Andrew Paul WoodThe Catastrophe, by Ian Wedde, (Victoria University Press, 2011) 191 pp., $35.00.
Ian Wedde’s new novel, The Catastrophe, written during his 2009 Michael King Writer’s Centre Residency, begins with Wedde’s protagonist, the fallen célèbre, middle-aged restaurant critic Christopher Hare — (whose motto, ‘food is love’, is inherited from his Italian grandmother back in Tolaga Bay, Aotearoa; his grandfather being Maori) — eating beneath his accustomed station in an infra-dig eatery. Hare writes under the obscure soubriquet ‘Rosenstein’. My first impression was of something not unlike DBC Pierre in Lights Out in Wonderland mode, taking the piss out of the books of Sarah-Cut Lunch … sorry, Sarah-Kate Lynch … and a global legion of surplus foodie novelists. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has turned a hand at the ‘Oh no, the food is just a metaphor!’ genre over the years, for better or worse, from Emile Zola’s florid Le Ventre de Paris (‘The Gut of Paris’) to Günter — ‘what did you do during the war, daddy?’ — Grass’s chewy Der Butt(‘The Flounder’). Most fail to reach the great heights of either of those novels (Eat, Pray, Love anyone?).
Hare’s nom-de-plumed muse, the peppery Mary Pepper — (every food writer, bar A.A. Gill, seems to have one; consider Sunday Star Times restaurant reviewer Geraldine Johns’ grandiose ‘the Duke’, implying her status as ‘the Duchess’) — who is also known as Thé Glacé (‘Iced Tea’). Mary, a London photographer specialising in eroticised images of food and a former junkie, has left him. This, in a perfect storm with the economic downturn, is how Hare — an Achilles sulking in his tent — comes to be chasing mediocre rabbit poached in wine (a pun on his name, presumably) around his plate in a less-than-salubrious restaurant in Nice (where else?).
A mysterious, intriguing woman enters (of course), executes a male diner and his female companion, and calmly departs. For no sane reason, Hare chases after this enigmatic gunwoman and throws himself into the getaway taxi to return the fake Gucci handbag she has left behind in the confusion — a Cinderella assassin with shades of Anna Karenina — as you do. The clichés are knee-deep by the end of the first chapter; but that’s deliberate, I suspect, the presentation of a vaguely noir-ish cinematic vision stirred in with keen observations on the absurd pretensions of foodie culture.
This isn’t a long book — just shy of 200 pages, all written, apparently, over a couple of months — so it fairly cracks on, with Hare in a precarious position as a somewhat complicit, though inconvenient, hostage of his — as it turns out — Palestinian activist captors. The shooter, Dr Hawwa Habash, is a paediatrician (she suggests en passantthat Hare’s alias is a reference to Nils Rosén von Rosenstein, 1706–1773, the Swedish father of the science of modern pediatrics), radicalised by the vile profiteering of Abdul Yassou, her ex-husband, and also the man she has just killed.
The novel’s title is a nod to the Nakbah, the ‘Catastrophe’, as the 1948 Palestinian exodus during the Arab-Israeli War and preceding civil war is known in Arabic. Much of the story consists of reminiscences: Hare’s of a long ago and far away New Zealand, and of Thé Glacé; and Hawwa’s of her experience of the Palestinian tragedy: death, betrayal, the international trade in human organs, arms dealing, assorted crimes against humanity. Genre-wise, I guess we could call this a political novel as well then. This is the thoughtful Slow Food weave — convoluted politics and characters — that counterpoints the binge-like, Kentucky-Fried-McBurger, ‘pacey thriller’ weft in this story.
Mary’s ‘catastrophe’ was her marriage to Hare, a self-imposed punishment resulting from the suicide of her Jewish lover from art school. He killed himself in shame over Israel’s complicity in the 1982 massacres of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. (Not terribly likely, I know, but weird Palestinian synchronicities abound, though unexplained, in the novel.) This all comes out after Hare sends a coded email to her from the safe house where he is being kept, (now implicated and compromised by his strange antics), while she, as self-obsessed and about as sympathetic as Hare, is deciding what to do.
Further Palestiniana includes the fact that Wedde dedicates the novel to the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, whom he became aware of in Jordan in the 1960s, and whose work he has translated in collaboration with the Palestinian scholar Fawwaz Tuqan. Unusually, the novel has a short bibliography, just to remind us of all the research he’s done. Robert Fisk gets big ups, which is suggestive. This isn’t propaganda, but it’s sympathetic and earnest enough to be taking a political risk in some circles: very Victoria University Press, then.
