Novel, Fiction LTD series, Polirom, 2017, 256 pages
The novel tells the story of a magic recipe book and a family of adepts of the great Sator, Set in the Bucharest of the Phanariot princes and the Enlightenment, the story slips imperceptibly between real events of the year 1798 and the mysteries of a cult of magicians whose culinary inheritance brings to light the flavours of archaic life and the refinement of a magical cuisine. The recipe book of the title contains fabulous dishs from a forgotten medievaldom. Fried cockchafer beetles, crumilla cum animis, rose pies, elixirs of love and the liqueur formicosus are only a few of the enchanted concoctions that drive the threads of the narrative towards its grand and satisfying finale.
I. The red cork
At the crack of dawn, Maxima was taken out into the square under the gaze of the scavengers sweeping around the Walachisches Tor. I knew what would follow. I gathered a few things and left by the back door. The butchers carrying their beef carcasses passed by me without a glance. I walked quickly to the end of the street. All around it was deserted, although I could well imagine that there were eyes pressed up against all the net curtains. When I got to Burchioiu’s house I realized that I couldn’t simply walk past, especially as the wind was blowing on the veranda and the door seemed ajar. Had I had the strength of spirit, I would have cut his throat. Burchioiu was in a deep, dreamless sleep. I tarried for a minute, my only care being that I might lose something, one of the many small things that I was attached to. All my power was contained in my yellow dress, which Maxima had made for me from nankeen and velvet, with pockets, flounces, and cuffs enough to hold the contents of a whole chest. What did I not have tucked away in that dress! Salts, seeds, and powders, little phials of amonitum under oil, aqua phosphori, the flower of death, and so many other things that a lifetime would not suffice to tell of them all. And I never went anywhere without my little box of saltpetre, in which thousands of sparks lay dormant.
I ran to catch the braşoveancă, caring nothing for the eyes that followed me. Even if I had gone at walking pace, anyone could have told that I was fleeing.
Any flight has the taste of sin about it; it turns you into a beggar. Whoever said that running away is a healthy thing was never a fugitive, only a watcher from the edges. My flight looked like a stain of phlegm that I could never wash off. Anyone could see it on me; every word I spoke was kneaded in it. But at that moment, faced with the threat of the guards and with the memory of Burchioiu fresh in my soul, it seemed to me that flight was the only way and the diligence my salvation. Indeed I even saw myself pushed from behind by Sator, convinced as I was that my grandmother had made him my protector.
The diligence floated through clouds of dust, raised by the breath of Sator, and I dreamed of the moment when I would find comfort in the embrace of my dear old uncle, in the city of my childhood and of all my dreams, dreams that still flowed from the memory of Maxima, even beyond the grave. Zaval, she used to tell me, was the most important man in the city, and all the world revolved around our houses. We were the only people that counted. And when I say ‘we’, I mean Maxima, Zaval, and only in the third place myself, taking consolation from the thought that I already had a brilliant future reserved for me. No thought of mine ever flew out to the rest of the world. The others, the people who populated the city, bustling about in the streets, proud of their houses or their carriages, were all without any value. They did not know of the existence of Sator; they could not see where life really moved. They were no more than shadows, which I could have wiped away by raising a finger. But first I had to get to our houses, and to find the other Satorini.
That torrid autumn, no one was talking about anything except the abducted cook. Every time should be judged by the events that set it alight. If I ask myself now what I remember from that autumn, it is the cook that comes in first place.
The Turks themselves showed no desire for this throne, but were content to sell it to the Greeks and, of course, since they took care always to keep it occupied, that meant another four hundred bags from one of their subjects, plus gifts, gold watches, furs, and in general fine quality items, the sort of things that do good to the heart of a Turk.
In each dish he prepared, he would invest ten times as much energy as any other cook. Even for an ordinary nettle borscht, for example, he would scour the markets, tasting the whey himself to be sure of the right sour taste. Thus he had become a sort of terror of the stall-holders, although they wouldn’t even have passed the time of day with him if it hadn’t been for Caterina Greceanu. Silica was born of a Gypsy family who bore the mark of a great boyar house. For any slave has the seal of his master imprinted on his face, in his movements, and even in the way he carries the rags he wears. In Bucharest especially, it is never hard to tell who some Gypsy or other belongs to, whether he was raised in the household or bought at the market after passing through many hands. Silica looked like a fussy little fellow, neither young nor yet old, but at an age where you could be sure that he was not going to change.
Caterina’s three steps
Anyway, when it came to the third step taken by Caterina, I was involved in that myself, even without wishing to be, on the very first night after I arrived in Bucharest. But first I have to tell you about my arrival in the city, because right from the first moments, without even knowing it, I came up against the story of Caterina’s cook.
Translated by James Christian Brown
”he Book of Perilous Dishes has all that it takes to make a captivating story: a good dose of fantasy, an epic thread pleated together with the sure hand of a story-teller who knows how to ensnare you, an atmosphere so powerful that it stays with you long after you have put the book down, and, last but not least, a subtext that sends you towards the mysteries of the World and of Literature. As its events unfold—on the borderline between magic and the fantastic—in the setting of a picturesque Bucharest of around the year 1800 (a pretext, in fact, for a narrative that transcends the specifics of any documentable historical framework), The Book of Perilous Dishes traces, as if in a dream, the limits of a fictional universe in which, as in some alchemist’s alembic, the deceptive substances of the real are mixed in suitable doses with those, so clearly evident, of an unreality (or surreality) that breaks through into the midst of the everyday. Merchants, sorcerers, spiritists, cooks of the Princely Court, lovers, haughty young ladies, ambassadors from diverse lands, mercenaries, officials of the Sublime Porte, princes in exile and princes newly enthroned, schemers of all sorts, revolutionaries, Bonapartists, tricksters, and envoys of Sator populate the carnivalesque space of this novel of fantasy, whose deeper levels lead far into the distance, towards worlds we could scarcely imagine.”