Order Take-Out Instead
Review of Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson.
If you like your farce broad and your humor homophobic and ethnic, you might enjoy this feeble attempt at the comic-novel genre. It’s no wonder that Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage in, so to speak, “art”) blurbed this book: Dame Edna, too, has difficulty steering clear of wog jokes and cracks about dog-eating Asians, and Hamilton-Paterson is enthusiastically carrying the tradition forward. Sure, it’s all in good fun (noodge, noodge, wink, wink). What’s always interesting about “I can say anything I want” comedy, though, is that it’s a lot like the so-called “free market.” It doesn’t actually exist because someone always has to pay for it. Along those lines, a really good question to ask about Cooking with Fernet Branca is: Who’s picking up the bill for these jokes?
The novel is (somewhat irritatingly) divided into two voices which narrate alternating sections of the book – the flaming and punctilious Brit expat, Mr. Samper, and his neighbor, Marta, a refugee from a former Eastern bloc country whose inhabitants we are supposed to understand are backward, simple, and prone to involvement in organized crime. Taking turns, they say mean, bitchy, slanderous things about one another. In most cases, Hamilton-Paterson allows the aggrieved party to respond in his or her chapter-length monologues to what the other has said or, at least, to provide information that rounds out the picture.
For example: early in the book, each neighbor speculates about what the other could possibly be doing to earn a living, given that s/he has no talent and is clearly some kind of hanger-on/wannabe/third-rate hack. But then Samper and Marta actually reveal, in their respective chapters, that they have real professions and are practicing them with at least a modicum of success (sufficient to allow each of them to buy a buy house in the hills above the Tuscan coast, at any rate). See how that works? First, catty speculation about the other’s alcoholism/parentage/sexual habits, then an “explanation” that makes it clear how wrongly they see one another. Busybody neighbors getting up to gossip and rumor-mongering. Fun for the entire family, in an entirely trite sort of way.
Only thing is, not every aspersion is countered. Marta, e.g., immediately labels Samper a “dudi,” which one is meant to understand as a slang term in her native tongue that is roughly equivalent to “faggot.” Indeed, Samper serves as the novel’s principal figure of fun. While Marta, in her chapters, manages to come across as a genuine human being, Samper remains a queen, an idiot, and a clown. Ah, but Hamilton-Paterson never actually comes out and has Samper say that he’s queer, does he? If you, Gentle Reader, make that assumption on the basis of the collection of stereotypes that the author has assembled, that can only mean you’re the homophobic one, right?
Well, James, actually not. What it means is that you’re something of a coward as a writer and a bit of a bigot in creating a Hysterical Queen character who never actually gets to respond to (or rise above) the charge of being a “dudi,” and who, in the end, remains no more than that. There’s something slightly venomous, in fact, in the novel’s portrayal of Samper. Hamilton-Paterson gives Marta at least a hint of depth, dimension, and motivation; Samper remains a gay Stepin Fetchit who never claws his way out of the 1950s-ish Quentin Crisp impersonation in which the author has imprisoned him (though Crisp, at least, had personal dignity). Ridi pagliaccio.