by Ihab Hassan
the universal cannibalism that leaves its imprint on every amorous relationship and erases the lines between our bodies . . . —from Italo Calvino’s Under the Jaguar Sun, cited in Percival’s notebooks
He survived three heart attacks, like his dead father before him, without attenuation to his primal instincts or subtle cruelty. (Does cruelty, I wonder, move like a boomerang?) In Sydney, they sometimes called him the Prince of Darkness, sometimes the Master of Venery. But that left out his stringency, his fen-like gloom and oracular eyes.
Venery, why venery? That’s just the Sydney Morning Herald, smart-alecky and obsessed by puns. Venus, venereal, venerable, venery, the red meat of the chase. The man was something else. He went by a single name, Percival—never abbreviated, not even in this land of diminutives—and was celebrated as a restaurant critic, dour and ravenous. I mean ravenous discreetly for women, mercilessly for the food of the gods. Perhaps also for death.
Me? I research obituaries and write fugitive pieces for the Bulletin. (It’s not bad for a first generation Ozzie.) Percy’s path—yes, I choose to call him that, and also Gloomy Gus behind his back—crossed mine at bill’s, to which we were both addicted for Sunday brunch. The first time, I sat next to him at the counter and, not recognizing him, asked:
What do you do?
I poison food with my pen. You?
I wash the poison off dead men. This is my day off.
Despite the banter, I sensed in the man sitting next to me massed shadows. Short, hirsute, he reminded me of a wild Pict. As his huge, black eyes rested on my face, I felt something cold flutter by. What kind of man was that? What kind of obit would he command?
Percy read my thoughts, looked sideways at my plate. His thin lips curled ambiguously around the words:
How are your coconut pancakes with passion fruit syrup?
That’s him, changing a subject never spoken, directing a silent conversation from afar.
Locals and celebrities alike—Kylie Minogue, Nicole Kidman, Percival himself—loved Bill Granger’s place, its sunny simplicity and beach-house airs. I kept bumping into Percy there. He kept talking to me about Paracelsus, Musil, Morgan le Fay, seldom about food, never about women. Alternately, he seemed a Mitteleuropa intellectual and a Druid in despair. All the while, slicing chefs close to the bone, dicing reputations. All the while surviving his errant heart.
Because few liked Percy, he kept to himself. Did he love himself to the marrow? Impossible to say. Did his marriages and divorces enhance his image? That’s PR talk. Did he, Othello-like, strangle one of his wives in bed? A wicked rumor. Anyway, I admired the man’s intellect, priapism, and desolation. I admired his way of seeing things slant. Once, at bill’s, I started a sentence by saying: There’s something . . . He cut me off, and forming an emphatic zero with index and thumb, hissed: There’s nothing. He laughed eerily like a visitant from the void, and after chewing a mouthful of crispy-skin salmon with vegetable noodle salad, murmured to himself:
Except children perhaps.
For an instant, I thought: Percy could disappear in a puff of smoke of his own making. And where would that leave me?
From Percival’s notebooks:
That young man at bill’s—I’ll call him Yoshi, looks vaguely Japanese, maybe Korean—is always chatting me up. Probably writing some article—food? me?—on the sly. But slyness, like Janus, looks two ways.
Always mentions Tetsuya: “Isn’t he the best, isn’t he the best cook in Oz?” Yes, Tets has the gift outright—learned to make sushi as a child from his mother in Japan. They all learn from their mothers. Or grandmothers. And from whom did Plato’s Demiurge learn to concoct the cosmos in a Cooking Bowl?
Everything that lives eats and dies—it’s the dire mystery of existence. Even the gods eat to maintain their divinity. (Is that manna in the desert their garbage?) Anyway, lips, teeth, tongue, throat, esophagus, stomach, duodenum, ileum, caecum, colon, rectum, anus, are all in place. So what if “Celia shits”? Excrement is entropy, yes, but woman generates—not just a fetus, mind you—generates the space of love. Or despair.
