Book: The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti
I was eager to read The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese for several reasons. The grandiose subtitle promises a great adventure story with a culinary hook. Interestingly, the subtitle only exists on the book’s paper sleeve, not on the cover or title page of the book itself.
First, of course, because it is (allegedly) about cheese. Second because it is about an exploration that takes place in a country I love–Spain. Third because the author, Michael Paterniti, has enormously impressive credentials, as author of Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain and correspondent for GQ amont other publications.
The very first paragraph suggests the meandering style of story-telling that Paterniti will use throughout the book. In a leisurely fashion, he sets the stage–himself graduating from a creative writing program “A.K.A. Storytelling School”, the economic downturn and other depressing events of 1991, the year he graduated, the inability to sell his stories and his work at a deli. And then the discovery–the best cheese in the world, a hard, strong-tasting sheeps-milk cheese from Castilian Spain. It was also the most expensive at $22 a pound.
The cheese haunts him as he gets on with his life, marrying, traveling the world, writing magazine articles–and finally he gets an opportunity to fly to Spain in search of the cheese. He recruits a Spanish speaking friend to go along and discovers, when it finally spoke “the cheese had a lot to say.”
We learn along the way that the rambling structure of the book mimics the Castilian Spain style of story telling. Even before Paterniti and his friend Carlos visit Guzman, the village where the cheese was made, he tells the story of Ambrosio, the maker of the cheese. Ambrosio, a larger-than-life character believes passionately in the mystic connection between natural processes and end results. The secret ingredient is always love and one must always “honor nature.”
Ambrosio and others in Castilian Spain hone their story telling skills in the telling room–a part of the cave (bodega) attached to most farms where the wine and cheese production is tallied. But as people gather to drink the wine and nibble on the cheese, they tell stories and the 2nd meaning becomes the more true definition of ‘telling room.’
When Paterniti eventually commits to writing a book about the drama surrounding the cheese, Ambrosio takes over and it slips away from the author, becoming Ambrosio’s book. He is, after all, a masterful storyteller in the leisurely, charming way of the Castilians. And he certainly comes up with some great lines. After his cheese making adventure collapses, Ambrosio drives a truck through Europe.
Sunflowers and cocoa to Holland, juices to Austria, wine to Koblenz, chocolate back to Spain: Dirving a truck suited Ambrosio just fine. “It’s like a research grant to study other cultures,” he would tell friends.
Ambrosio’s domination becomes a key problem, since the author is sucked in by Ambrosio’s telling of the story of how he lost his cheese business. The man is the ultimate unreliable narrator.
Because the American author does not speak the language (at least at first) and approaches Castilian Spain as a naïf, everything fascinates him. The stories wind and twist and roam far from the cheese. So many historical details and definition of terms seems important, that he rounds up many of the digressions and stuffs them into footnotes. Digressions breed digressions–in one case the footnote has 7 footnotes of its own.
And although Ambrosio’s version of the story dominates the basic thread of narrative that starts with the cheese, the overarching concern becomes the writing process itself. As long as the book focuses on Castilian Spain,the reader can follow interesting digressions that unveil the customs and the region. But when the book becomes focused on the problems of the writer– how to finish the book, what the book is really about–it turns inward and self-indulgent. Really, if the writer doesn’t know what the book is about after several years of pursuing the story, perhaps there is no “there” there.
It is true that his rants about writing and the publishing industry are fun to read, but with much of the book I found myself asking “what’s the connection?” Any writer will relate to this rant, a beginning writer considering that even if he did manage to sell a story:
…nobody would ever read that story. No–like a nomadic tribe, the mass story consumers of our day had unstaked their tent poles and moved on, craving news and sound bites, reprogrammed by predictability and sentimentality, by television and the big screen of the Story Industrial Complex.
But is the book about writing?
Or is it about the retreat to the slow life of Castilian Spain?
“…I soon found that our version of village life organized itself around the ascendancy and final daily importance of doing nothing….I was the busiest hombre in town, cramming in tons of back-to-back nothing. In that newly made space an alternative reality rose, a nest knitted by ambitionless being, the sound of breathing and laughter, and behind it, an all-engulfing silence.”
Paterniti fantasizes about submitting 300 blank pages. “I feared ruining the best, wordless part of the world by trying to capture it in words.” And for a while there, it seems that fantasy will come true. He struggles so long that a British publisher withdraws. Random House, the American publisher sticks with him and extends contracts again and again. (One wonders how many writers would get that perk?)
Is the book about cheese?
No, although in his penchant for detail, Paterniti tells us in detail how the cheese is made.
Is the book about “Love, Betrayal, Revenge” as the subtitle says?
Yes, to an extent, but the major problem surfaces when the author discovers that the story is not as simple as he assumed. Good guy-bad guy–inciting incident- reconciliation. None of the major building blocks of story turn out to work the way he thinks they are going to.
You could gloss over the whole question of what the book is about and say it is about all of the above. For the traveler who reads, you will definitely get to know Castilian Spain. But, sorry, as much fun as the individual pieces of this book are to read, the whole becomes a self-indulgent muddle. At least that is the way it struck me. Different readers always get different impressions and The Telling Room contains so many possibilities that each reader will read a different book. Let me know what you bring away from The Telling Room when you read it.