Monday 15 April 2013

Crandolin by Anna Tambour

It is impossible to even begin summing up Anna Tambour's novel 'Crandolin' without sounding a bit crazed. And that's not a bad thing at all. There's something insane about this whole enterprise, but it is an inspired insanity, internally coherent and completely mesmerising.

See, there's this fellow, Nick Kippax. He's looking for piquant flavours. He's been through wine snobbery and the all the usual forbidden fruits of the gourmet. But he's after the grail now, the most legendary and elusive dishes of all time, among them the fabled crandolin. In a musty old tome, he finds a stain on the page that contains the recipe for this dish. He tastes it - and is hurtled into a multiple existence as a red blotch on a variety of entities across time and space. These include an itinerant musician's bladder-pipe, the face of a Soviet railway cook, a nest belonging to a family of cinnamologus birds and a jar of very rare honey.

Are you with me so far? Good work, you're probably ready to read the book itself, then, and need no further prompting from me.

If a completely bonkers conceit isn't enough, Tambour's novel is peopled with a delightful array of, well, people. There's the hapless Kippax himself, Galina, the railway cook, a matronly woman who is blind to her own manifest charms, the many railway employees who yearn for her, a group of railway-enthusiast tourists including a phlemagtic retired Indian railway man and his recumbent wife, there are wandering princes seeking adventure, wannabe brigands, a honey merchant, a master sweetmaker, a virgin in a tower, the Omniscient narrator, the eternal Muse and more. Enough characters to populate a medium-sized and very weird province, maybe even a smallish peninsula.There are even people who aren't people: a donkey whose affections are not to be trifled with, and the crandolin him/herself.

Oh, themes? You want themes? How about the nature of love, the source of inspiration and the quandary of authorship? The diversity of food, the inner glory of donkeys and the elusiveness of truth. This book has enough themes for a bumper-sized Cliff's Notes and then some to spare.

Most of all, this book is completely original. And how many times do you find a book like that? I read a few hundred of the blasted things a year, and even I only encounter one or two really, really unique books on a good year. If I don't read another book as original, whimsical, witty and wondrous as this all year, it will still have been a very good year. Heck, a very good decade.

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