Translated by Anthea Bell
Reviewed by Susan Osborne
Perhaps it’s because many of us in the privileged developed world are living longer these days but there seems to be a little trend for novels written from the point of view of a centenarian bystander, someone who’s rubbed shoulders with those who’ve shaped our world for good or ill: William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days and Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared spring to mind. Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s Himmler’s Cook is another along these lines. At the age of one hundred and five, Rose has decided to write her memoir and she’s got a lot to get off her chest.
Rose makes no bones about other people: she can’t stand complainers as she says from the start. When she’s mugged by a young man calling himself the Cheetah, she suspects he’s from a comfortable middle class home and decides to put the frighteners on him. Rose hasn’t lived through the Armenian genocide in which the rest of her family perished, the horrors of the Second World War when Himmler took a fancy to her, and the miseries of Mao’s Great Leap Forward when she lost her second husband, to put up with being threatened by some young punk, so she does what she always does: takes revenge. Born in a tree somewhere near the Black Sea in 1907, Rose has travelled the world but always returns to Marseilles where she still runs a restaurant, having learnt the joys of cooking from her adoptive mother. She’s a believer in ‘the forces of love, laughter and vengeance’ easing the pain of tragedy by means of her beauty and wit to extract the latter while enjoying the former to the full. Giesbert takes his sassy heroine from her early years in Armenia to her confrontation with ‘the Cheetah’ – aka Ryan – after his second transgression, taking in a good deal of blood-spilling, cooking, lovemaking and adventure, not to mention a surprisingly long passage on sheep castration, along the way.
Rose is a vividly memorable character, announcing ‘History is a bitch’ then going on to explain just why. Her favourite song is The Jackson Five’s Can You Feel It? and she’s a great admirer of Patti Smith. She believes in living each day as if it’s her last, proclaiming ‘rid yourself of self-esteem or you will never know love’ despite her own supreme self-confidence. Well-known names pepper her narrative – Sartre and de Beauvoir regularly dine in her restaurant, Himmler’s bewitched by both her body and her food while Felix Kirsten advises her on how to handle Hitler’s police chief. There’s a surprising amount of knockabout humour amidst the genocidal activities of the various despots she encounters. Altogether an enjoyable romp although Giesbert skates over Rose’s long Chinese sojourn a little too briefly, cramming it into a few short chapters. There’s a lovely description of her adoptive mother that those of us who feel they should read less and get out more will appreciate: ‘she had never travelled further afield than to Manosque, but thanks to the books she read she had lived a full life.’ Quite so.
From Susan Osborne A Life in Books (www.alifeinbooks.co.uk) Never, ever leave home without a book
Franz-Olivier Giesbert, Anthea Bell (translator) Himmler’s Cook, (Atlantic Books, 2016) . 9781782394143, 352pp., paperback.
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