ONE DAY, I joke with friends: ‘If you were a cannibal, which author would you eat and which herb would you use?’ I almost immediately go for J.M. Coetzee – slow-roasted over coals – and simply but deftly flavoured: salt, pepper, tarragon. Now, every time I have bearnaise sauce, I think of slow roasted Coetzee and tarragon.
It has to be him. He’s old, but with his reported vegan diet, the flesh, I imagine, will be tender and sweet, and untarnished by the shit most of us eat most of the time. Tender but firm with it cycling muscles. ‘No, a crispy bit of tarragon-flavoured Coetzee would be good,’ I muse. And a red that has some depth, but is not too metaphysical; a deep but reticent, reluctant red.
One friend rolls his eyes at my predictability. Of course I would say Coetzee. My friend is a Paul Auster fan, see, but I cannot imagine that he would want to eat Paul Auster. Certainly, he would find gustatory joy in authors (he would even perhaps stray from the literary and tuck into some roast Nigel Mansell – with crackling), but I doubt Auster would be his eat of choice. I can’t imagine eating Paul Auster at the kind of gastronomic dinner I imagine with roasted Coetzee and tarragon.
Look, this is about eating, not reading, so I can imagine in a more casual moment having pastrami of Auster (that would be hot brisket of Auster, shredded), on rye, with the whole gamut of New York fixings and a sharp mustard. And, to make it better, an ice cold Coke (it has its uses).
The thing is, whenever a bunch of better educated readers (literary types) in Cape Town get together, they talk about food and wine and books and then Coetzee. Every literary conversation or conversation about literature held in Cape Town, I swear, has to include Coetzee – Why Adelaide? Is the cycling there better? How’s about that Eugene Dawn huh?
Okay, how do I make this a decently accurate sociological claim? It may not be that every literary conversation ends up with talk about Coetzee, but then they would not be literary conversations proper. In my book at least. The point is, in almost every literary conversation of which I have been part during the last ten years or so (a fair amount), with a diverse range of literary types, the talk always included or ended up with Coetzee.
Then a friend and I developed this theory: in a Cape Town literary conversation, from the most basic to the most sophisticated, most urbane, most wide-ranging ones, Coetzee will be a topic sooner or later. But we ourselves talked about him a lot, so it could be that the theory simply described our obsession and could not be a universal theory of literary conversation in Cape Town. By the mid-1990s, that kind of all-encompassing grand theory would in any case have been viewed with much scepticism and ridicule in (to post-structuralists) finally deconstructing Cape Town (my city is late in such stuff, but hey, note that I wasn’t welcoming these developments).
Furthermore, in these other conversations, of which we may have been part, and on which we based our theory, could it be that we were the ones to introduce Coetzee and thereby have always already tainted data? No. Other people were well capable of doing this without any prompting from Coetzee fans. Even people who hated him talked about him (You’ll know that ‘him’ or ‘Coetzee’ stand metonymically for his books, unless we are talking about eating him. Then we mean the mortal body and possibly the person).
So I thought I’d combine him absolutely. Make food out of him.
Some people hate him; I disliked Disgrace because it was so tight, I swear if one took one definite article out of it, the whole grand edifice would collapse. (I haven’t read Slow Man yet, which makes me think of a slow-cooked man). So, some people hate him but it was something special to have him wander Cape Town; to see him come out of the Checkers with his small Checkers bag, in his neat trousers, sensible shirt and short, small leather jacket. You just knew that some masterpiece was going to be forming later as he washed and grated his carrots. Maybe he had some chillies in there.
I think he likes chillies. In ‘Meat Country’ he rhapsodizes about chillies and rice, a craving he has while cycling out in the Texan sun. Not, strangely, watermelon, cucumber, the watery vegetables, he says, but fiery chillies.
If I wasn’t going to eat him, I think maybe I’d cook him some rice and chillies, a great platter of it with roasted flakes of almond, and raisins, onion, pine nuts, cilantro, saffron. And the chillies: long fresh green ones, red ones, some sweet red and yellow pepper. More vegetable maybe. Thin slices of celery. Jullienne of carrot. Caramelised rosa tomato. To drink: clear, crisp water. It’s actually some years now that I have thought of that dish, ever since reading ‘Meat Country’.
And I think, but hey, what about stuffing him with all this stuff then roasting him. But then I wouldn’t use tarragon. I couldn’t, could I? With all that other spicy stuff, the tarragon would die.
I repeat this joke – cannibal, who to eat? – in a class for third years. By God, by now they should have a sense of irony. We had been talking about the Spanish and Portuguese in the New World, stories about native cannibalism. Then, striking a ruminative pose, I said: Mmm, who in the English Department would you eat if you were a cannibal? (Come on, this is a course in postcolonialism; you must be able to imagine native life, certainly.) What herb?
