Lance Cromwell, October 23, 2014 (view all comments by Lance Cromwell)
I loved this book. I've now read it twice, and I loved it more the second time around. This is a book that deserves to be read twice - at least! - because it is so rich, so finely layered that it has more to offer than one could possibly extract in a single exploration of its pages.
What might well be a tiny nightmare for a marketing executive - there is no neat log line, no ten word summary, no one thing this book is - is what I find to be one of its many strengths. It limns a great tale, is a biography (biographies?!) of sorts, a travel narrative... it is about sumptuous, real food and wine, is a fascinating history, and is a story of its own creation. It even finds time to question and ruminate upon Truth and Memory. It contains multitudes. And while some apparently find this to be a problem (the 1- and 2-star reviewers... I don't get it, but to each his/her own), I submit that this is what makes the book a treat for almost anyone, for there is something for just about anyone in these pages, and for many, there is quite a lot. For me, certainly. I will be recommending this jewel far and wide amongst my reading friends and acquaintances. I was truly surprised to see negative or nonplussed reviews, though, again, to each their own. Maybe some people tore through the pages, in Drive-Thru fashion, checking it off the list, without time to digest? Or opened it up and found that it is not a single-serving, cellophane wrapped, bit of processed engineering, and despaired? At any rate, I am encouraged to see that some of the most thoughtful writers and readers out there - George Saunders, Dave Eggers, Susan Orlean, Elizabeth Gilbert - were similarly swept up and blown away by The Telling Room.
One of the truly wonderful aspects of the book, I think, is that Mr. Paterniti so delved into the fabric of the town and the people in this story, that his writing fully reflects the culture that it is about, and as such, the people, town, and story dictate the structure of the book. It is wonderfully digressive, wandering and unfolding like a great conversation in Castile:
"If one had an important revelation, or needed the intimate company of friends, one might head to the telling room, and over wine and chorizo, unfolding in the wonderfully digressive way of Castilian conversation, the story would out. On weekends, casual gatherings might last an entire day and night, with stories wandering from details of the recent harvest to the dramas of village life to perhaps, finally, the war stories of the past, all accompanied by copious wine. In this way, the bodega, with its telling room, became a mystical state of mind as much as a physical place."
Perhaps the author in this instance, is a modern mystic, subjecting himself to the austerity of years of observance, of seeking, without knowing the precise outcome. The book was a long time in the making, and while the author cites times where this was a frustration, and an obstacle to overcome, it is precisely the thing that allowed for so many layers, I think. Had Mr. Paterniti gone to visit and interview and been the soul of efficiency, knocking this project out, in a year, say, he would not have accomplished the depth of reflection and insight that came with a decade's worth of listening, absorbing, and living.
The story begins with a chance encounter with an allegedly 'sublime' cheese - Páramo de Guzmán - but it really takes on life when Mr. Paterniti encounters the Cheesemaker himself, Ambrosio Molinos. A wonderful, larger-than-life character, whose very essence is intertwined with the town of Guzmán as well as his cheese. I'll not take up time and space here to describe the man, for Paterniti has done so beautifully, thoroughly, and respectfully. He comments about Ambrosio:
"And although he loved the village as a parent, he always seemed to be seeing it for the first time, through the eyes of a child.
Perhaps this was his greatest accomplishment. He bent time until nothing was linear. So everything moved in circles, like the seasons. While clinging to the past, he always saw Guzmán as new and necessary. And he made you see it, too."
What was aptly penned in regards to the Cheesemaker, might also be said of the Writer. He may be the parent of the book in your hand (one of them, anyway!), but he comes to the story again and again, with new eyes. And he does make the Reader see it in this way, too. He bends time within the story, dexterously moving between eras, and narrative threads. You see this story, and the people within, throughout many seasons, thereby getting a real look, a true taste.
Borrowing from one of the many, intriguing footnotes in The Telling Room, I quote Carlo Petrini's Slow Food Manifesto: "Against those, and there are many of them, who confuse efficiency with frenzy, we propose the vaccine of a sufficient portion of assured sensual pleasure, to be practiced in slow and prolonged enjoyment."
Three cheers for that sentiment, and for Michael Paterniti's book! I highly recommend reading this wonder, and reading it again (and maybe again), so as to prolong the enjoyment, and absorb all that it has to offer. A huge muchas gracias to Paterniti for giving us such a wonderful, textured book.
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