Maylis de Kerangal's 'The Cook' Is a Classic Case of Style Over Substance
There is a lot of enjoyable sleight of hand in de Kerangal's The Cook, but ultimately the author fails to engage with the questions it raises.
Maylis de Kerangal
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
In its French original edition, Maylis de Kerangal's The Cook (translated by Sam Taylor) is titled Un Chemin de Tables, which could be loosely translated as "a path of (dinner) tables". I was initially unhappy with the title chosen in English, as it seemed very plain by comparison. But now that I have finished reading the novel, it seems the more precise of the two options: this is no more and no less than the story of one talented French cook named Mauro, from the meals he prepares for his friends as an adolescent, to his efforts toward opening his own restaurant in Paris and then his working experiences abroad.
The simplicity of the story belies the novel's stylistic efficiency, which is frankly amazing. De Kerangal is excellent at writing about food, and the reader is showered with the names of rare and delicious-sounding dishes at every turn, their flavours suggestively rendered by the author's delicate prose. The segments about food alternate with equally well-executed descriptions of streets, restaurants, markets and cities, which are brought to life with impressionistic sensitivity: "Two weeks later, Bangkok is gray, lukewarm, frenetic." The scenes of the story are set with no more than a few brushstrokes, providing colour without ever slowing down the pace.
Though the novel is ostensibly about cooking, I would much sooner recommend this as a guide (or even a model for) the craft of writing. De Kerangal has a real gift for juggling narrative techniques that captivate the reader and make her world feel alive, most notably a mysterious, unnamed narrator who occasionally enters the story as a character and adds a whole new layer of intrigue. There are other examples of the author's remarkable story-telling talents, from the way she slips in extemporary quotations by her protagonist (delivered as though he were being interviewed), to the elegant disquisitions on the "dark heroism" that drives Mauro forward as well as the non-linear transitions backwards and forwards in time.
Unfortunately, what the novel boasts in style, it lacks in substance. The Cook often reads like it's sketching some sort of aesthetic concern through its story, as the styles of cooking that Mauro learns and embraces (or rejects) become entwined with modern lifestyles and ideas. Yet the novel sticks so closely to the simplicity and the linearity of its premise that deeper meanings are only glimpsed and never found.
As importantly, the narrator (or perhaps the author) too often comes frustratingly short of self-awareness. She points out that Mauro "doesn't want to work in one of those new tearooms for cool urban twentysomethings" so as to distinguish him from the millennial-slash-hipster cliché, except that her protagonist is basically the wet dream of any of those cool urban twentysomethings: utterly invested in his professional aspirations, celebrated and revered by his peers, at the centre of the attention of a self-erasing woman (the narrator), and imperceptibly snobbish with regards to the way others eat (and by metonymy, the way they live). De Kerangal writes somewhat patronisingly about Parisian gastronomes as "those show-offs with their smooth spiel, their gift of gab, their poetic speeches", yet The Cook is the ultimate handbook for all of these things.
This sense of superficiality carries over, and more critically, to de Kerangal's engagement (or lack thereof) with the food industry that allows for her story to be told. Mauro's preference for home-cultivated or organic crops appears to be informed by aesthetics at the expense of ethics, while the narrator speaks casually and unproblematically about the use and consumption of such foods as foie gras or veal steak, which are notorious for the cruelty involved in their preparation. There's an obligatory quota of compassion shown towards those employees wrung dry in the restaurant industry, described by the narrator as working 70-hour weeks while paid minimum wage, but this too seems to be given a (somewhat tasteless) aesthetic stamp of approval.
Apparently, such systematic profiteering produces "this silent tension aimed at excellence, a tension capable of organizing the entirety of a team's work, a tension that can make a hierarchy dance, create a complex assembly of rivalries and micropowers that encourage and fight against one another, demand that the employees surpass themselves." Yes, isn't exploitation just beautiful?
There can be no doubt that de Kerangal is an impressively talented writer. I expect she could write a remarkable novel about, say, the beauty of motorcycles, in which she would extol the elegance and the grace of a Harley Davidson, a Ducati, or a Yamaha. But I suppose she would do all that without challenging her readers to consider what these vehicles do to the environment or what happens if you drive one into a tree. When you are ensconced in such disarming romanticism, who needs to bother with responsibility? Not The Cook.
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