Will I ever see little Erin again? And what would be the point of that?
Percy was strict, strict with the world and himself, even if some women said otherwise. I could see him committing seppuku but not out of loyalty or shame—no, on a whim or out of sheer pride. (At that time, I didn’t know about his daughter.)
All right, it’s time to admit it: I’m a buzzard—not quite a ghoul—I circle dying celebrities. I’m preparing to write the obituary for Percival. To do a good obituary, you need to prefigure the event, imagine it through. I hoped that my personal acquaintance with the man would give me an edge. Was I seeking to convince my editor that I could write the obit of a famous Australian? You bet. But where’s the blame? We all die: gangsters, generals, gastronomes. Yes, that was going to be my angle: Gloomy Gus, the dying, sulfuric bon vivant. Look for the contradictions in a person’s life, I say, look for the cracks.
With someone as smart as Percy, though, I would have to acknowledge his mind. And I would have to acknowledge, beyond all the gloom, his covert love of life, the way he would look at a beautiful woman meditatively, with a little Buddha smile. Or was it the expression of the proverbial cat, eyeing a canary? Of course, I would have to consider his recent, roily divorce from the playwright Brenda Taylor. Above all, I would have to honor his mystery, the edge of darkness—I would not say evil—in his life. In any case, I knew that my obituary of Percy would stretch my limits. Perhaps throw me smack against myself. (I couldn’t foresee how.) So, why not write the obit and test it on him before he dies? Could I do that?
From Percival’s notebooks:
I’m stonewalling Yoshi—or rather, cushioning his curiosity. Still, his unctuous persistence gets on my nerves. Does he really want to write my obituary while I’m still around?
Camus thought that the one liberty we possess is coming to terms with absurd death—“after which, everything is possible.” But how can anything so exigent and universal as death be absurd? Death drives evolution—the frayed ends of DNA, the telomeres determining self-reproduction, see to that. Its inexorable character means law, hints design more than randomness in the world.
Martha Graham can leap and whirl her way past ninety-six years, but the Philosopher of the Mustache hit the mark: “Only where there are tombs are there resurrections.” Can a grand jeté land you at St. Peter’s Gate? Well, fear of death also sends Gothic buttresses flying to pierce the sky.
The big bloody butterfly fluttering in my ribcage seems steadier lately. But I know its cunning ingratiations. Perhaps its “irregularities” have ruled my life, marriages, aristology, and all. My feelings for Erin too? Is that possible, Erin?
Don’t underestimate the covert idealism of the man, I told myself. Not after that Great Food Fight, involving the lay and ecclesiastic hierarchies of Sydney gastronomes. (This city takes its restaurants more seriously than its churches, almost as seriously as real estate.) It was murder in the kitchen and in the media. Only Percy retained his indefectible judgment and savage grace. He exposed everything shoddy and spurious, all the cant, humbug, chicanery in high places; he admitted himself fallible and praised what plainly called for praise. He did not spare Australia. In the end, they could not compromise his authority, so they spattered his failed marriages on the page. In the end, they hated him more than they hated anyone since Judge Barry put Ned Kelly’s neck in the noose. Their rumors circulated around Sydney Harbour and even down into the subterranean Tank Stream.
It had all started with an ambitious, ponytailed Australian chef challenging Tetsuya and the rankings of the Good Food Guide. Never mind that the man was practically an absentee cook from his slick eatery in The Rocks. He knew how to flatter and insinuate; he knew how to shape the debate to his advantage. Still, I could not understand the kerfuffle. Fusion, diffusion, infusion, confusion cuisine. Tradition, the enigma of taste, the integrity of produce, the lay of the land. French, Asian, Mediterranean, Australian influences. A storm of epithets, a hail of words crashing down on palates and plates. The fracas was absurd.
I pretended exasperation to Percy. He gave me his you-imbecile stare:
Don’t you get it? Violence is the staff of life. Conflicts preserve identities. They also clean the spirit of rust. But rust never sleeps.
