mBOOKSm FICTION; Knives out for a scoffing narrator

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The Independent Culture
HERE is a novel that's got everyone talking. More accurately, here is a novel that's got everyone talking about how much everyone is talking about it. Gossip columns have been written about the gossip it's provoked, and press releases translated about its translation into several languages. The author, only human, can't have found the attention unwelcome, but he'd be forgiven for wanting some of it now to focus on his novel. It is, after all, his first book.

It is also, notionally, his narrator Tarquin Winot's first book. "Over the years, many people have pleaded with me to commit to paper my thoughts on the subject of food," Tarquin tells us in a preface, though what they actually seem to have said to him, perhaps not politely, is "Why don't you write a book about it?"

Duly encouraged, Tarquin offers not a conventional cookbook but a series of "gastro-historico-autobiographico-anthropico-philosophic lucubrations". There are, to begin with, detailed and uncontroversial dinner menus for all seasons - spring: omelette, roast lamb with beans, peaches in red wine - and familiarly exasperating demands on the chef ("Take two pounds of assorted rockfish, ideally bought somewhere on the Mediterranean in a quayside negotiation with a leathery grandfather-and-grandson team

His background is roughly what his ornate diction might have led us to suppose: privileged childhood (businessman father, ex-actress mother), much of it spent in Paris; precocious hints of genius; mercifully brief interval at university ("the noise, dear, and the people"); dazzling though suspiciously unspecific "artistic" career; homes in London, Norfolk and Provence. Lest he be thought standoffish, Tarquin confesses that he has always been good at getting on with people, "my natural force of personality winning through the shyness and diffidence of the scholar-artist to make what I feel I am not flattering myself in thinking is a profound impact on those ordinary people it is my lot to meet". Among the ordinary people whose lives he has impacted on are an Irish nanny Mary-Theresa, a Norwegian cook Mitthaug, and an English neighbour in Provence, Mrs Willoughby, all of whom have died in mysterious circumstances.

There is also his brother Bartholomew (Barry, as he prefers to call him), a sibling of small consequence, remembered only for his ungainliness and stupidity, and for fully meriting the casual cruelties inflicted by Tarquin (whose own birth-name, it emerges, is Rodney). The references to Bartholomew multiply as the tale unfolds: much to Tarquin's bafflement and dismay, he is now an artist of some consequence - an internationally famous sculptor, can you believe. Tarquin is consoled by the knowledge of his own greater sensitivity, and by his profound, ground-breaking aesthetic, which he outlines to a young admirer, Laura. This is his theory that an artist should be assessed by the works he doesn't create - that the silent composer, unwriting writer and unpainting painter are the true geniuses of the modern age.

Tarquin calls Laura his biographer, then his "collaborator". She doesn't appear to be either of these, but the honeymoon she takes with her hapless swain, Hwyl, is tied up in some way with Tarquin's own journey - from Portsmouth to Provence, a surveillance manual at his side - in the course of writing his book.

What exactly Tarquin is plotting no reviewer should reveal, since much of the pleasure comes from detecting the various clues shredded through the text. Most readers will get there long before the second great disquisition on aesthetics - a comparison of the artist and the murderer - and find it hard, when they do, not to stifle the thought "Is this all there is to it?" But apart from a nudging parenthesis on page 166, the deferral of gratification is pleasingly done.

As Tarquin would be the first to point out, The Debt to Pleasure would be nothing without its narrator, with his furtive disguises, his horribly undemocratic prejudices, his jauntily self-satisfied punctuation - "(!)" - his preening Francophilia and his infectiously camp, circumambulatory prose. "I could go on," he says, more than once, and he does, all the time. A classic unreliable narrator, whose ruthless hedonism has dulled his moral palate, he is descended from Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, in Lolita. Other, more recent novels also come to mind: the brothers who vie for supremacy in Martin Amis's Success; the love triangle in Julian Barnes's Talking It Over, the archer moments in Alan Hollinghurst's The Swimming-Pool Library. Tarquin is someone George Orwell would have recognised and hated. John Lanchester knows this, and artfully exploits what his narrator calls "an erotics of dislike".

The Debt to Pleasure isn't a sensual family chronicle, like Laura Esquivel's Like Water For Chocolate, nor a humping-and-cooking novel, like Linda Jaivin's just-published, deeply opportunistic Eat Me. Nor is it an anti- foodie novel, since, for all Tarquin's affectedness, readers are likely to appreciate his expertise and share some of his opinions (about the superiority of French cuisine, for example). Least of all is it a prophetic satire, the culinary equivalent of American Psycho.

No, The Debt to Pleasure is short, clever, funny, and (thanks to Tarquin) horribly well-written. It's a book to be savoured slowly at first, then taken at a lick. It's also - safe to say, after all the hype about the hype - an accomplished little first novel.