Sunday, September 9, 2012

Black Diamond

Martin Walker gets his journalism wonk on in this latest installment of the delicieux Bruno Courrèges series, Black Diamond (Knopf, 2011). What exactly do Perigord truffles have to do with the demise of France’s empire in the middle of the 20th c.?  Not a heck of a lot, except that gatherings at meetings and meals and funerals provide an opportunity for lots of expository dialogue about the dark underside of covert ops during Algerian War, the demise of French empire in Indochina, illegal immigrant trafficking, Green politics, and whatever else is on Walker’s mind.   It is a pretty complicated mix, and while Bruno is as satisfying as always, the setting is spectacular as usual (hunting season in November!), and this installment provides the best meal yet, the overall affect is unnecessarily kaleidoscopic.

It is November in Perigord, and that means hunting season – of the animal and plant variety.  Bruno has been learning the lore of the truffle trade from his old and respected Hercule Vendrot.  There is also social unrest in St. Denis, as a tough old businessman is shutting down a sawmill after newly-passed environmental regulations make it impossible for him to stay in business.  So, there is an unhappy proletariat, and more jubilant Greens (we seem them in all of the Bruno stories, they are clearly a group who have Walker’s attention).  And while there are some new unsavory characters – local business types and would-be politicians – Bruno is as always supported by his fabulous coterie of pals:  the Baron, Pamela (formerly known as The Mad Englishwoman), Fabiola and the Mayor all from St. Denis; JJ, the Brigadier, and even Isabelle from various security operations.  There may be some underhanded doings at the local truffle market, and there is clearly something very complicated and Oedipal going on in the mayoral race, where are father and son are running against each other, threatening the good work of Bruno’s friend the mayor.  There’s a gruesome murder, and I haven’t even gotten to the Asian turf wars yet between the established Vietnamese community in France and the emerging and largely illegal Chinese population. 
So, yeah, there is a lot going on.  But we need a lot of background to prepare us for the action that actually moves the plot forward, and so we must endure long conversations that include exchanges like this between Bruno, Hercule, and the baron.
“’One thing I wanted to ask you,’ Bruno said quickly.  ‘That place you mentioned – Bab el-Oued.  What was it?’
‘It’s a suburb of Algiers, where the pieds-noirs used to live before we lost the war and they fled back to France.  They were French settlers, the poorer ones, but the wanted Algeria to stay French.  When de Gaulle decided to pull out, Bab el-Oued became the heart of the OAS,  But that phone was taken before then, when they still loved us, before de Gaulle decided that there was no choice but to grant Algeria its independence.’
‘Like the rest of the army, I found some very welcoming girlfriends there,’ said the baron.  He was staring into the fire.  He looked up.  ‘You were already married, Hercule.’
‘This was all before I was born,’ Bruno said, who read enough history to know the broad outlines of the Algerian War.  ‘Still, every time I ride in the baron’s Citroën, he tells me how the car saved de Gaulle’s life when the OAS tried to assassinate him.’ 
‘Organisation de l’Armée Secrète.  Not only did they come close to killing de Gaulle, they came damn close to staging a military coup back in sixty-one, with half the army on their side.  They took over Algiers and people were panicking about parachute drops in Paris.  De Gaulle ordered the air force to patrol the Mediterranean coast with orders to shoot down any transport planes headed north.  The baron was one of the few in his unit who did not join the OAS.’
‘Would you still be friends if he had?’
‘Absolutely not,’ said Hercule.  ‘I’d probably have shot him.’”  (29-30)
If Bruno read enough history to understand the broad outlines of the Algerian war, and has heard about how the baron’s Citroën saved de Gaulle, he probably doesn’t need it spelled out for him.  But we do, whether it ultimately has anything to do with the plot of this story or not.  It is all interesting background, but you feel a little bit lectured. 

Still, even with all of these history lessons, Walker’s writing about life in Perigord still bewitches.  It is autumn, and there are cold walks and frosty ridges and crackling leaves.  There are lots and lots of fires, and it is often dark when Bruno gets up to walk Gigi.  But best of all, as always, is the food.  It’s France!  How can it be otherwise?  The murder victim is a hunter, and apparently the tradition in hunting circles is to wake a deceased comrade with vast banquet that includes meat the hunter procured.  Over the course of chapters 12-14, Walker intersperses various bits of action and exposition with absolutely drool-worthy descriptions of Bruno preparing a venison casserole, a crème brûlée with truffles, and a truffle soup.  The venison, and wild boar bones used for the soup stock came from the deceased hunter.  To this, other hunters add a pâté that the deceased had helped to make, roast pigeon, a salade, pommes de terre sarladaises (which is potatoes cooked in duck fat), and a cabbage and bacon and red wine dish.  There is champagne, and wine of course, and it goes on all night, causing massive hangovers the next morning that are remedied by the baron’s private recipe of raw egg, orange juice, and harissa.  The whole event is just an evening, but it takes three chapters to do justice to the tradition’s execution and consumption.  “Bruno never ceased to be amazed at how these cooking tasks almost automatically, the legacy of dozens of hunters’ dinners such as this and feasts for family and neighbors after the annual slaughter of a pig.”  (164)  Me too. 

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