Tag: Book reviews

Karen Blixen’s Babette’s Feast: deceptively simple Scandinavian wisdom

Karen Blixen’s Babette’s Feast: deceptively simple Scandinavian wisdom

Karen Christenze von Blixen-Finecke had a complicated  but colourful life. Reared in a conservative monarchist family in a stately manor house on the outskirts of Copenhagen, she fell in love with some kind of a dashing equestrian, but, rejected, married his rogue twin brother instead. Then, fate threw her to a coffee farm in Africa, where she experienced financial ruin, infidelity, illness, death of her second big love, and a disgraced return to the native shores. And then there was war, and another war, and a sprinkling of successful books under various pseudonyms like Tania Blixen (for Anglophone audiences) and Isak Dinesen (for German-speakers). At the zenith of her literary fame, Blixen journeyed to the United States where, as a bona fide aristocrat, she subsisted on oysters, grapes, and champagne while giggling up a storm with the likes of Marilyn Monroe…

But before all those accolades there was the mysterious French Babette, a culinary therapist, a dark-eyed saviour of prudish Norwegian spinsters, and overall a much-beloved character of Blixen’s Babette’s Feast, immortalized on screen in an 1987 Academy Award laureate.

At forty pages of literary minimalism, Babette’s Feast is not to be underestimated, for it takes a mightier writing muscle to craft something meaningful laconically than it does through flowery diarrhea of verbosity. And so, in a simple story of a French refugee thanking her pious Norwegian hosts, the reader learns that 1) excess asceticism is not necessarily the truest path to righteousness and God and 2) when spiritual and corporeal realms are well-nurtured one gets the purest Nirvana.

“This woman is now turning a dinner at the Cafe Anglais into a kind of love-affair of the noble and romantic category in which one no longer distinguishes between bodily and spiritual appetite or satiety.”

Karen Blixen, Babette’s Feast

Babette, fleeing from the bloodbath of French Revolution, finds safety in the kind of place where split cod and ale-and-bread soup are the height of culinary sophistication. She is taken in by devout ecclesiastics who renounce the pleasures of this world, “for earth and all that it held to them was but a kind of illusion, and the true reality was the New Jerusalem towards which they were longing.” There is kindness here, true, but a lot of reservation. Open affection is scant, but regret is bountiful, and the scales ever more tip in its favour as wrinkles and grey hair make their inevitable advances.

Babette unwittingly throws a flaming Molotov cocktail right at the heart of this stoic philosophy by spending her entire fortune of a very lavish and very French feast for her benefactors and their uptight friends. There’s the fabled turtle soup with Amontillado sherry, Blinis Demidoff with Veuve Cliquot champagne, quail in puff pastry with foie gras and truffle sauce, and numerous other luxuries to impress even the toughest critic, let alone Babette’s unsophisticated guests. With each spoonful, with each glass of effervescent refreshment, their eyes glow brighter, their hearts beat louder, and all those putrid lumps of guilt, shame, submission, and denial melt away. They eat their way to God and emerge, with the last sip of their digestif, innocent like children.

There are clearly common themes between Blixen’s Babette and a 90s novel by Joanne Harris Chocolat (and its successful same-name film adaptation with the immaculate Juliette Binoche). Other adorably saccharine genre buddies such as Ratatouille or Julie and Julia also hammer home the same universally palatable thought – there is something patently magical about food, some artistry that leads to redemption, salvation, or at the very least self-actualization to be found at the tip of that brimming ladle.

Image: A still from Babette’s Feast film adaptation (1987).

Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: A love sonnet to literature and all its students

Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: A love sonnet to literature and all its students

A long, pained decade of crudely administered austerity medicine after the global financial apocalypse of 2008 has left opulent scars on academia. Fewer students today choose to embark upon the study of humanities and, specifically, literature, than ever before in history of democratized access to education in the West. Countless pearls of our common literary heritage are lingering untasted and untested, all the while the increasingly dwindling number of PhDs, associate profs, fellows, and other knights of assorted regalia continue firing off essays, articles, and books that even fewer leaf through. It’s bleak and it sucks, and while the fine craft of belles lettres is ghosted by policy-makers who robotically herd the young’uns into science, tech, engineering, and maths, we’ve got Elif Batuman, her golden feather pen, and the kind of unwilting love of literature that makes one miss grad school with its all-nighters, caffeinated seminars, ulcers, halitosis, and overdue library books.