He turned grimly to his eggs Benedict with baby asparagus tips; then, cocking his head:
Do you have that concealed tape recorder on?
Before I could say anything, perjure myself—that’s the sensitivity of the man—Percy deflected my answer:
Anyway, food and violence have always walked hand-in-hand on the highroads of history. That includes cannibalism.
Suddenly, he sank within himself as if his body had fallen into a tarn. That Sunday, we had no more to say at bill’s.
From Percival’s notebooks:
They think “culture” when they think cuisine. It’s partly true, of course—a book like Gay Bilson’s Plenty is a prize salmagundi of victuals, ideas, memories, culinary history, reflections on people and art . . . But food has a darker side—even a Mars Bar. We kill for food, and kill to make it sacred. It’s not just the Mass. Aztecs husked the human heart like a corncob from its sheath; St. Ignatius begged to become “the food of the beasts.” I omit all the colonial wars. Money and power are just abstractions, lethal sublimations of human nutriment, mama’s milk sucked and bitten out of the nipple.
You philosophize easily, Brenda used to say impatiently, it’s your shield against people. Perhaps. But I nearly killed her at the table once—a quick thrust to the heart with that Solingen carving knife. That was surely no philosophy. Still, I couldn’t do it: she was carrying Erin. And whose child was Erin? I never asked. Brenda would have simply tossed her head: “You’ll never know.”
We were serpents, Brenda and I, serpents swallowing each other in a deadly circle that even Erin couldn’t break. I should have heeded all the hints around me of Calvino’s “universal cannibalism,” which thrives under a Jaguar sun.
The following Sunday, pausing briefly at the entrance of bill’s, I came upon an odd scene. Percy sat slightly apart, as if people had drawn away from him, leaving empty seats on either side. He poured a little milk from his glass on the counter of blond Tasmanian oak. Then he dipped his index finger in the white puddle and began to trace hieratic figures on the glistening wood. His spirit seemed distant, as if revisiting some bleak, ancestral heath. I sat down quietly next to him.
Hello, he said morosely, without looking up.
I tried to distract him:
Did you hear the story of the new sous-chef at Tetsuya? Another Japanese. He applied for apprenticeship in the master’s kitchen and was rejected. Repeatedly. Then, like disciples of old, he just sat before the temple gate on Kent Street. Day and night. At last, Tetsuya took him in as dishwasher, then gofer, then commis. Now he’s a sous-chef. Persistence pays.
For a moment, I thought Percy would give me his shriveling stare. Instead, almost amicably, he said:
Persistence, yes, and self-abnegation. What are you eating today?
I glanced at the white Rorschach pattern on the counter and thought I saw a tori gate.
Percy ignored my interest.
I recommend the citrus risotto with seared garlic-chili shrimp, he said.
His smile seemed to me sly. I thought: I’m getting to know this man at the cost of small, serial humiliations. That’s what my editor had warned me: In this business, there’s no personal, only professional, pride. Still, I wanted my trivial payback. I said blandly:
Do you ever run into your former wives and their new lovers here?
His smile broadened, seemingly unaffected by the taunt.
You’re thinking of Brenda, aren’t you? My last wife has chosen to make her vulnerabilities public. Well, that’s her privilege. But not yours.
Once again, I had allayed Percy’s gloom at my own expense. He continued:
Our fake intimacy is turning rancid. And what will your concealed recorder say about all this later, my friend? Anyway, Brenda reminds me now of a woman I never met.
That was Percy, infrangibly gnomic, always saying more than he knew, and knowing more than he said.
From Percival’s notebooks:
They say I womanize. It’s a hazard of my profession. Food, death, and procreation have been braided from the start in the old tangled bank. In some species—web spiders, the praying mantis—the connection can be catastrophic for the male. But it can be otherwise—a goat’s teat, the gobbet of a courting bower bird.
