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Amazing Disgrace, by James Hamilton-Paterson
Fresh farce in the life of an expat who badgers his guests with unusual food
Tuesday 12 December 2006
Walt Whitman said he "contained multitudes". Few contemporary writers could make the claim, but James Hamilton-Paterson can. Gerontius fictionalised incidents from the life of Elgar. Hamilton-Paterson has visited the Philippines for many years, and authored a polemical study of the land under Marcos, America's Boy. And Loving Monsters contained a daring study of same-sex love, which no reader of the earlier books will have expected.
In 2004, Hamilton-Paterson's career took another hairpin turn, as the measured prose of the fiction was utterly transformed. Cooking with Fernet Branca was a comic romp set in Tuscany - or the Englishman's version, Chiantishire. Its narrator, Gerald Samper, lives reclusively in Italy and writes for a living (to his regret, by ghosting sporting memoirs). He bursts into song often, and has a penchant for unusually inventive cuisine.
Politically less incorrect than uncomprehending, he misunderstands and misrepresents the culture he adopts. In Cooking, Samper argued that Fernet Branca, a bitter spirit, was a high point of the Italian dining experience. The transplant's incomprehension is shared by his invasive neighbour Marta, scion of a criminal dynasty from an East European state.
Cooking now has its sequel, the equally brilliant Amazing Disgrace. Marta makes a brief showing, but her place as foil to Samper's snobbery, gaucheness and temper is taken by Millie Cleat, a monstrous one-armed grandmother basking in universal acclaim for having sailed around the world. Her life story, Millie!, urgently needs Gerald's narratorial - and fictionalising - skills. Her abuse of her more cultured accomplice will, we anticipate, lead to her comeuppance. But will Gerald be rewarded with the job he covets: to write the memoirs of a celebrated conductor? Can he sustain his dalliance with the scientist Adrian? Will his guests survive eating "Badger Wellington", the improbable summit of Gerald's culinary ambitions?
Hamilton-Paterson's genius in what must surely become a series lies in the gear-changes in Gerald's accounts of himself. There's room for farce, awful puns (a porn video entitled What - The Butler's Sore?), non-sequiturs and scabrous prejudice. Every reader will laugh steadily. When Samper scorns Britain's "riffraff culture of hooliscraffs and yobbigans with little original to say and scarcely any technique for saying it", you feel he might be on to something.
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