Elif Batuman takes us on a journey of her Russian literature studies, with some quintessentially academic self-congratulatory circle-jerking, plenty of beautifully phrased intertextual tapestry of Tolstoy, Babel, and Dostoyevsky, and a curious passeggiata through mythical Uzbekistan (birds, melons, and Timurids galore). In an inadvertent nod to the hilarious father of the campus novel genre David Lodge, much of all this literary analysis with the side of Derrida is steeped in a grad school cocktail of beer-cigarettes-infatuation. Like billiard balls, these academic pilgrims stumble into bits and morsels of knowledge, beautiful and fragile, holding it “like a Christmas ornament without a Christmas tree.” Not in vain:

“If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.” 

Elif Batuman, The Possessed

In order to find these answers, Batuman’s character first needs to answer the two fundamental Russian problems (“What is To Be Done?” and “Who Is To Blame?” of course). She also has to figure out, after all these linguistic, literary, and logistical acrobatics, What Is Russia? Sadly, she never does, her gaze always already corrupted by the kind of apologist lens Nabokov himself would get pissed about when confronting some Oxbridge Russophiles who waxed poetic over Bolshevism. It’s all fun and games when your character dreams about playing tennis against Tolstoy, but when it comes to truly unpacking the toxic sediment of imperialism, colonialism, and a plethora of other -isms of the Russian Empire/USSR, The Possessed bashfully skirts around the hard stuff, and traipses away. Maybe next time. As such, the original question still stands very much open, even after some very sincere epistemological exercises:

“I became aware of a deep flaw in my understanding of the world and human knowledge. I had previously thought of knowledge as a network of connections that somehow preserved and safeguarded the memory of what they were connecting. But of course it was only people who remembered things; words and ideas themselves had no memory.”

Elif Batuman, The Possessed

Words and ideas have no memory? The entire field of etymology (along with millions of post-colonial peoples of this planet) beg to differ. One shouldn’t fault Batuman’s character too harshly though. She is, after all, a student (and a bloody good one), passing the flaming torch to the next generation of curious spirits with appetite for learning and love of beauty. And that’s the point.

Image: Portrait of Tolstoy and Wife by Ilya Repin

Amara Lakhous’ multicultural Italy, or how to be suckled by Rome’s wolf without getting bitten

Amara Lakhous’ multicultural Italy, or how to be suckled by Rome’s wolf without getting bitten

Do you think yourself civilized enough to use an elevator? And how about pork – would an image of a genuine Piedmontese piglet with a Juventus scarf encircling its lovably rotund head evoke any particularly strong emotions? These are not some extravagant conversation ice-breakers. These are litmus tests for racism, identity, and belonging, intermittently passed and failed by a flavourful assortment of characters inhabiting, by birthright or through labyrinthine journeys of immigration, the merry chaos of Amara Lakhous’ two thrillingly playful novels. Straight from the titles, we know we are about to seep through an alluring oyster shell crack of contemporary folklore : Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet and Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio.

Inside, it’s a veritable cornucopia of sights, smells, languages, and people, a pungent stew of stories and places peppered with satire, melancholy, and drama. Calabrian matriarchs, Albanian and Romanian mafiosi, a sagely madame from Casablanca and a pizzaphobic cook from Shiraz – all of them scale the walls of the Eternal City, their knees scraping against millennia of brutal and glorious history. Moscow does not believe in tears, but Rome doesn’t believe you period. Like an eye-rolling auntie, Rome has seen it all. It may permit some nomadic urchin to suckle from its live-preserving teat, but that’s not a ironclad contract. Rome is forever. Its deals? Ça dépend:

“By now I know Rome as if I had been born here and never left. I have the right to wonder: am I a bastard like the twins Romulus and Remus, or an adopted son? The basic question is: how to be suckled by the wolf without being bitten.”

Amara Lakhous, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio

As the Old World clumsily dances around racial and ethnic tensions, Lakhous breaches these dynamite themes with candour and satire that work. Too often in contemporary fiction these topics are stillborn, suffocated by unhelpful sanctimoniousness, their death only accelerated by political urgency (especially in contemporary Italy, with . Everyone rushes to talk about the vibrancy of multicultural life without stepping back and giving space for said life to bloom. In steps Lakhous whose characters are not sieves for political themes. They are their natural engines:

“I know a proverb that the Italians often repeat: “Guests are like fish, after three days they stink.” The immigrant is a guest, no more or less, and, like fish, you eat him when he’s fresh and throw him in the garbage when loses his colour. There are two types of immigrants: the fresh ones, who are exploited inhumanly in the factories of the north or the agricultural lands of the south, and the frozen, who fill the freezers and are used only in an emergency.” 

