Tuesday, July 30, 2013
The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti
This is not a book about cheese. It is a love story--a cheesy love story, perhaps. Cheese is mentioned, sure, but that story comes early and occupies perhaps 40 pages of the 360. Remember the film version of Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief? It was called “Adaptation”: “A love-lorn script writer grows increasingly desperate in his quest to1…with many self-referential events added2." The script writer had so much trouble making a movie of the story that he spent most of the time talking about how hard it was to put the story into film, therefore ineluctably inserting himself into the story.
Well, this book does that too. Paterniti spent most of his professional career writing magazine articles—short deadlines, lots of travel, and a mass of information to corral quickly or jettison. When his agent asked him if he wanted to pursue a larger story idea he’d encountered—a special cheese made in a small village in Spain—his life and his editors were in alignment that the time was right to take up the challenge. He was given an advance and a deadline.
All kinds of challenges came to meet him. For one, the man who had been making the cheese was no longer in business. Actually, he was bankrupt and contesting several lawsuits. That’s part of the reason why the cheese part of the story didn’t take that long to tell. But cheese was the least of it. This is a book about Catalan Spain, male friendship, disconnecting, and taking time for wine, children, and storytelling.
This book is Paterniti’s ‘telling room.’ By the time Paterniti did the barest minimum required of a journalist writing a story—seeking out both sides of the lost-cheese-factory story—I read it avidly, thirstily. It comes at the end, ironically, a decade or more after Paterniti began his researches, “aging” the story until it was crumbly, Herculean, tasting of flower and dirt and minerals. And pretty darn close to indigestible. The footnotes…
The writing changed direction and went around and around like a word tornado sucking up stray facts, interesting asides, musings, apologies, accusations, justifications along the way. The book editor of this work must have had moments of terrible doubt. By the time the story came into print, nearly twenty years after its conception, technology had changed so much sections of it felt positively dated. But again, this story evolved into the story of a way of life, or men’s lives, or the life of one man…it had been begun and worked on and agonized over and left for dead so many times over the years, it is a miracle it has seen print at all.
Paterniti is a good man, an interesting man. Just begin with an open heart and do.not.think.about.cheese.
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