“The thing about cats” says James Hamilton Paterson, “ is that I've eaten a fair few of them. Having lived in the Philippines it's almost inevitable: they eat a lot of cats and dogs out there, and it's just sort of normal. Cat eating goes on all over the world”.
Delivered in a voice that is redolent of the BBC's finer days, James Hamilton-Paterson isn't out to shock, but rather to discuss his latest book Cooking with Fernet Branca, a delightfully funny and vicious satire set in the hills of Tuscany, where the author now spends most of his time.
The book focusses primarily on two neighbours, one an uptight English biographer with a penchant for exotic recipes (including the aforementioned cats!), and the other an Eastern European composer. “It is a ludicrous book, a beach book which you then toss up on the top of your wardrobe in your Torremolinas appartment, before heading back to the airport. It is a light read” says Hamilton Paterson, in a self-deprecating way, but the truth is that it's a skillfully ludicrous book with a sharp eye for satire.
It's a change of style in some ways for the author, whose list of literary admirers ranges from Michael Ondaatje, and J.G. Ballard, through to Alex Garland. His first novel Gerontius won the Whitbread prize in 1989, and told the story of the composer Elgar travelling on the Amazon. He's written books on the Sea (Seven Tenths, soon to be republished by Faber, and Three Miles Down ), famously on Marcos and the Philippines (America's Boy) and a number of novels (including Loving Monsters, and Griefwork) and, to top it all off he's a regular columnist in a Swiss newspaper, writing on scientific matters. While Cooking with Fernet Branca is in some ways his lightest book, is there a thread in common running through his books, that links this to the others? “Not in terms of the theme or anything, obviously there are some common things. I'm interested in music, and that comes out through Marta, who's a serious musician. I've no interest whatsoever in cooking, so I don't know how that came about (laughs). A certain bleakness, and satirical take on things perhaps”.
Indeed bleakness is something that crops up, even in the context of this truly funny book. When I mention that the humour has a cruel streak, he seems surprised and disagrees, explaining in particular about his portrait of the protagonist, Gerald Samper, “Well, he's not a very nice character. I think he's despairing and that makes him slightly sharp”.
Where did the book spring from? Was it a conscious effort to satirise the Tuscany set? “I didn't conciously set out to do it. If I'd written in my previous house – I've just moved in the last two years – I might have been more consciously satirical. I lived in a place called Cortona, which has been written about (Under a Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes), so I might have been more consciously trying to make fun of that kind of thing, but I think it was more just my personal experience.
What actually happened was, with two Italian friends of mine who were house hunting, we all three of us went up into the mountains and came across this house, which in fact I more or less depict as being the house of this terrible man Gerry Samper. We rather liked the place and the position, but then I spotted through the trees the roof of another house, and we started fantasising together how terrible it would be if some incomprehensible foreigner kept coming across bothering you for cups of sugar or what not. My friend said, “Yes, I can see her – she's Eastern European, her name is Marta”, and so I said “Great, let's go with that – I'm going to write a novel about it,” and I did (laughs).
It's the first time I've ever had a starting point like that. Occasionaly I dream things, for example Griefwork – I had a very intense dream one night about wanting to walk along the dykes in Holland, and I suddenly found myself on a plane the next day to look at dykes in Holland, and that book was as a direct consequence of that.