by Isabel Allende, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden
Flamingo, pounds 20
In "certain rural areas of Great Britain", Isabel Allende reveals in this "mapless journey through the regions of sensual memory", the bored and frustrated girl or housewife makes use of an age-old spell or recipe in order to trap the "elusive lover" who is denying her the gratification she craves. She "kneads flour, water, and lard, sprinkles the dough with her saliva, then places it between her legs to endow it with the form and savour of her secret parts". She puts the concoction in the oven, and when it is baked she offers the bread to the "object of her desire". I am curious to know which particular "rural areas" are noted for this arcane practice, but Isabel Allende - a tease if ever there was one - is typically vague on the subject. I can only say that the next time I sit down to a cream tea in Devon, I shall be on the look-out for the vulva-shaped loaf that might be my undoing. Safety in scones is of the essence.
"Everything cooked for a lover is sensual," Allende declares, "but it is even more so if both take part in the preparation and seize the opportunity to naughtily shed a garment or two as the onions are peeled or leaves stripped from the artichoke." Allende's mother, Panchita Llona, who supplies the recipes that occupy the final pages of Aphrodite, shares her daughter's belief in the aphrodisiac properties of that tasty thistle. "Artichokes stuffed with the pulp from the leaves are very erotic," the saucy Panchita observes, with Isabel's blessing.
Erotic, eh? Let me advise the gullible reader to the contrary. Some years ago, in Rome, my lover and I feasted on chicken breasts with carciofini, the baby artichokes that are one of the culinary delights of the Eternal City. (The Allende style is catching.) We strolled back to our hotel, where we had been given the camera matrimoniale, and "naughtily shed" our clothes. Soon after, the first fart of the night was sounded. Another quickly followed. We went on serenading each other in this fashion until dawn. Some of Panchita's and Isabel's recommendations should be taken with - well, a pinch, or even perhaps a sack, of salt.
Since I have never drunk the urine of a virgin, I cannot argue with the author when she asserts that the potion is likely to bring on libidinous feelings. It is common knowledge that Sarah Miles regularly consumes her own pee to keep her complexion shiny, and it is safe to guess that Aleister Crowley probably knocked back a pint or two in his heyday, but I have yet to encounter anybody prepared to admit to a penchant for this speciality. Along with the "paws of koala" and the "eye of salamander", it is, she says, "on the endangered list".
Bulls' testicles, however, are readily available, and in the section entitled "Aphrodisiac Cruelties", Allende describes how she boiled the balls in salted water and waited for them to cool. She peeled off the skin, diced them "so fine they can't be recognised for what they are", and mixed them with chopped onion, fried minced calf's liver and bacon, as the 18th-century "erotic cookbook" she consulted suggested. She seasoned the ingredients with rosemary, cinnamon, salt and pepper, and added a "thick wine sauce". The resulting dish, she writes, resorting to italics, was awful. Thanks to Isabel Allende, I shall decline the offer of cojones when I next visit my friends in Madrid.
Aphrodite is a lavishly illustrated book. The paintings, drawings and general design are the work of Robert Shekter, without whose "humour" and "wisdom", Allende confesses, she would be a "straight-laced grandma writing tragic stories". Under Robert's gentlemanly influence, Allende is displayed here in coquettish mode, with the requisite nudge and wink on almost every page.
Thus: "There are people who collect catalogues of intimate apparel, and there is a flourishing market for used undergarments to satisfy the needs of certain fetishists. Recently, through an error on the part of the mailman. I received a pair of Madonna's panties in discreet brown-paper wrapping. I didn't know Madonna wore such things." You know now, don't you, Isabel? Strange, isn't it, that the panties belonged to Madonna, and not Mrs Bloomstein?
Elsewhere in the rambling text, she tells us, archly: "I find it impossible to keep anything in my mouth for more than a few seconds. I'm referring to food, of course. I have more patience with other things." Such coyness, Isabel, as the poet might have said, is a crime. Which "other things" do you mean? Come on, out with it, so to speak. You're a big girl, after all, on your own admission. And what is the "occasional mischievous game" you play with the avocado, when you aren't occupied with "tragic stories"? It's naughty of you not to be specific.
But then, Isabel - despite being colossally famous and endlessly self- referential and reverential - is quite a lazy scribbler. The most obvious quotations from Shakespeare elude her ("Shakespeare has a wonderful line about it, but I'm sorry, I couldn't find it") and she seems not to be aware that Tom Jones ("That wonderful English comedy of the Sixties") is by Henry Fielding. The Porter in Macbeth is called a "second", whatever that is. When dropping a line from one of her own Mrquez-and-water novels, she exhibits the proper respect and care she denies the greatest writer in English. Her translator, Margaret Sayers Peden, should have corrected these errors and omissions.
Robert Shekter, whose "scientific" mind kept Allende from indulging in too many fictional fantasies, is an "immovable vegetarian". Robert is an old man now, but he's still up for a bit of fun. Once in a while, Annette - "the woman of his erotic dreams" - comes to visit, and Robert invariably prepares the same meal of stewed aubergines, peppers and tomatoes for her delectation. He "fries the eggplant in olive oil for five minutes as he hums 'O Sole Mio'". He sets the casserole on a low heat. "While it's cooking, he showers, puts on his best shirt, and welcomes Annette with a rose between his teeth." Ole!
Carmen Balcells, "the world's most famous literary agent", is also involved in this bizarre undertaking. Carmen enjoys hosting "orgies", during which she serves a "robust" soup containing a pig's foot, a ham hock, veal, pork sausage, a turnip, a carrot, a couple of leeks, and much else besides. Carmen's "bacchants" must have exceptional constitutions, if they can still perform after a bowl of something that "raises a sweat on your eyelids and awakens your basest instincts". According to Allende, the soup will "revive the passion of the most world-weary". I keep remembering those Roman artichokes, and have my doubts.
I have to say that I enjoyed reading Aphrodite. It's a preposterous compilation, a whole arch world away from Allende's "tragic" fiction. I love it for the rhetorical questions that are scattered throughout: "Is your lover an impenitent fisherman?" and "Is there anyone who hasn't made love after a preamble of caviar and icy vodka?" Isabel Allende, we learn, has no head for wine, and will remove her clothes if given access to the bottle. Future hosts have been warned.