- Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester
Faber, 299 pp, £16.99, July 2002, ISBN 0 571 20176 8
First, let me declare a disinterest. John Lanchester and I are both involved, in different ways, with the London Review of Books, but otherwise have nothing to do with one another. Now that’s out of the way, onto the novels. Lanchester’s first, The Debt to Pleasure (1996), begins: ‘This is not a conventional cookbook’ – a more interesting way of saying that it is an unconventional novel. And so we are introduced to Tarquin Winot: gastronome, aesthete, snob, psychopath, and one of the most gloriously monstrous, deluded, hilarious, chilling characters to narrate an English-language novel since Humbert Humbert. Tarquin is making his circuitous way from Portsmouth to his house in the South of France (or the ‘S. of F.’, as he would have it), narrating his unconventional cookbook as he goes ‘with the aid of a seductively miniaturised Japanese dictaphone’. The Debt to Pleasure is organised around three narrative structures: namely, in decreasing order of overtness, the cookbook, arranged seasonally, a method Tarquin filches (unacknowledged) from Margaret Costa; the travelogue of Tarquin’s journey to Provence; and, gradually teased out between courses, the story of Tarquin’s unorthodox life.
At the end of the preface, after a windy rhapsody on the theme of ‘the menu’, the plot grabs you by the scruff of your neck and slams you up against the wall – ‘I’m not sure that this would be my choice for a honeymoon hotel’ – so gently that you hardly notice. Paradox, part of paranoia’s staple diet, feeds Tarquin’s delusions: ‘as Buddhism teaches us, non-connection can be a higher form of connection.’ With this in mind, any inference is possible: ‘I myself have always disliked being called a “genius”. It is fascinating to notice how quick people have been to intuit this aversion and avoid using the term.’ His stalking of the honeymooners, pursued with the help of the Mossad Manual of Surveillance Techniques and an elaborate portmanteau of disguises, is extremely funny, and initially resembles a practical joke more than anything: ‘the chill is kept off by the unfamiliar warmth of my new deerstalker, which I am currently wearing with the flaps lowered but the chinstrap untied. I now feel the need to take a stretch around the promenade and inhale deep draughts of sea air through the slight tickle of my false moustache.’ And while the story remains funny to the end, it is increasingly tinctured with real malevolence and horror.
A remarkable number of the people that Tarquin mentions in his anecdotes and recollections have died. He tends to let slip the fact in the most casual fashion: ‘my Provençal (English) neighbour (now dead)’; ‘Mitthaug, our counter-stereotypically garrulous and optimistic Norwegian cook with an especial talent for pickling, failed to arrive in time to make the necessary preparations for an important dinner party because (as it turned out) he had been run over by a train.’ It doesn’t take long for the reader to realise that their violent ends and their acquaintance with Tarquin might not be entirely unconnected; the honeymooners’ prospects don’t look good.
Tarquin himself, necessarily, is not self-consciously grotesque: he is oblivious to both his absurdity and his barbarity – two of the characteristics he most deplores in others. The novel is a sustained, virtuoso exercise in dramatic irony. At times it’s so deadpan that the reader is in danger of adopting Tarquin’s way of seeing the world (which isn’t unseductive; he has some interesting things to say, incidentally, about the erotics of dislike), a danger averted, as often as not, by the inclusion of another’s opinion in direct speech, unrefracted through the ironic prism of Tarquin’s voice: ‘I prefer the old-fashioned spelling “receipt”, but it was pointed out to me that “if you call it that, nobody will have a f***ing clue what you’re talking about”’ (the decorous asterisks are Tarquin’s).