(Reviewed by Mary Whipple NOV 25, 2008)
“Although [I] entirely lack a soul, even [I] have the occasional white night in which a chef’s panic about running out of thyme somehow takes on a disproportionate and dismal urgency. I’m also reduced to compulsively playing with words¸ which appear in my fevered mind as large white letters on a blackboard that re-shuffle themselves unstoppably. The anagrams take on an aura of spurious significance that fades even as dawn strengthens outside. Thus Lyme Regis is turned to Grey Slime…”
Having won the Whitbread Award in 1989 for Gerontius, a literary novel about composer Sir Edward Elgar, James Hamilton-Paterson has written most recently in a completely different vein--three wild, off-the-wall novels starring Gerald Samper, an aesthete with a love for gourmet food, clothing, and cutting edge social commentary. Samper is, however, something of an ass, a man so self-absorbed and so convinced of the importance of his (as yet undiscovered) “mission” in life that he “lurches from crisis to crisis,” never pausing for reflection. Despite these unsympathetic qualities, however, Samper cannot help but amuse and intrigue readers as he involves us in his whirlwind activities and invites us to join him on the rollercoaster of his life.
In the first of the three Gerald Samper novel, Cooking with Fernet Branca (2004), Hamilton-Paterson introduces Samper and his friends and acquaintances (and those with whom he refuses to associate), creating a novel that is bursting with life and filled with puns, word play, and humor—while also creating a series of repulsive “gourmet” recipes. (Jack Russell Pate and Smoked Cat with Fernet Branca Sauce are particularly memorable). In Amazing Disgrace (2006), he continues the story of Samper, who supports himself by writing books about sports and media figures whom he not-so-secretly scorns, most recently Millie Cleat, a one-armed yachtswoman, who loves the spotlight. When Millie has a fatal accident on camera in Australia, Samper regards it as a blessing, since it permanently removes Millie from his life, leads to astonishing sales of his book, and results in a high price for the movie rights. At the end of Amazing Disgrace, however, Samper has his own misfortune—during his 50th birthday celebration with friends at his home on a Tuscany hillside, an earthquake sends his house plummeting down the hillside, ending as a pile of rubble.
Rancid Pansies continues Samper’s story (though it is not necessary to be familiar with the other works), just as he continues his “gourmet” experiments with unusual ingredients. Hedgerow broth with gently seethed owl pellets, liver smoothies, and Mice Krispies Vol-au-Vent, become the basis for a disastrous meal at the English country house Samper visits after the Tuscany house debacle, giving new meaning to the term “throwing a dinner.” (We should probably be grateful that he did not embrace cannibalism when he contemplated the nutritional slogan to “Eat your Greens.”) And a facetious remark Samper made while being evacuated from the site of his now-vanished home—that Princess Diana had appeared in a vision and warned him and his guests to abandon the house just seconds before disaster struck—has led to hordes of pilgrims descending on his property. A makeshift shrine there soon becomes a grotto, and the local mayor and the comune see the tourist potential for marketing the site.
Marta Priskil (the anglicized name used by the Voynovian composer and former nemesis of Samper, who lives in the house next door) can no longer work because of the noise and distraction. At Samper’s urging, she sells her property to the comune at a huge profit and buys another house, also agreeing to work with Samper to create an opera about Princess Diana, the royal family, and the movement to declare her a saint.
Hamilton-Paterson is too good a writer to rely on low humor like the disgusting food conceit for the entire novel. He delights in poking fun at British pretentions, British life, and even the royal family. His satire takes on added dimensions as Samper travels and comments about the differences between Italy, where he lives, and England where his business interests, and many of his friends, reside. Italy, too, comes in for his satire, especially as Samper must deal with local politics and the permitting process to be able to restore a house he intends to buy.
A great punster, lover of word play, and creator of wild anagrams, including the title of this book (which is also the name of Samper’s opera), Samper (and by extension Hamilton-Paterson) keeps the reader constantly in awe at his never flagging cleverness, even as the “plot,” such as it is, explodes in several different directions at once. His startling use of unique similes and metaphors (elderly, retired nuns described as “midget creatures like worn-out bats,” for example) make Samper’s commentary and opinions about his surroundings a delight to read. Providing perspective on Samper’s life is his British companion Adrian, whose regular e-mails at the end of each chapter update a friend on Gerald’s latest (absurd) fiascos.
When the opera created by Samper and Marta finally has its premiere in England, Hamilton-Paterson gives new meaning to the term “opera buffa,” as the evening turns so hilariously absurd that no pretense at seriousness can be maintained. The opera’s libretto is clever and blackly humorous, the satire of the royals is wicked, and the results are unforgettable. Impossible to categorize, this novel is a series of loosely connected episodes, each more absurd than the previous one, with dark humor, satire, and word play running riot, and the reader hanging on in delight for the wild ride.
- Amazon readers rating: from 2 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The View from Mount Dog (1986)
- Gerontius (1989)
- The Bell Boy (1990)
- Griefwork (1993)
- Ghosts of Manila (1994)
- The Music (1995)
- Loving Monsters (2002)
Gerald Sampler books:
- Flight Underground (1969)
- The House in the Waves (1970)
- Hostage (1978)
- A Very Personal War: The Story of Cornelius Hawkridge (1971)
- Mummies: Life and Death in Ancient Egypt (1978)
- Playing with Water: Passion and Solitude on a Philippine Island (1987)
- Three Miles Down (1990)
- Seven-Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds (1992)
- America's Boy (1998)
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- Wikipedia page for James Hamilton-Paterson
- Guardian UK profile of James Hamilton-Paterson
- Scotsman article on James Hamilton-Paterson
- Guardian UK interview with James Hamilton-Paterson
- Three Monkeys Online interview with James Hamilton-Paterson
- Complete Review on Cooking with Fernet Branca
- Washington Post review of Cooking with Fernet Branca
- The New York Times review of Cooking with Fernet Branca
- Times Onlines review of Amazing Disgrace
- Seattle Times review of Amazing Disgrace
- Independent review for Rancid Pancies
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About the Author:
James Hamilton-Paterson was born in 1941 in the north London suburb of Stanmore, England. He attended Exeter College, Oxford. He is travel writer, memoirist, poet and award-winning novelist. His books have won him a cult readership.
By his mid-twenties, Hamilton-Paterson knew that he wanted to write. In 1966, he took on a job at St Stephen's Hospital in London as a porter and operating room technician to help fund his writing. Between hospital shifts he wrote a children's novel, Flight Underground.
After his stint at St Stephen's, Hamilton-Paterson travelled through Vietnam and Brazil, teaching and writing journalism. In 1968, he was arrested by the Brazilian military in Manáos on trumped-up subversion charges, and later wrote an article for the New Statesman about his meeting with the remnants of Che Guevara's band in Bolivia. The article came to the attention of Paul Johnson, the magazine's then editor, who promptly invited Hamilton-Paterson to join his staff.
In 1979, in what turned out to be one of the definitive experiences of his life, Hamilton-Paterson discovered the Philippines, where he has since spent a third of each year since living in a makeshift shelter on an inlet.
He left England 25 years ago and has shared his time between Austria, Italy, and the Philippines. He currently lives and works in Italy.