A finely served dish – Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet

Food has resurfaced as the obsession du jour from localism to making one’s own. Anthony Bourdain certainly has a part to play in this with Kitchen Confidential and the slew of follow on books about the kitchen and food culture, for and against. Tying this in with the apparent, if seemingly superficial in some cases, rethinking of food culture and the ideas of sourcing foods. Ranging from pieces about remaking meals from scraps, left-overs and tight budgets to finding exotic ingredients, ideas of taste and exploration are more prevalent.

Jonathan Grimwood‘s The Last Banquet is, in part, an exploration of this culture and its obsessions. In part it becomes an exploration of a obsessive who becomes knowing of the logical extreme outcomes of this obsession but follows it anyhow.

Jean-Marie is rescued from being an orphan. He understands the world and his loves through taste and food. Less arrogant than his friends and less interested in temporal power, he leads a fairly backwater life. His servants largely ignore him ans he has his own small kitchen to cook the delicacies. His seemingly idyllic life is broken after his wife’s suicide that he covers up. In spite of his best efforts, the family begins to break up and move on its own way. His daughter, whom he thinks might have seen the death, appears to not forgive him and his son is determined to have an adventure as he gets old enough.

Even though he loves his rural idyll, he is aware of the changes happening. When he visits Versailles, the over powering descriptions are of excretions rather than the beauty or majesty of the palace. This vacuum of description is echoed in the one of power. The king does not show any desire to rule or to be present, merely to reap the benefits. In the cracks of the text, Grimwood shows the revolutionary tendency that is growing and the reasons for it. Jean-Marie, despite his official position as keeper of the menagerie, reads this and makes some changes, but even he knows he cannot stem the tide.

King Louis decides that he needs the island of Corsica for the glory of France, and one assumes as a diversion from the failed harvest. Jean-Marie’s friend, who knows that he cannot be persuaded to go for political reasons, tempts him with the search for brocciu, a cheese delicacy that is reputed to be made with human breast milk. After the disastrous campaign and rescue mission after he is taken hostage – in perhaps more honest circumstances than his travails in the palace – he is sent the delicacy even if one is never truly sure of its truth.

Perhaps this is where the book comes into its own. Largely using the first person and focussing so tightly on one person, we can never be entirely sure if the story or the test is true. Told as a diary, with missing timeframes, we are given the truth of the situation from one person. This is never really challenged. We never hear from the children, his wife or his mistress who becomes his wife. We see that he is apparently trying to help his tenants but again we are never truly sure. The reaction from his court friends, one of shock, reinforces the human aspect of what we already know: the power base is out of touch of the country.

Perhaps we see one aspect of the realisation of how out of touch he is when he fends off the potentially unsuitable partner for his daughter. Correctly reading the suitor as a person, he does not see where he will become more dangerous. Seeing the danger too late, Jean-Marie sacrifices himself but ensures that his family are safe, an apparent blessing for the diary that falls into his son’s hands for us.

If the novel explores Jean-Marie’s obsessive food obsession, chasing the exotic and improbable, yet describing it in perhaps humdrum and familiar terms, he encourages the desires of other’s around him. Like the protagonist of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, the novel that this is most likely to be compared to, Jean-Marie tips into stalker territory. His desire, his drive, is so strong that he loses any semblance of balance though unlike Süskind’s novel, this tipping point is acknowledged and even sought after as the familiar falls apart. He does gaze into the abyss but cannot abide it. The world cannot be put back to the way it was and he knows that the reckoning’s price has to be paid in fashion or another.

Instead of becoming part of history, he becomes part of story instead rather than face what might be seen as the true face of the world. He would instead become larger than himself in the stories told about him after his death.

As one might expect of him from other novels, Jonathan Grimwood has created a cunning meld of literature and horror. Using the food culture or obsession, he carves out a way of exploring fractured worlds and creates another interzone. In this novel, it is in time rather than a shifted fantastic space that provides the grey zone of change.The “high” food culture of finding the exotic is shown to be somehow transient in the face of real need. Jean-Marie’s obsessions provide a counterweight to this, providing a keel in the seas of change but all good things must come to an end, as does this novel.

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