Silence. Then I say: No, I would go for Coetzee and tarragon. Some of them – the clever ones – laugh and shake their heads; some don’t know a fuck who he is; and some are mortified and shift uncomfortably in their chairs and splutter and say ‘Eugh!’ When they shake their heads, it’s not knowingly – here’s a weird lecturer pushing the envelope in comedy – it is clear they find it offensive.
I, of course, backpedal. Laughing, I insist: ‘Look, I’m not a cannibal. That’s what’s called a joke.’ I shake my head: ‘It’s a strange joke, that’s all.’ Back to the Spanish and Portuguese in the New World and metonyms and the disjecta membra and coercion and so on and so forth.
Some of you may think I am really strange, weird, ‘sicko’. But I am quite normal. I just sometimes still wonder what Coetzee would taste like, slow roasted, with tarragon.
And some of you may think I dislike the man. Why eat him? But I am actually a fan. A johnny-come-lately to his fandom, certainly, but a fan (except Disgrace, of course. And I think it’s okay to disclose my adulation, now that he’s no longer here, in Cape Town, with his Checkers bag full of chillies). As a fan, I style some of my prose after his (except this piece of writing you are reading now, of course), or I invent a character 200 years old who says something and then footnote Coetzee and say how remarkable it is that, 200 years later, the novelist Coetzee will say something similar. But that was when I was trying to eat Borges.
Now Borges, that’s a culinary challenge. Old and stringy, but with an otherworldy (new world?) promise. Strong herbs and flavours are called for, but rosemary would be too predictable. Perhaps a few hours’ soaking in soya and honey, then roasted and served with gremolata. The lemon zest of the gremolata perfect with the honey. Yes. And since in his blindness Borges reminds me of fish, then perhaps a Sauvignon Blanc. But that, with the gremolata, might be too grassy. Anyway, that’s all up to the eater, rather than the eaten. Red or white, it’s up to you. But maybe the soya and honey is the wrong way to go. What about jugged Borges? I think we could still have the gremolata.
I can’t eat any author who did not make it into the twentieth century. That just seems wrong and carries with it all sorts of distasteful digging in the dark. Like Shakespeare. To stay in form, one would have to root around for recipes of the time, and who has time for that? But, in any case, I just have a sense of the dank and musty when I think of eating pre-twentieth century authors; like politicians, like crayfish, all who feed and scavenge in murky depths. No, no politicians and long dead authors.
But so reader, forgive me, I am working up an appetite. Who else would you eat? Carpaccio of pickled Kafka for starters or use him to make suasages for a gigantic charcoute, which will, naturally, include big chunks of smoky Southern Faulkner. Some purists may object to this, but once they taste the fusion of Southern barbecue with superior European sausage, they will finish the dish.
Robertson Davies… too old and hairy. Consenting adults may indulge in tidbits of powdery soft William Burroughs, but beware the after-effects.
Women authors, some might ask, where are the women authors? I hesitate here, troubled that the absence of women from my menu may mean that I am less fearless than initial impressions suggested; that, in the face of all manner of strange psychoanalytic innuendo, I steer clear of eating, say, Toni Morrison (shavings of her over a Vermouth risotto), Margaret Attwood (definitely soya and honey and sesame seeds, baked or grilled) or Jeannette Winterson (kebabs of her with pineapple, apricot, onion and so on and so forth. To drink, rum and coke). I mean, eating male authors may be a weird joke, some form of strange satire (not that there may not be read into it all sorts of strange psychoanalytic innuendo either), but eating women may have all sorts of problematic political implications, most dangerously dismemberment by me, a male author. And dietary laws can be complicated; interesting, but complicated, just see Coetzee’s ‘Meat Country’.
Which brings us back to our topic of conversation, as it does, as I have said. So, yes, I am a fan of Coetzee, and if I am not starting or having a conversation about him – Yes, but Coetzee did that already in Michael K and he did this in Age of Iron but his best novel must be Master of Petersburg and he would be good with tarragon – if I am not talking about him, I am not talking about him.
Who else might be good with tarragon? Rushdie? No. But Rushdie, tarragoned up and wrapped in bacon, then grilled. Vladislavic? Definitely. Consomme of Vladislavic with a hint of tarragon. Mellville? I can make exceptions vis-a-vis period, so… Melville, tarragon and then coated in a bland German mustard, baked for several hours at very low temperature, say 100 degrees Celsius. (I wonder what whale meat tastes like.)
As you can see, things get out of hand quickly with this eating business. Now I am thinking of whale meat, gobs of fat, blue-red flesh. The size of those muscles. Imagine, whale fillet with thyme, seared. But this, certainly, will get me into trouble.