Elza's Kitchen, By Marc Fitten
The cook, her grief, her life and her lover
Sunday 05 August 2012
Marc Fitten's second novel is set, like his first, in post-communist Hungary. Elza, a divorcee in her late forties, is overcome by a deep dissatisfaction with her life in the town of Delibab. Tulip, her successful restaurant serving Hungarian classics, is beginning to bore her and even an affair with her much younger sous-chef fails to lighten her mood.
Fitten takes more than two chapters to describe Elza's ennui and so the story doesn't really get going until chapter three, when Elza decides that a review by Europe's most influential restaurant columnist, the Critic, will put her small restaurant on the map. She enlists the help of her former professors from culinary school and a plan is hatched to bring the Critic to Tulip.
While Elza's desire for change is intriguing, what she actually wants to achieve is left annoyingly vague. She is ambivalent about her relationship with the sous-chef, and refuses his offers of marriage, but is unwilling to be on her own. She opened Tulip because she loved cooking, but no longer spends time working in the kitchen. How a visit from the Critic will change her life is unclear, both to Elza and to the reader.
All the male characters save for a little Roma boy are referred to by their occupations rather than their names: the Sous-Chef, the Dishwasher, the Motorcycle Officer and, of course, the Critic. This lends a fairy-tale air to the story but does mean that the male characters sorely lack depth. Female characters fare better, and the introduction of Dora, an ambitious and pretty young pastry chef, injects conflict into Elza's personal life and into her kitchen.
The author lived in Hungary in the mid-1990s and he uses his experiences to great effect when imagining Delibab (which translates as "mirage"). Its prosperous central district fans out from an old church, a relic from the pre-communist era, towards run-down areas on the edge of town where modern developments might never reach. Not far from her restaurant, Elza discovers a ramshackle cottage where a Roma family lives. The children beg outside her restaurant and harass its customers, while the adults are portrayed as petty criminals. While this is an easy stereotype, Fitten suggests that underclasses exist whether the ruling powers are communist or capitalist. But he doesn't do much more to explore the trauma of a country moving from communism to capitalism.
Fitten luxuriates in describing the luscious flavours of Elza's cooking, from chicken paprika over noodles to the traditional delights of shepherd's goulash, but the novel works best when Fitten introduces humour, such as in the Professor of Meats and the Professor of Sauces' dogged pursuit of the elusive Critic. In the end, the ponderous opening and the lack of focus in Elza's journey make for a light but unsatisfying read.
Game of Thrones
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
- 2 David De Gea: Manchester United goalkeeper's £29m move to Real Madrid off - because paperwork 'not done in time'
- 3 More than 11,000 Icelanders offer to house Syrian refugees to help European crisis
- 4 Pansexual: What is it - and when did the term gain popularity?
- 5 New Apple TV release date and price: streaming box and games console will launch in October
X Factor hopeful Mason Noise: 'How is Cheryl Fernandez-Versini in the music business, let alone a judge on the show?'
Wes Craven dead: Why Johnny Depp owes his career to director’s 13-year-old daughter
Idris Elba is ‘too street’ to play 007, says James Bond author
VMAs 2015: Taylor Swift and her buddy Kendrick Lamar clean-up at awards - full list of winners
James Bond is a 'very lonely, sexist misogynist', says Daniel Craig
Climate change: 2015 will be the hottest year on record 'by a mile', experts say
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
Tony Blair attacks Jeremy Corbyn's 'Alice In Wonderland' politics
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up
Iain Duncan Smith 'should resign over disability benefit death figures', says Jeremy Corbyn
UN investigating British Government over human rights abuses caused by IDS welfare reforms