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Alison McCullochGetting to know Samper is what Hamilton-Paterson's Samper novels are all about, leaving plot as the stage on which to display our hero's brilliant wares. And they are brilliant.
—The New York Times
When we last saw our hero he had taken to his bed in England, his beloved home in Tuscany having inexplicably capsized into a ravine. As Rancid Pansies opens, Samper is recuperating in Sussex at the home of the famous conductor Max Christ when he learns that film rights to his book on Millie Cleat—the one-armed yachtswoman whose inadvertent hari-kari, ...
When we last saw our hero he had taken to his bed in England, his beloved home in Tuscany having inexplicably capsized into a ravine. As Rancid Pansies opens, Samper is recuperating in Sussex at the home of the famous conductor Max Christ when he learns that film rights to his book on Millie Cleat—the one-armed yachtswoman whose inadvertent hari-kari, televised on Christmas day, gave his book an enormous boost—have been sold.
This windfall is sufficient to finance a return to Italy and provide the time to indulge a long suppressed aspiration: writing the libretto for an opera (if only he can find a suitable subject). Before departing, the ever-gracious Gerald insists on preparing a farewell dinner for Max, his family and friends. The meal of liver smoothies and field mouse vol-au-vent is a memory-maker—and the assembled company's gag reflex is one of heroic proportions.
Back in Italy, Gerald discovers that an offhand remark he had made while surveying the wreckage of his house, claiming he and his friends were saved by an apparition of the late Princess of Wales, has found its way into the Italian newspapers. Now, religious pilgrims and curious tourists have erected an ad hoc shrine on what is left of his property. Annoying to be sure, but there is the kernel of a grand idea here. Opera requires romance and tragedy, right? And who more than the People's Princess had such theatrics in super-sized quantities? And, if Princess Diana were to become Saint Diana, think of the promotional possibilities, the merchandising! So fasten your seat belts: it's going to be a hilarious journey with some of the most appealing comic characters and sumptuous writing in recent literature.
The title of this outlandish, hilarious, and brilliant novel is an anagram for the name of a famous British royal personage. The third in the Gerald Samper series (after Cooking with Fernet Branca and Amazing Disgrace), it reads just fine as a stand-alone. Gerry is bored by the sports biographies he writes, but after his house in Tuscany collapses during an earthquake, his career takes a whole new turn. A helicopter pilot suggests that the "Blessed Madonna" kept everyone out of harm's way, and the story keeps spinning and spinning until it becomes the British "Madonna," Princess Diana, who appeared at Gerry's dinner party on that fateful evening and told everyone to leave immediately. The site becomes a shrine to the fashionista, and when a blind child regains her sight there, Gerry realizes that these events are high opera and sets about writing a libretto. The opera makes its debut to great success despite some funny unscripted events. Winner of the Whitbread Best First Novel Award, Hamilton-Paterson is a highly gifted wordsmith who strikes a rich vein of comic talent with this entertaining read. Highly recommended for readers who appreciate British comedy and the workings of an extremely imaginative mind.
Fernet Branca is not a Mallorcan celebrity chef but a bizarre -- and to some, including me, disgusting -- Italian alcoholic concoction purported to be good for hangovers. The proprietary recipe includes rhubarb, aloe, and myrrh. Bitter and aromatic, it is appropriately Gerald Samper's favorite drink. I called him a misanthropist just now, and it's true that his beady eye misses very little of the ridiculous, ignominious, and pretentious in human life. Plant nurseries, for example: "Garden centres have become the new cathedrals of the secular age, combining as they do the worship of shopping with ecorectitude." And yet he can be a generous-hearted misanthropist, perfectly willing to share the fruits of his labors in the kitchen. He's given us Garlic and Fernet Branca Ice Cream and Badger Wellington with Gundog Paté. In this volume he teases us with his Men of Violence appetizers: "Pol Pot Noodles, Somozas, Shin Fein -- a divine junior cousin to ossobuco -- Papa Duck, Kim Jong Eel and my celebrated Mobster Thermidor." Other amuses-bouches include Mice Krispies and vole-au-vents. Misanthropy and gastronomy mixed together can lead to some novel flavors: "Anthropophagy would definitely be a small but decisive gesture towards dealing with the population explosion. We could start by putting environmentalists into the pot.... "Eat up your Greens!" could once again become a nursery injunction."
