Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Jody Shields and The Fig Eater

This is one of those books I picked up off the staff recommendations shelf at Barnes and Noble – one of the very best sources for cult classics like Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, books that don’t get a lot of press hype but whose readership grows slowly by word-of-mouth.

The cover caught my eye. This woman is dressed modestly enough, all the important parts are covered, but look at her eyes – there is a sultriness there, and a challenge that I find intriguing. This shows signs already of being an-out-of the-ordinary book.

The book opens in the early 1900’s with a murder. We follow the investigations of the chief Inspector, and we follow the parallel investigations of his wife, a Hungarian, Erszebet, and her ally, the English Wally. It’s a mystery, and in this exquisite book, the process of solving the mystery is so much more interesting than who actually did it, or even why.

The most fascinating character in The Fig Eater is the nature of fin de siecle Vienna, it’s customs, it’s caste system, it’s manners, and the fusion of East and West. Entire meals are described, cafe’s, cakes, cooking methods. Clothing is described in loving detail, and we visit a tuburculosis sanitarium as well as an insane asylum.

We study Kriminalistics with the Inspector and his assistant, we learn the fundamentals of early photography from an three fingered photographer. We experience early Viennese medical practices.

We learn all kinds of Hungarian superstitions and beliefs, we dance at the Fasching Balls of Vienna, and we simmer with the repressed sexuality of the times. We mourn with the bereaved, we shiver in the cold winter, and we steam in the brutal heat of an extended summer.

The end is so totally unexpected that I had to go back and read it again. My bet is, that if you accept the challenge of reading this book, you will have to, too. Even after you have read it again, you will not be totally sure what has happened, and yet . . . it is a satisfying ending.

This was a wonderful read.

I will leave you with a quote:

The Inspector has always prided himself on his ability to listen, as a good Burger is confident of his business acumen. During interrogations, he can distinguish the different qualities of the witnesses silence, as if it were a tone of voice.

He had admonished Franz more than once for interrupting him. Don’t be so hasty. Slow down and listen. In the Pythagorean system, disciples would spend five years listening before they were allowed to ask a single question. That was in the 4th Century BC. Another philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, wrote about Banquets of Silence, where even the correct posture for listening was determined.

In Kriminalistic there is a text on the subject. He orders Franz to read it as part of his lesson. “To observe how the person question listens is a rule of primary importance, and if the officer observes it he will arrive at his goal more quickly than by the hours of examination.”

June 12, 2008 Posted by | Community, Crime, Cross Cultural, Cultural, Detective/Mystery, Entertainment, Family Issues, Law and Order, Lies, Living Conditions, Marriage, Mating Behavior, Relationships, Social Issues, Women's Issues | , , , | Leave a comment