Reminiscent of the endless lists of exclusive brands in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, Catastrophe is a ragoût (noticeably Martin Amis-ish in its self-conscious prose style), liberally slathered with haute-cuisine metaphors, menu similes, outrageous analogies: Yassou’s blood is described as resembling Tomates aux crevettes (a Belgian dish of tomatoes stuffed with shrimps, ew!). Obviously, Wedde is too good a writer to take that kind of tosh seriously, so it must be sarcasm or parody on his part. (Surely.)
Even so, the writing’s tight as a drum; even if Hare’s self-abduction seems unlikely and counterintuitive, rash impulsiveness is not unheard of in the real world. Personally, I find the self-inflicting Hare loathsome and gross — preening, solipsistic, vain, nihilistic to the point of sociopathy — his epicurean self-indulgence repeatedly invoked by descriptions of his sensuous lips, smacking and licking (very Swinburnian) in the face of others’ starvation and misery. This is very much the point, if a heavy-handed one. Hare is fun to loathe; however even Nabokov’s self-regarding and noisome paedophile Humbert Humbert has more depth. For Hare the perfect Cappon Magro (a ridiculously elaborate Christmastide seafood salad from Liguria, no doubt included as a result of Wedde’s professed fondness for Lucio Galletto’s 2008 Lucio’s Ligurian Kitchen) is as significant an issue as the precarious predicament in which he finds himself.
Hawwa is a much more appealing character by far – one of those stylish, polyglot, urbane and intellectual professional Palestinian women in exile – a slightly romanticised cross between Lila Abu Lughod, Nadia Hijab, Ghada Karmi, Huwaida Arraf and maybe a pinch of Edward Said in drag – who very much exist in the real world. I wish she was less of a cipher for the tribulations of the Palestinians than she is. We again experience her memories through food. Early on in the book she bitterly notes that Hare’s book on Middle Eastern cooking was unlikely to contain reference to the UN relief supplies she was forced to live off as a refugee in Lebanon, her otherness (mercifully Wedde avoids the temptation to orientalise too much) signalled by the smell of scorched chickpeas (possibly hummus, that straightforward, unfussy, but delicious staple of Levantine cuisine) pervading the safe house. She is, however, a creation Wedde can be proud of.
While less obviously literary than Wedde’s other novels, this isn’t an easy read either. There’s no spoon-feeding going on — no narrator is reliable, the author makes no direct stands regarding geopolitical history and the personal moral choices of his characters. Wittgenstein believed that all human behaviour was conscious, and therefore a matter of ethics. Wedde (I suspect him of being a neuro-behaviourist at heart) takes the opposite view that sometimes those ethical choices are not always well-thought-through ones, that human beings lose control of themselves at times of great misery. It’s an incredibly difficult novel to review because it is a novel of human illogicality and impulsiveness, the random pointlessness of life and history; and the possibility that it can also be redeemed, made meaningful, by human actions. Wedde strongly implies that we must take personal responsibility for dealing with the outcomes of those irrational impulses. Everyone in The Catastrophe, through the breakdown of humanity and reason, seems to be thrusting themselves into impossible situations from which they cannot extricate themselves: untenable situations that must nonetheless be endured and survived – an exact parallel with the Israeli-Palestinian situation as it is today; a tense, high pressure, ultimately disintegrating stalemate.
That’s about as close as he gets to any moral in the novel. There can be no easy resolutions, no straightforward answers for any of the characters. Hawwa survives with the conditional sympathy of the reader. Hare remains more or less an utter turd of the first water that no amount of polishing could make very endearing. Mary is more problematic, a morally ambiguous figure somewhere between the two. What kind of novel is The Catastrophe then? That’s a very difficult thing to say. The passages of hedonistic glamour, and the Middle Eastern exoticism, and the political thriller aspects belie somewhat its status as a philosophical novel of political, social and existential import. At the same time, the narrative is suffused with liberal pot-shots at the overblown, ultraviolet-lit prose of food writing, as well as plenty of the dark humour — both pure schadenfreude and a specific variety of bleak irony that flourishes in Gaza and on the West Bank. It is entirely possible to enjoy the book on both levels. An intellectually hungry reader will find pleasure in the challenge posed by this concoction from the newly appointed New Zealand Poet Laureate. All in all, I pronounce The Catastrophe one of the better home-grown literary meals I’ve enjoyed in a while.
ANDREW PAUL WOOD is a Christchurch-based writer and arts commentator who contributes regularly to a wide range of publications.