We first met Gerald in his Tuscan hideaway. Not in Chiantishire but in a far more dramatic and insalubrious locale high up in the Apuan Alps, with only the eastern European émigré composer Marta as a neighbor. He and Marta have a magnetic relationship, although it can be hard to tell at any given moment whether their poles are attracting or repelling each other: Gerald at one point assumes Marta "takes the odd lover prophylactically, much as people put studs in their earlobes to keep the holes from closing." Their interlocking and self-serving first-person narratives form the duet of Cooking with Fernet Branca; I think the duet I have in mind is Rossini's party piece for two cats. Marta disappears for much of Amazing Disgrace, but she is replaced by other musical folk, something alluring in the amatory line, and what is, to that point, the dinner party to top all others -- with a finale even more earthshaking than the Bombe Richelieu in Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?
Rancid Pansies takes up Gerald at a particularly low point: homeless and back in England. This combination leads to a buffo start with an English dinner party that, drop for drop, exceeds that earlier Italian one. After his recent travails, Gerald is hoping to find a new world far from his humiliating hackery, and opera seems to fit the bill. As he says, it's "a scene more in sympathy with my true talents, where serious people discuss serious things like portamento and whether Tito Gobbi was incontinent onstage singing Scarpia to Callas's Tosca at Covent Garden in 1964."
Operas come expensive, but with the kind of serendipity that seems to find Gerald out, the subject of his most recent celebrity bio, the "around-the world one-armed yachts personality" Millie Cleat, has died, providing a financial windfall. Meanwhile, the spirit of Princess Diana seems to be hovering over his former property in Italy. These unlikely continental plot shelves start grinding together and a volcano starts rising from the teeming murk, spewing aperçus and absurdities with all the tender care of Mother Nature.
Comedy really can't run too long, especially high-style tightrope farce. Even Oscar Wilde cut The Importance of Being Earnest from four acts to three. James Hamilton-Paterson has the wit to keep his comedy brisk and short. I experienced few longueurs in Samper's 300-page adventure. I wasn't so keen on the textual interpolations of the other narrator, but as everybody seems to be saying these days, your mileage may vary. The novel ends with two bangs. One concerns Gerald's sui generis opera on the life and death of Diana, Princess of Wales: "surely," he preens, "the only possible operatic subject for Gerald Samper, mischievous tragedian!" Consider the arias: "Don't cry for me, Kensington" and, from a Pakistani beggar girl, "There's not much Versace / Here in Karachi." What should it be called -- Dodi and Aeneas, perhaps? The vagaries of putting on an opera fill the last bit of the book, although things become smoother once "the Di is cast." The opera's a hoot, but since we know Gerald's verbally clever or we wouldn't be reading him, our pleasure isn't really a surprise. The other twist is completely unsuspected: Gerald has a redemptive moment! But I'm not worried. I'm sure Gerald, Samper fidelis, will remain true to himself when he rises again. --Alexandra Mullen
Alexandra Mullen left a life as an academic in Victorian literature to return to her roots as a general reader. She now writes for The Hudson Review (where she is also an Advisory Editor), The New Criterion, and The Wall Street Journal.
Posted February 24, 2009
I Also Recommend:
Gerry Samper is back in his full wacky, inventive, self-deluded hilarity, as he composes an opera about Princess Diana, (the title "Rancid Pansies" is an anagram of her name). A subversive send-up of the cult of celebrity.
Mr. Hamilton-Paterson, please keep the G. Samper books coming!
Posted October 11, 2012
No text was provided for this review.