It is quite frustrating to be reading, immersed in the plentifulness of the language, and craving for food. Reading The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery, I had to stop every other page to either sigh or indulge into binging. It was beyond frustration, actually. It was indulging in the pleasure of the mind and the senses. Some search for the Grail, others pursue love in its various shapes and elusive manifestations, whereas, by reading The Gourmet, you end up questioning the very flavor of you. Like if I were to define the very essence and weakness of myself, what would that taste like? Would I be arrogantly oystered, shyly layered like artichoke, adventurous as a plump tomato, or dry as wine? But then, how would one flavor be enough to define multiplicity?
The book intends to help sketch Pierre Arthens, a famous food critic, father, husband, lover, friend, master of the house, owner of sculptures, and above all, a bastard. Self-absorbed and cruel, constantly hurting those around, he is an artist. To everyone, no one in particular, to his pet cat, Rick, mostly: ''What is writing, no matter how lavish the pieces, if it says nothing of the truth, cares little for the heart, and is merely subservient to the pleasure of showing one’s brilliance?”
It is both funny and sad to be loved by the cat only. The only being capable of having felt love, the cat pleads for the Maitre's humanity in a rather non-beastly manner, reminiscent of the Casablanca character that inspired its name. A snob and an obsessed man, Pierre Arthens is dying a quite, yet tormenting death. It is pitiful to be surrounded and evoked by people who only hate and despise him because they never sensed a shred of humanity in his actions. Each chapter is saying goodbye to a man no one is sad he is dying. Despite his fervent search for the absolute flavor, his own is never to be regretted and wished for. This would make him at least bland.
I believe the book to be about life in its many tastes and gustatory pleasures. The way it poured from the eyes and heart of Mr. Pierre Arthens, in small doses of love and pain, mirroring his abandonment to food rather than people. The way Patrick Suskind's character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is haunted by perfume and human scent, the same way the famous critic uses his search for the absolute flavor to point at death, desire and decay. Except Mr. Arthens is not a creator of fragrances and flavors, he is a consumer. Trained, demanding, appreciating uniqueness and simplicity alike, he delves into his past culinary delights in search for the taste of pleasure. What is the food that anatomizes humanity in a mouthful? What is better than people, yet profoundly humane? The search for the absolute or the unattainable rendered in the pages of a story that reads witty, evocative and alluring.