Mar 30, 2013
In genre fiction, especially romance, there has long been a blackout of the forties and fifties. Maybe there were a few publishers who tentatively dipped their toes in the waters of those decades, but for the most part, the millions of possible stories of that era remained untold. It's hard to say why, really, but the gatekeeper-publishers just weren't buying/publishing many manuscripts set in that era. Things may be turning around now, with all changes in the book market, or maybe the blacklisted decades have just advanced to the sixties or eighties. Of course, this isn't really what one would call a card-carrying historical romance, so perhaps I am misapplying a rule of genre romance over another genre. It's a new cross-genre world, as far as book publishing is concerned. Initially, I was doubly interested in The Fat Chef by Fredrik Nath, because it combines a couple of my favorite subjects: cooking, history and mystery.
The Fat Chef himself is Raoul, Head Chef of Le Metro in 1940 Paris. As the story begins, Raoul is with some of his staff from the hotel Le Metro, watching the Germans triumphant march as they come in to occupy his beloved Paris. The book is a slow starter because we have to see who the protagonist is in the context of his life "before" war. After we meet Raoul, it takes some time to see the patriotic heart he hides beneath a huge, seemingly benign bulk, but eventually actions eventually speak louder than words--even if no one sees them.
Raoul is a man of his time, and accepts himself and his weight, which in one sense functions as a camouflage to a spine no one (except maybe Natalie) realizes he has. His vocation and avocation is food, his kitchen, and the hotel; and in his position--within the boundaries of his kitchen realm--as head chef, he runs his world with flair, and taste. At first his best intent is not to let the German occupation touch him. But Paris is occupied. The Germans can not be ignored, especially when they take over the hotel.
In many ways, this tale is a French version of the domestic point of view expressed in Remains of the Day, the action of which is set during the forties, and in which, the English butler Mr Stevens responds to the invasion of politics into his English domain by maintaining the appearance of business as usual, even at great personal cost. In The Fat Chef, at first it seems that Raoul is going to cope in the same way, "Business as usual. We will rise above all this politics." But the essential Frenchness of Raoul, his passion and hunger for and appreciation of life, and especially his secret passion for his Jewish sous chef Natalie lead us into a story that follows a very different path. Maybe Raoul's unrequited love during the Nazi occupation is not quite so unrequited.
While this novel is part of Fredrik Nath's World War 2 Adventure series, it should be noted that it stands on its own. In fact, since this is the first of Mr. Nath's books that I have read, I can't say if there is any interaction between the novels in the series. I can say that I found the book intriguing. The slow pace is more akin to a romance than a thriller, and though it hit's the ground at an amble, The Fat Chef, bubbles, toils and troubles through a number of very unexpected plot twists. Raoul has a metamorphosis and sacrifices are made. The author's bio says Fredrik Nath loves a good story, and I believe it, because this is a good story. I think it's the best story I've ever read that was written by a full time neuro-surgeon, so I'm glad that when Nath is not carving up patients in surgery, he turns his intriguing brain to writing fiction. An enjoyable read, refreshing voice, believable character.