Perhaps it’s because those of us in the privileged developed world are living longer – that and the advent of a new century – but there seems to be a little trend for novels written from the point of view of a centenarian bystander, someone who’s rubbed shoulders with those who’ve shaped our world for good or ill: Any Human Heart, The End of Days and The Hundred-Year-old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared spring to mind. Himmler’s Cook, is another along these lines and it was this that made me pick it up although its clever jacket was another draw. At the age of one hundred and five, Rose has decided to write her memoir and she’s got a lot to get off her chest.
Rose makes no bones about other people: she can’t stand complainers as she says from the start. When she’s mugged by a young man calling himself the Cheetah, she suspects he’s from a comfortable middle class home and decides to put the frighteners on him. Rose hasn’t lived through the Armenian genocide in which the rest of her family perished, the horrors of the Second World War when Himmler took a fancy to her, and the miseries of Mao’s Great Leap Forward when she lost her second husband, to put up with being threatened by some young punk, so she does what she always does: takes revenge. Born in a tree somewhere near the Black Sea in 1907, Rose has travelled the world but always returns to Marseilles where she still runs a restaurant having learnt the joys of cooking from her adoptive mother. She’s a believer in ‘the forces of love, laughter and vengeance’ easing the pain of tragedy by means of her beauty and wit to extract the latter while enjoying the former to the full. Giesbert takes his sassy heroine from her early years in Armenia to her confrontation with ‘the Cheetah’ – aka Ryan – after his second transgression, taking in a good deal of blood-spilling, cooking, lovemaking and adventure, not to mention a surprisingly long passage on sheep castration, along the way.
Already a bestseller in France, I suspect Himmler’s Cook is aimed firmly at the Jonasson market here in the UK. Rose is a vividly memorable character, announcing ‘History is a bitch’ then going on to explain just why. Her favourite song is The Jackson Five’s Can You Feel It? and she’s a great admirer of Patti Smith. She believes in living each day as if it’s her last, proclaiming ‘rid yourself of self-esteem or you will never know love’ despite her own supreme self-confidence. Well known names pepper her narrative – Sartre and de Beauvoir regularly dine in her restaurant, Himmler’s bewitched by both her body and her food while Felix Kirsten advises her on how to handle Hitler’s police chief. There’s quite a lot of knockabout humour amidst the genocidal activities of the various despots she encounters. Altogether an enjoyable romp although I felt that Giesbert skated over Rose’s long Chinese sojourn, cramming it into a few short chapters. There’s a lovely description of her adoptive mother that those of us who feel they should read less and get out more will appreciate: ‘ she had never travelled further afield than to Manosque, but thanks to the books she read she had lived a full life.’ Quite so.