Fumare è severamente vietato, ah!" from Bellini's Norma di Legge.

But the principal icon of strangeness is named in the title. For those unfamiliar with Fernet Branca, it might be described as a syrupy alcoholic liqueur flavoured with what tastes like a mixture of aromatherapy essences and dilute Marmite. In small doses it can be quite effective as a hangover palliative, but no one in their right minds would dream of knocking back tumbler after tumbler of the stuff. Gerald and Marta do it all the time, including lunchtime. It also features in every one of the extremely strange recipes that Gerald cooks up throughout the book. Indeed, there are so many references to the product that one almost begins to wonder if Hamilton-Paterson hasn't cut a promotional deal similar to the one that Fay Weldon did with Bulgari.

If so, the Branca group got a far better bargain. Anyone who does not add this hilarious divertimento to their summer reading list should be put on a forced diet of Gerald's inimitable Alien Pie, consuming which, he tells us, is "one of those experiences poised exquisitely between sorrow and oblivion". I cannot reveal all the ingredients without spoiling the end of the book - not to mention your appetite - but smoked cat and paraffin are among them.

· Michael Dibdin's latest Aurelio Zen mystery is Medusa (Faber)


Michael Dibdin

The GuardianTramp

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