Friday, November 15, 2013

Review: The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti

Oh do I love me some cheese. Any kind of cheese. If I was on a desert island and could only pick one food, it would be cheese. I honestly don't think there's a kind of cheese that I don't like. And I will freely admit that upon hearing about this book and the grand cheese it immortalizes, I immediately wanted to go out and sample the cheese. So it was a wild disappointment to me that the cheese chronicled is but a memory now, no longer made the way it was when it was first created and therefore, not the same cheese at all. But even if I could not taste this strong, lovingly made, artisanal cheese, I could at least enjoy reading about it. But despite the trumpet of the subtitle (A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese), this is not really a story about cheese. Certainly it wouldn't exist without the convoluted and disputed tale of Paramo de Guzman cheese, but it is every bit as much the story of truth and writing and myth and creation as it is about cheese.

When Michael Paterniti was a graduate student and trying to find a way to make a living with words, he applied for a job at Zingerman's Deli. He was turned down. But days later, rather than hire him to make sandwiches, the deli called and instead offered him the sporadic and part-time job of proofreading their newsletter.  It was in this newsletter that Paterniti first heard about the sublime, little artisanal cheese called Paramo de Guzman. He was captivated by this wildly expensive, Spanish cheese but being a poor MFA student, never did buy it. But the idea of this special cheese stayed with him and many years later, well into a successful writing career, Paterniti was ready to revisit the intriguing cheese. He hunted down the location of the town of Guzman. Then he tracked down the man who used to make the much lauded cheese. And finally, he and a friend who could translate for him headed to Spain to talk in person with Ambrosio Molinos, the cheesemaker who painstakingly recreated an old family recipe, lost for years, and created this special cheese. But what Paterniti learned, even as he knew he wanted to turn the story of the cheese's creation, its production, and its eventual demise into a book, is that the story wasn't so straightforward and that it would take time to tease it out of the larger than life, expansive Ambrosio.

The story of why Ambrosio no longer makes Paramo de Guzman any longer is many layered and Paterniti spends countless hours with him to hear the whole sordid tale of betrayal and closely held grudges. He listens to the digressions and Spanish history lessons that Ambrosio imparts. He quietly absorbs Ambrosio's quest for revenge against the forces that stole his cheese. And as Paterniti compiles his own tale from Ambrosio's storytelling, he also must search for the nugget of truth in the myth he's being told. He struggles to not take sides, caught up as he is in the easy friendship, charisma and seductiveness of Ambrosio. And he does not write his book. His family comes to Spain to live for a time and he continues to listen to Ambrosio and to know that he needs to hear the other side for a balanced story but he finds that he is generally contented with the version he's been hearing over porrons of wine in Ambrosio's mountainside telling room.

So what it the truth? Is it the story the community has embraced or is it more complex than that? What effect do embellishments and tales told to ease pain have on the underlying truth of a story? Ambrosio tells Paterniti one story and Paterniti records it but also records an alternate, more balanced version as well. Can both of the stories be true in their own way? As he tells the tale, he sees the story of the cheese mainly through Ambrosio's eyes but he also tells the story of his own obsession and the difficulty of writing about it straightforwardly and without bias. He recounts the struggles of a decade or more in committing this tale to paper. And finally when he has, Paterniti has chosen to write a digressive story chock full of tangents, footnotes, and even nested footnotes within footnotes, to replicate the rambling and meandering way of storytelling in the Castille. There is a difficulty in following the story through all the maze-like wanderings (even for someone like me who appreciates arcane tidbits and tangential diversions) and while the two main storylines, that of Ambrosio's tale of his cheese and Paterniti's tale of writing have many similarities, there are enough places that they exist in uneasy accord, making the reader wonder if both should have been given equal weight in the narrative.

Paterniti clearly admires this big bear of a man who puts his heart and soul into creating Paramo de Guzman and then, after losing the cheese, into the myths he weaves and Paterniti is obviously struck by the landscape that birthed this cheese, writing eloquently about the rustic village and its place out of time. Interesting at its root, the book went on just a bit too long and Paterniti gives rather short shift to the other side of the cheese's tale, indicating that the cheese isn't really the focus here, that storytelling and creation is. Introspective, occasionally funny, and a long time in the writing, this story had to age just like a good cheese. And just like a good cheese, it won't be to everyone's taste.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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