Malcolm's Reviews > The Taste Of A Man

The Taste Of A Man by Slavenka Drakulić
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really liked it
bookshelves: fiction-contemporary, lit-like, fiction-east-central-europe

Slavenka Drakulić (probably better known as a journalist than novelist) writes sparse and intense novels, often with a profound sense of loss or desperation and incompleteness; her feminism is one of women left partial by the world in which they try to live fully. In this the third of her novels I have read, she recounts a tale of a deeply felt and more than slightly desperate love affair between Tereza, a Polish graduate student in New York for a semester working on metaphysical poets, and José, a Brazilian anthropologist whose research grant has brought him to the city to explore Catholic Church responses to the 1973 Andes air crash where the survivors only did so by eating the dead. They meet by chance when Tereza picks up a book, Peggy Reeves Sanday’s Divine Hunger, from José’s pile in the library.

(Reviewer’s note: it is difficult not to include plot spoilers…. so apologies if this seems elliptical or enigmatic)

Their second meeting ends with a three day ‘lie in’ in José’s university accommodation broken only by his outings to collect food (food and love –the central motifs and images of the book) and very quickly he moves into Tereza’s East Village sub-let for a relationship that is all consuming, broken only by José being summoned to San Francisco when his Sao Paulo based wife and son visit her sisters. This is the tale of only two characters – José’s wife Ines plays a minor role in Tereza’s narration, part as rival part as ally, all as fantasy; former lovers provide some depth to the characters, but aside from José’s suggestion to move in, this is Tereza’s story with José paying a much more passive role, responding to Ines’s summons, completing Tereza’s partiality – but it is important that she is not inadequate, just seeing herself as incomplete and desperate for José to finish her.

Drakulić has been described as having a style akin to Marguerite Duras, and while this is apt it does neither of them justice. In this case, the subjects of study of both are, I think, important – with the metaphysicals place on that margin between early modernity/renaissance efflorescence and romanticism, whose craving of the language of love as a spiritual form, extending and supplementing Tereza’s ontology of self and José’s study of divine hunger, of anthropophagy, makes his passivity and lack of agency deeply unsettling as the narrative grows.

The blurb on my edition describes an ‘ecstatic and terrible conclusion’ (a fitting description) but Drakulić wraps it all in a banal and mundane frame as Terezea cleans the apartment getting ready for her return to Warsaw at the end of her grant, and in doing so sets up a radical disjuncture between the ordinariness of domestic labour and the ecstasy of the end of the affair. In its fundamentals the story is simple – a sabbatical romance develops to an intense level and ends at the completion of the study/research breaks – but Drakulić’s story-telling abilities mean that it unravels as a narrative of recollection told in the midst of its termination while the balance of poetic and flat stylistics means that ecstasy and the terrible is both smoothed out and intensified to become concurrently ordinary and extraordinary as Tereza’s actions become both mundane and explicable.

Not a book for the easily disturbed or squeamish, but a treat for the rest of us. It was a one-sitting book.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
May 27, 2014 – Finished Reading
May 28, 2014 – Shelved
May 28, 2014 – Shelved as: fiction-contemporary
May 28, 2014 – Shelved as: lit-like
October 19, 2014 – Shelved as: fiction-east-central-europe

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