A PERFECT RECIPE FOR ENJOYMENT

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 7.11.08
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Kafka’s soup: A complete history of world literature in 17 recipes and Sartre’s Sink: The great writers’ complete book of DIY
By Mark Crick,
Granta, £5.25, £6.25

Parody is never an easy thing to pull off. There is always the danger of it becoming a pale imitation, which shows no respect to the original. This is perhaps one reason why parody is often the best vehicle for lampooning. But there are those rare occasions when imitation does become the best tribute to the original. The two books by Mark Crick, under review here, present parodies at their best. One of them is also a food lover’s and a cook’s delight.

In Kafka’s Soup, as the subtitle to the book says, Crick presents 17 recipes, but he writes the recipes in the style of different authors. Each of the recipes, despite the exotic style in which it is presented, is actually doable and the recipes work. The recipes range from the simple cheese on toast to the more complex sole à la dieppoise or Tiramisu. The interest lies however in how Marcel Proust would describe the way to cook the perfect Tiramisu, or Borges to make the sole or Harold Pinter cheese on toast. An additional bonus is that in the process of narrating a recipe, a story is also told.

This is where joy begins to unfold with the caveat that the reader is reasonably familiar with the writers being parodied. This is how Crick makes Chaucer introduce his tale of the onion tart, referring to other recipes presented by other writers: “Then spake oure Host./ Now have we heard from every which one/ Of our fellowship with recipes to tell, but one./ Maister Graham [Greene, who shows us how to make Vietnamese Chicken], as knoweth many a man,/ Loves best tales of cuckoldry as he kan./ And thou, wife of Bloomesbury, long of face [Virginia Woolfe, of course, who writes the recipe for clafoutis grandmere]/ Right boldly hast thous taken thy place./ God knows well thy stream of consciousnesse,/ For your clafoutis may God you blesse.” In this way, the reader is brought to the cooking of the onion tart. The ingenuity is remarkable.

Take Márquez, who describes the preparation of coq au vin for a man about to be executed. This is how that story begins: “Father Antonio del Sacramento del Altar Castaneda sat in the garden and watched the afternoon die. The darkness had begun to grow as heavy as the heat, and he held off going into the inferno of the house as long as he could. But he had smoked his last cigar and was now unarmed as the mosquitoes enveloped him, and he was forced to retreat into the gaslit interior.’’ Unless told, a reader could easily be misled into believing that this is the beginning of an unknown Márquez short story. The imitation is near perfect, but never obtrusive.

The second book’s subject matter is not as interesting since it is not to do with food, but with household things that need to be fixed. The treatment is, however, as brilliant as in the first book. There is a three-act playlet in the manner of Samuel Beckett in which two characters, Gordon and Connor (Gogo and Coco), two figures on a country road, reflect on a chest of drawers that is before them. Sartre tells his readers how to unblock a sink, but this cannot solve his own existential angst. His account ends: “I throw the clump of hair into the waste bin, unfasten the chain to open the door and begin to descend the winding staircase…At the second landing the lights go out. I stand still, unable to advance, my eyes blinking in the darkness. The small white light of a spyhole shines out in the door before me and then grows dark. Someone is watching, waiting for me to move, but I cannot. I am the Blockage.”

Each piece is a gem, and will make readers of these two books go back to [re]discover the authors parodied here. This is where this apparently light book is a contribution to serious reading.