Food is physical but imaginary, too, like lovemaking, like haute couture—Dior was a subtle gourmet. Chemistry, biology, ethic, aesthetic, psychology, theology, or génésique—the sixth, synesthetic sense of Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin—may be indistinguishable in sex or gluttony.
Oysters, carrot tops, tiger testicles, mandrake roots . . . poppycock! We eat, fuck, and die. Death, not Knowledge, knowledge of death perhaps, came with a bite of that first apple. But a woman—Brenda, say—is not Eve, Isis, or Ishtar, not the great worm Ouroboros either. She is herself, and that is both the greater banality and deeper mystery.
Brenda? I remember her as in an overcast dream: plain, sexy, implacable. She could look at a rumpled bed and tell whether it had been slept in for love or money. Why did I feel sometimes that going to her I was crossing the Bridge of Sighs? No, that Venetian image absolves me, as if I were merely a condemned man. I went to her, rather, as a reveler to a cannibal feast, mindful that the “most appetizingly flavored human flesh belongs to the eater of human flesh” (Calvino again).
But all that evades the question: why did I really slip out of Erin’s life? Why did I never share my sentiments about her with anyone? Was I afraid to consume her too, as I consumed so much else? Or was I afraid to touch her with the death I carry in myself, my tremulous genie of self-consumption?
For the next two weeks, I avoided bill’s. I suffered from heartburn, lassitude, despondency, which I attributed to my anxiety about TLO (The Living Obituary, I called it, as if it were some kind of SF beast). I consulted my editor. Gruffly, he said:
Go see a doctor. Now.
So I went to St. Vincent’s Hospital. They took my blood pressure, counted my pulse, listened to my heart, ordered a cardiogram, drew samples of urine and blood, and told me:
The results will be in next week, the doctor will call you.
When I returned to bill’s, I instinctively chose salads. Percy noticed, of course, said nothing, became genial in a vague, disquieting way. My curiosity surfaced again, bubbling over with impertinent queries:
How did you become an international food writer, Percival?
(My mother decimated the family with her soup.)
Why are you so severe?
(And the alternative would be?)
I got the point. But Percy still gave me an are-you-with-me, quizzical stare. I pivoted on my high stool:
You want me to say that severity comes from the soul, don’t you, Percival? Or from the cold, unflinching blade of a samurai.
He laughed, head tilted back. I returned to munching my salad and listening for arrhythmia in my chest. I never believed in the samurai spirit, anyway, or in the Japanese ideal of purity.
From Percival’s notebooks:
They say Rome fell with a slow, leaden crash because Claudius, Nero, Caligula, like subsequent emperors, imbibed inordinate quantities of lead from pewter plates and flasks. It makes equal sense to say that Rome succumbed to spiritual anorexia.
Yoshi, I believe, is sick at heart. But he spurns kokoro (he knows it means Japanese essence, not just heart). We are both still racing to write some imaginary obituary—he mine, I of the hapless human race. Why are his sights set so low? Doesn’t he know that obituaries are scavengers of sorts?
When I heard the doctor’s voice over the phone, my palms went clammy on the receiver. He said I was okay except for some fibrillations. He said I should watch my diet, exercise consistently, and take the pills he was prescribing. He said: And come back for a follow-up in three months. The gravitas of his voice modulated solace and menace.
But I was not comforted; in fact, I panicked, as if suddenly caged. No, a cage has space between its bars, this was stifling, more like a shrinking cell, airless and black. I tried to snap out of it: this wasn’t “The Pit and the Pendulum” after all. But I continued to shiver in my sweat. Then I started pacing in my bedroom, from the window—I had flung it open—around the bed, to the bathroom, back and forth, fast, faster, tracing a fishhook on the carpet, jostling the furniture as I veered. After a while, I felt the panic drain, all feeling drain with it, leaving only the inaudible sound of a wayward drum. At the kitchen sink, I splashed my face, slapping it hard. Then I called in sick.
