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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

"The Last Banquet" by Jonathan (J.C.) Grimwood (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)




"Jean-Marie Charles d’Aumout is many things. Orphan, soldier, diplomat, spy, lover. And chef. This is his story. We meet Jean-Marie d’Aumout as a penniless orphan eating beetles by the side of a road. His fate is changed after an unlikely encounter finds him patronage and he is sent to military academy. Despite his frugal roots, and thanks to it and courage in great measure, he grows up to become a diplomat and spy. Rising through the ranks of eighteenth-century French society, he feasts with lords, ladies and eventually kings, at the Palace of Versailles itself.

Passionate love, political intrigue and international adventure abound in Jean-Marie’s life, but his drive stems from a single obsession: the pursuit of the perfect taste. Three-Snake Bouillabaisse, Pickled Wolf’s Heart and Flamingo Tongue are just some of the delicacies he devours on his journey toward the ultimate feast.

But beyond the palace walls, revolution is in the air and the country is clamouring with hunger of a different kind."

As the first foray in the historical fiction arena of noted sff author J.C. Grimwood, The Last Banquet was a must novel for me. On finishing it, I immediately thought that it generally met my very high expectations as the novel had great moments and overall hang together well, but its episodic character and "outside observer" mostly emotionless first person narration stopped it from being one of those truly memorable novels that one would read many times. On the other hand a few days after reading it, I felt compelled to reread it, so The Last Banquet may actually turn out to be one of those novels that stay with me for a long time...

The story is simple - poor and orphan but of noble blood, Jean Marie d'Aumout is lucky to be noticed by the passing "Regent", the former ruler of France and his retinue who send him to a school for poor nobility and later to an officer academy.

Jean Marie has a very unusual sense of taste and experiments with lots of strange recipes - some could be disturbing to some as they involve cats, dogs, bats, rats, beetles and even various human products - while he makes friends with rich bourgeois Emile Duras who sort of follows his coattails and gets to study and hang out with the higher nobility without being really accepted, and two young noblemen, Charlot, Marquis de Saulx and heir to the famous Duke de Saulx, a long ago protege of the Sun King, and Jerome Vicomte Caussard who is more conniving and later becomes part of ruling elite behind Kings Louis XV and XVI.

Jean Marie gets the girl - you'll see soon who obviously - and the money and becomes quite famous on his own as a sort of natural philosopher and connoisseur, but life with its joys and sorrows goes on, showing that getting the girl and the money may not be quite enough or the happy ending one usually sees in books.

For me the beginning parts and then the ones when in his 50's, Jean Marie gets involved in the Corsican adventure of 1768-69 were the highlights, though each episode from his life has its moments.

"He laughs, as if at a joke, and asks what I know of Corsica, laughing again when I tell him the national dish is brocciu, a ricotta-like cheese made from goat’s milk. And the island is famous for the quality of its ham, which is made from pigs fed in winter on sweet chestnuts and grazed in summer on the maquis, the wild herbs of the Corsican uplands.
‘You’ve read Diderot’s encyclopedia.’
‘I wrote that entry.’
He glances around him. ‘You understand the encyclopedia is banned?’
‘I understand the king has his own set, as did la pompadour. No doubt you have copies of your own.'
‘That is beside the point.’..."

While being of the nobility and staying true to it till the bitter end of 1789, Jean Marie always notices the poor and their hatred of his class, clinically and occasionally compassionately as he tries to be a good master, but without the least bit of sentimentality or belief that if the storm comes, the end result will be much different than what came before:

"Court politics have long since ceased to have any interest. Those I leave to Jerome and Charlot. And the kind Emile once practiced? They bore me. Emile’s friends don’t want to open the cage and return the animals to the wild, they simply want to change who owns the zoo"

A tiger stars also as the cover indicates, while Ben Franklin makes quite a memorable appearance and if Jean Marie sounds a bit too modern on occasion, his 18th century France is recreated superbly.

‘I’m not sure the people can cope without the idea of God,’ I told him. ‘Without spiritual heights to which they can aspire, like young men looking at a rock face and daring each other to climb. If we abandon our belief in God we become God and take his powers.’
Emile laughed. ‘Don’t tell me you’ve started to believe?’
I stared at him. ‘I’ve always believed.’
‘In God the father, God the son and God the holy ghost?’
‘Of course not. But in something. We all have to believe in something.’
‘If we don’t . . . ?’ He let his question hang.
‘We start believing only in ourselves.’
‘Belief in God is the cause of war, superstition, irrationality . . . And has been the cause of those since time began.’ What Emile spoke was treason, and if not treason, then certainly blasphemy, but I’d heard it from him so often it barely registered. He was hunched forward, knuckles white around his wine glass from where his fists were clenched, like a boy trying to make an impression on the classroom. As he’d been when I first met him, a lawyer’s son sent to live among the children of impoverished nobles.
‘Without God the wars will get even worse.

Highly recommended.

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