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Half baked: Asli Perker’s 'Soufflé'

Half baked: Asli Perker’s Soufflé

Asli Perker’s Soufflé attempts to tell three different stories of three different people finding solace in cooking — but follows a rather tedious route to get there.



By Nivriti Butalla - Senior Reporter

Published: Sat 13 Jun 2015, 1:00 AM

Last updated: Wed 8 Jul 2015, 2:50 PM

Slow boat to China is a phrase I heard a lot while growing up. Anyone who took forever to come to the point was on the slow boat to China. Reading Soufflé is like being glued to this boat — in itself not the worst predicament, but you’ve got to be prepared to get nowhere in a hurry. To be fair, in parts, the book is not agonising. It’s even alright if a waffling narrative, topped with the tedium of never-ending details, is your thing. If someone asked me to summarise what I thought of the book: at least 100 pages too long, I’d say.

Author Asli Perker has translated the book on her own from Turkish to English, and drones on about her three protagonists and their three parallel stories for one year and 355 pages. There’s Lilia, Marc and Ferda in New York, Paris, and Istanbul. All three characters have to cope with their personal crises, have their heads buried in cookbooks, and spend inordinate amounts of time planning and poring over meals.

NEW YORK

Lilia (originally named ‘Manggagaway’) is from the Philippines, and married to a grouch, Arnie — who she has to play nursemaid to because of a clot that burst in Arnie’s brain that took his mobility, and left him physically dependent on Lilia. Even before the clot, Arnie and Lilia had a dead marriage. They adopted two kids, Giang and Dung, from Vietnam and both turned out callous and ungrateful. They never visit or call.

Lilia is stuck, miserable, and fantasises about Arnie being dead. To fund his medical expenses, she leases out some rooms in their house, and finds immense pleasure in cooking for the new inhabitants of the house. Her cooking becomes more “varied and colourful” and she even catches herself thinking that Arnie’s illness was “the best thing that had happened to them in a long time”.

PARIS

The second story is about a doting husband, Marc, who lives in Paris. He loves comic books, and runs an art gallery. He returns home as usual one evening with a small cake box in his hand for his wife Clara — their Friday routine for 22 years of marriage. It’s coffee time for them. He turns the key, but smells no coffee; the TV is on, and he sees her — the love of his life — collapsed in front of the kitchen counter.

The coffee jar she had been holding before she fell had broken into pieces on the floor. Marc could smell the vanilla coffee now. Almost choked by sobs, he pressed two fingers against his wifes incredibly slender wrist. She had no pulse. Then he touched her precious neck. There was no pulse. After he had made the necessary phone call, he lay down next to his wife and held on to the smell she had left behind.

In the rest of the book, Marc mourns and learns to cook, as a way of overcoming his grief. In time, he even becomes friendly with a girl called Sabina, who works in the kitchenware section of a store, and they develop a gentle rapport, where she explains to him the different kinds of graters and measuring cups at the store, and he looks forward to visiting her more.

ISTANBUL

The third story is about Ferda in Istanbul, saddled with a hypochondriac bedridden mother, who is slowly turning into a complete nuisance. Ferda is a dutiful daughter. Her friends pity her. Her daughter pities her. Her husband, Sinan, can’t cope with his mother-in-law. The house is a battle zone. The characterisation here is insightful — but it is not without distractions.

Sample this: When she saw her husbands pale face with beads of sweat dripping from it, shed run to the medicine cabinet, her hands shaking. In the meantime, she asked, Sinan, can you breath? Can you breath? (sic). At which point, the reader needs to come up for air. This ‘can you breath, can you breath’ line is not the first instance where you wonder where Perker’s editor was. It’s not something a spell-check would have picked up. After all, ‘breath-breathe, tomato-tomatoe’ — who can tell, right? Anyway.

One of the best sections of the book comes halfway, when all three protagonists land up at the cooking aisles of bookshops in their cities, and pick up a book called Soufflé, The Biggest Disappointment. It’s told through Ferda’s eyes and has a nice whiff of synchronicity.

World Cuisine with Simple Recipes was the closest to what she was looking for Before turning her back to the shelves, the cover of a book caught her eye. She picked it up without hesitating, not knowing that a tired woman and a sad man had reached out to the book on the same day, somewhere else. The title was Soufflé. Underneath it said in small letters, The Biggest Disappointment. Ferda looked around her, surprised. Even though she had witnessed before how life sometimes intersected exactly with her own thoughts, she was stunned to see it happening once again. She blushed. She wanted to tell someone about the miracle, but instead she went to the cashier and paid for both of the books. 

If only this book was a bit tighter. The problem isn’t that it’s a slow book — it is slow and that’s fine. The tedium comes from the wrong kind of detail being explored in depth. The stories are great. The telling is not. In fact, there’s a lot of ‘telling’ — that Marc, for instance, is grieving for his dead wife; that Lilia is crushing on a tenant or that Ferda is fed up with her mother’s illness — but none of these characters are ever brought out beyond their surface attributes. The actual fleshing out is left to the reader. It’s difficult to feel their pain because of the author’s missing acuity.

Writing about ageing, mortality and loss, Perker had solid material to go on with. But the soufflé falters. In her excessive, injudicious use of detail and a narrative that makes minimal progress, you keep feeling that at any point in the book if you skipped the last 20 pages, you wouldn’t have missed anything. One too many ingredients missing in this one.

nivriti@khaleejtimes.com


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