Book review: Barbery's 'Gourmet Rhapsody' is tasty

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by Muriel Barbery. Europa Editions, 160 pp., $15.

A dying food critic spends his final hours lost in reverie, desperate to recall a sublime flavor from childhood that he believes will yield a profound revelation.

That's the entire plot of "Gourmet Rhapsody," published by Europa Editions as a follow-up to Muriel Barbery's phenomenally successful novel, "The Elegance of the Hedgehog," which was a bestseller in several countries.

"Gourmet Rhapsody" was actually written first and came out in France nine years ago. Now it's been translated into English by Alison Anderson, and although too slight an effort to summon the same devotion "Hedgehog" elicited, it's a quick and entertaining read.

Monsieur Pierre Arthens is told by his doctor that a "cardiac insufficiency" leaves him with 48 hours to live. The book's brief chapters alternate between Arthens telling stories from his colorful past and various characters weighing in on the misanthropic, arrogant gourmand. Many welcome the news of his imminent demise, including his neglected daughter, who recalls her father's "smug laugh," "raptor's gaze" and "imperious gait."

Others offering testimonies about the self-proclaimed "greatest food critic in the world" are his wife, his housekeeper, a former mistress or two, and even his cat and an alabaster sculpture.

Rather than make amends to those he's harmed and disappointed, Arthens is determined only to fulfill his last ambition: "I know that this particular flavor is the first and ultimate truth of my entire life, and that it holds the key to a heart that I have since silenced," he says. Comparing his stubborn yearning with "Proust's abominable madeleine," he admits his nostalgia might be for "some mediocre dish, and it is only the emotion attached to it that remains precious."

That he will expire by the end of the book is never in doubt; the only cliffhanger is whether Arthens will have one more taste of that beloved flavor. He is pompous and selfabsorbed to his final breath, yet his reminiscences on everything from sashimi to mayonnaise reveal his considerable charisma and brilliance - as well as his hilarious vitriol, especially when damning chefs he considers inferior.

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At one point Arthens revisits a divine meal in Tangiers, describing it with an ardor he is incapable of expressing toward people: "The meatballs, grilled with the utmost respect for their firmness, had lost none of their succulence during their passage through fire, and filled my professionally carnivorous mouth with a thick, warm, spicy, juicy wave of masticatory pleasure," he says. "The sweet bell peppers, unctuous and fresh, softened my taste buds already subjugated by the virile rigor of the meat, and prepared them for the next powerful assault."

Even though "Gourmet Rhapsody" is just a tasty hors d'oeuvre to the wholly satisfying entree that is "Hedgehog," it proves worthwhile, thanks to Barbery's witty and evocative prose.

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