Amara Lakhous, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio

After an entertaining merry-go-round of the novels’ city life scenes, the reader is not sated. The Piedmontese piglet is saved, the baddies meet their just desserts, and life goes on, with cornetto or with kubideh kebab, no matter. A Fellini sunset. We still don’t know though what to do with this identity problem of ours. Perhaps, after all that’s been said and eaten, it’s not a problem at all.

“It’s marvelous to be able to free ourselves from the chains of identity which lead us to ruin. Who am I? Who are you? Who are they? These are pointless and stupid questions.” 

Amara Lakhous, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio

Image: Artnet.

Wang Ping’s American Visa: Unsentimental truth, from Shanghai to New York

Wang Ping’s American Visa: Unsentimental truth, from Shanghai to New York

“I have a green card. This piece of paper,” he tossed it in his hand and said, “has ruined two people. Sometimes I really want to tear it to pieces and go home.”

Immigrant narratives are the Zeitgeist as our little blue planet spins ever faster and international travel expands like rising dough, making space for all those Airbuses, stuffed to the gills with vagabonds, conquerors, and dreamers. Citizens of the world. Explorers. Settlers. Survivors. Since times immemorial folk has been on the move, dragging their suitcases and ghosts of their past along with them across consulates, embassies, and border checkpoints. They search for fertile lands and better job markets, they seek book deals and Western boyfriends, they endure bedroom cockroaches and subway groping, but at the end of all this gargantuan sacrifice they have no problem taking out the lacklustre treasures nesting in their modest savings accounts and distributing them among relatives “back home.” To pay for weddings, or pianos, or a new baby, or grandmother’s birthday. It’s tough to ignore the calls of “back home,” that guilty teasing of prodigal child’s heartstrings, that omnipotent umbilical chord that ties a soul to its cradle and simultaneously to its grave.

In American Visa, her debut novel that came out in mid-nineties, way before the kind of glamour we see in Crazy Rich Asians, Wang Ping delivered, in tough-as-nails prose, a pained, honest, and uncompromising account of a young woman coming to New York with callouses tempered by Cultural Revolution. Seaweed, with pigtails and maple leaf-shaped scars on her armpits, is labouring to escape a great many things. Hard menial work in the countryside, humiliation of communist “re-education,” unfeeling parents, sibling rivalry, and insurmountable burdens of duty to totalitarian State and totalitarian Family. Strategically crucified right at the intersection of regime and tradition, Seaweed is equally abused and dismissed by both forces yet serves them with exemplary devotion, a model citizen and daughter, a Stakhanovite Cinderella with only a duck and a hen to call friends. No, this is not magical realism, this is proletarian noir.

There is yet another dimension to consider – a place for a woman in a society aggressively shedding thousands of silken layers of its rich heritage. Seaweed’s sisters, aunts, mother, grandmother, female students and colleagues, all weave the tapestry of their own unique suffering, shamed, judged, humiliated, abused, betrayed, and abandoned. Their feet are too big, their armpits too malodorous, their libidos too high, their relations too poor. They shed tears of self-pity as they drive daggers of treason into their sisters’ chests, for all is fair in love and war. They wait, like Penelope waits for Ulysses, for their husbands to come home, for their American visa to get approved, for their mothers to say they love them, for their daughters to see that they love them. Some cannot endure the wait and run away to Japan or to Germany or hang themselves. Those lucky enough to experience the throbbing rhapsody of the New World are, alas, too wise (or too wounded) to be seduced by the Pied Piper of the American dream:

“English, eh, English?” She asked, waving the orange book fanatically under my nose.

I nodded, half scared, half fascinated by the feverish look in her eyes.

“Success, success,” she screamed. Although I could tell she was trying her best to soften her voice. “This book, American dream, success, rich and famous, you.” She thrust the book toward my chest.

Se mun, se mun, cheap, on sale, American dream, success, rich and famous, only se mun, just for you.”

It took me quite a while before I realized what she was doing. She had learned to say the price in Cantonese: se mun – ten bucks. She had quickly identified me as a new Chinese immigrant, and assumed that I spoke Cantonese.

I burst out laughing. This was too much, too bizarre, a white American selling the American dream in Cantonese and broken English to a poor Chinese woman. She took my laugh for encouragement and grasped my wrist.

”Yes, American dream, have one.”

There is little joy in this book, and love, like lipstick and Beethoven sheet music, is perpetually in deficit. There is some warmth, however, and, above all, strength of one seemingly unremarkable woman to win her very own corner under the sun. And this kind of strength seldom asks for embellishment.

Image: Hiveminer