Over instant Nescafé, I tried to think. Think? All I felt was shame. Percy would not have panicked. He would have quoted Montaigne. Or perhaps Emerson’s phrase that had caught my eye the first year at uni: “Creep into your grave, the universe hath no need of you.”
After the shame, I felt a surge of self-pity. Pouring myself another cup of instant with skim milk and extra sugar, I recalled that no one else in my family had attended uni. (My people, interned during the Pacific War in the States, had relocated in Australia during the Whitlam years.) But what had I done with my new start on the newest continent? Write obituaries? Second guess readers? Impersonate Percy? Lose the accent of my grandparents, once thick as bean curd?
Shaking myself like a retriever out of muddy water, I thought: Why should I be writing Percy’s obituary? I should be writing mine.
From Percival’s notebooks:
They say: love and death, nutrient and feces, it all reduces to that. But civilizations—indeed, human truths themselves—live only in the nuances.
How to convey to a woman the measure of a man’s feelings without reference to lubricity or love? Evolution—“the selfish gene”—proscribes friendship between the sexes, except in old age. I’d like to think Brenda and I parted to perfect ourselves, prepare ourselves for a higher finality. That our parting had nothing to do with the insatiable ego, the unappeasable flesh. But then came Erin, and I failed to convey to her anything—is that possible?—except the severity of an older, dying man.
I came to the best tables of the world in search of order—not simply to pleasure membranes, buds, alimentary canals—in search of a harmonious place within universal chaos. And there, at high table, so to speak, it was death I met, the permanent guest, luminous and austere.
Kabir says: “When the I, the Me, and the Mine are dead, the work of the Lord is done.” That’s simple and grand, the ultimate simplicity perhaps. I could have settled for less: a good father, a good man.
Weeks have passed, I’m back on the job.
I have never met Brenda Taylor, though I have seen her photos—she’s not pretty, but her face lingers with you somehow, seducing some unknown organ above the waist. In her public quarrel with Percy, she had succeeded in transforming her pain into an instrument of both authorial candor and personal revenge. But she was widely liked for her independence, her aura of unadorned rectitude. Sensing her willingness to talk about Percy, I called for an interview. She surprised me:
No, I don’t talk about him, I only write about myself.
Her voice had been final, flat, giving a whiff of rebuke over the phone. (Oh, she was like Percy that way, uneager to please.) So, after some weeks—I have frankly lost track—I went back to bill’s. Percy was hunched at the counter, ashen, dim like a cavern, except for his jet eyes. I found no empty seat beside him. We ate in silence till the man between us left and I hopped over before the waitress could quite clear his place. Percy frowned:
Be courteous to the staff, the server mirrors the guest.
I said: You look terrible, Percival, have you been ill?
He produced an envelope:
Some jottings from my notebooks. For your obituary. Make it a short one.
I tried to laugh off my astonishment:
Thank you. But do you mean your obituary or mine?
He raised his gray, bushy eyebrows, which met where spectacles usually rest:
Don’t play coy.
I took the envelope and placed it on my knees. He looked down at his unfinished plate, folded his napkin, then stood up slowly and left without a word.
A month later, Percival was dead, no one knew exactly how. St. Vincent’s refused queries, I decided not to probe. But I regretted missing the chance to ask him about his cryptic notes, all that he really left of a strict and elegantly harsh life.
The day Percival died, my editor stood hulking over my desk. (Did I see a glint of challenge within his cold stare?) He simply said: Well? I had nothing to say. He stood an instant longer, nodded, then walked away.
I had nothing to say: I had resolved to write no obituary of Percival, no obituary again. Instead, I began to write this personal account, feeling I was crossing a shadow line, passing, as it were, into another space in my life—feeling also that, without knowing Erin, I would never understand what I needed to understand.
Ihab Hassan has published thirteen books, most recently a selection of essays, In Quest of Nothing. He has just completed a novel, The Changeling. He has received numerous awards, including two Guggenheim Fellowships. (6/2009)