Dog's Dinner

"You're not loved because you're lovable, you're lovable 'cause you're loved."

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Innocents and not so innocents abroad

I recently finished two books that I'd been reading sporadically over a period of months-- one a work of nonfiction, Heat by Bill Buford, whose Among the Thugs I enjoyed tremendously, the other, fiction, The Boy Who Followed Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, not one of her best (obviously, as her best work is frightfully compelling, almost unputdownable) but Highsmith is like pizza, etc. even when it's bad, it's good. As I was finishing up the Buford (which was a little too cute for me in its New York / New Yorker earthiness at first, but paradoxically became electrifying in its Tuscan finale, which is of course even cutesier, but not in a vulgar and pretentious way), I started thinking about the similarities and differences between the two protagonists, Ripley and Buford-- both are Americans (although I had been convinced Buford was a Brit, dunno why) fascinated with Europe, who go to Europe (Ripley is already long-settled in Europe by the opening of The Boy, but I refer to the series as a whole) to find some kind of authentic experience that's not available back home. Might as well get the inevitable irony out of the way now: Buford becomes an apprentice to an Italian butcher, while Ripley, starting in Italy and moving on through France and Germany, becomes a butcher of men; but his butchery is not an end in itself, rather a means toward the acquisition and then maintenance of something like what Buford finds—an existence more in harmony with Nature, with the soil, the changing of the seasons, making wine in tune with the phase of the moon, working with one’s hands (again, in Ripley’s case sometimes that means strangling, garroting, or bludgeoning people, but more often it means gardening on his estate in France). My point here is not to taint sweet, likeable Buford with the odiousness of Ripley’s crimes, but rather to ask, why? Why do people like Buford and Ripley-- in fact, let’s just say Highsmith, since she herself was an expatriate gardening fiend and more than once admitted that Ripley was a sort of surrogate self—and though she may have been disagreeable in the extreme , no-one accuses her of murder— why do such people have to go to Europe to “become more human” as Buford puts it? (In fact his stay in Italy was only temporary, but he plans to go back every year “until I have no one to return to.”) In Buford’s case the answer seems fairly obvious—Italy is, as an Italian friend declared, “everything connected with the verb ‘to eat,’” and Buford wanted to become a real cook. But reading the book, in particular the Italian section, one senses a kind of metonymy in this desire. It has more to do, perhaps, with a sense of community. As I wrote in this space about two years ago, I feel drawn to stay here (in, admittedly, a part of Europe not much praised for its beauty) partly for similar reasons—the way you know that it’s Easter time when you see everyone carrying pussy willows around, for example. But that sounds as fuzzy-headed as a pussy willow itself.

In other food-related matters, Bush’s monomaniacal obsession with the roast pig to come at his recent joint press conference with Merkel was truly remarkable, in the sense of cringe-makingly idiotic, but at the same time I could sort of identify with his excitement, as I made a point of getting in on some roast piglet action at a local restaurant a couple weeks ago and was quite excited about it—- imagining a jolly mob gathering round the pig, the animal turning on its spit, each carnivore practically ready to fight for his succulent portion. Succulent it was, and served with an excellent couscous-like blend of black and white grains, but served from a tray, with the outline of the body and face visible but barely distinguishable, and the demand was not nearly as frantic as I had imagined. I was particularly eager to check it out after having 1) read Buford’s description of picking up a pig (special-ordered) from his local organic market in the West Village, transporting it home with his scooter, then up the elevator to his apartment (a nearly Hitchcockian sequence) , where he had his way with it over a period of some days; and 2) visited a farm co-op here in Silesia, sort of a re-integration project for recovering and homeless people, where they happen to raise pigs, and where the pigs had struck me with their physical hugeness and psychic acuteness, their anguished eyes and panicked squeals. I wanted to try to practice the wisdom of Alan W. Watts, who in his book Does It Matter? recommended that we meat meat, but always with the mentality that “I love you so much I could eat you!” I wonder how often Bush got to eat roast pig back in Texas, or how often he savors it now at the White House. My guess would be, not that often. I'd wager more synthetic hog fare like rinds and dogs would grace his table much more frequently. But I could be wrong. What about blood sausage? Bush recently read Camus’s The Stranger and there was concern, misplaced in my view, about this sending an anti-Arab message. (The arguments against the term “Islamo-fascism” I consider somewhat more serious and worthwhile.) “The novel that inspired the song ‘Killing An Arab’” (I love that, reminds me, obliquely, of the kind of DVD-box blather that e.g. identifies Ray Milland’s noteworthiness as issuing chiefly from his having appeared in “Battlestar Galactica,” or Noel Coward’s as resting on his participation in "The Italian Job, 1969”)—why couldn’t they have just done a song cribbed from Man’s Fate? Reading the hemming and hawing over Bush’s ninth-period study hall, I couldn’t help remembering the first time I read The Stranger, when I lived with a French family in Rennes and studied at an American school with some French teachers. One Sunday, when I was halfway through the book, my host mother served, instead of the usual bland, starchy fare (often fresh from the freezer), blood sausage. I was squeamish but managed to swallow some, without pleasure. Meursault eats some blood sausage, quite casually, in the book, and I remember tacking on an embarrassing aside about this in a letter to my parents: “I can see how you would want to kill somebody after having to eat something like that!” In June of this year I ate it again at a barbecue here in Poland and, after an initial recurrence of Puritan squeamishness, had to admit that it tasted damned good, in fact better than most other kinds of Polish sausage I’ve had. And now, having cooked it at home a few times, I’m held back from eating it on a daily basis only by health considerations. As Buford notes in his book, we meat-eaters tend not to think about how what we’re eating was once a living creature. But if we must eat meat, I think seeing a little blood can only make us more human.


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