Anna Tambour is the author of one short story collection—quirkily titled Monterra’s Deliciosa & Other Tales &–and of one novel, Spotted Lily. Although her stories often end up on annual recommended-reading lists, she might very well have slipped under your literary radar, since she does not publish overmuch, nor in lots of big-name venues. But with the appearance of her new novel, Crandolin, she will surely register Richter-powerful on the delighted synapses of all patrons of weird, funny fabulism. The lively and bold Chômu Press, which touts its catalogue as offering “new vistas of irreality,” deserves much credit for presenting this out-of-the-ordinary, highly accomplished foray into the Weird.
First off, the reader will notice and soon revel in the fact that this hefty novel is composed of nearly one hundred bite-sized chapters, each with a pithy and cleverly resonant header and satisfyingly complete in dramatic payoff, while still being parts of the big mosaic. This structural decision induces a bubbly and heady effervescence, as we bounce with initial confusion, then with growing coherence and glee, from one exotic venue to another.
We open with a contemporary fellow, Nick Kippax, a gourmet of the arcane. He’s tracked down a medieval cookbook in a library that references a mythical dish called “crandolin.” The crandolins, you see, are sentient creatures “light pink as the dawn they imitated as they probed cracks in the shutters protecting pink virgins in their beds.” And there, on the recipe’s page, is an ancient organic stain! Could it be from a sloppy moment of crandolin preparation? He impulsively sucks at the paper, and instantly vanishes, his empty clothes falling to the floor, and his consciousness dispersed across several nodes of spacetime.
Next up, here are just some of the fascinating characters and milieus Tambour presents, not all of them necessarily through Kippax’s POV, in mostly alternating sections (sometimes several sequential chapters constitute one larger episode) that soon become braided and complementary. We meet Ekmel, a honey merchant in a far-off Middle-Eastern or Far-Eastern locale, and his greedy customer, the sweets-maker Burhanettin, not to mention Ekmel’s unique she-donkey, all of them on a quest for the esoteric honey from Kirand-luhun. Then there’s a trio of Russians—Valentin, Galina and Saava—working aboard a long-distance train journeying across a glasnost-era USSR. We encounter Faldarolo, itinerant musician and bard of the bladder-pipe, an instrument which resembles in its demands Elric’s sentient sword. Then we eavesdrop on two artistic demiurges, the Muse and the Omniscient, each with opposed viewpoints on the proper nature of narrative. And I have not even cited that rarest of birds, the cinnamologus, or Munifer, mustache fabricator to the Great Timūrsaçi, who is embarked on a quest for large quantities of virgin’s hair.
Tambour deftly deploys a variety of tones and strategies in this book, which she manages to unite gracefully into an organic wholeness and distinctive voice. We have bits of erudite lost history, in the manner of Umberto Eco. We have surreal and absurdist moments such as we might find in the work of Stepan Chapman or Rhys Hughes. Haruki Murakami’s melancholy aloneness and perverseness of existence figure into Tambour’s style, as does Rikki Ducornet’s jeweled oneiric prose. Of course there’s a heavy dose of the Arabian Nights in the tale. And when the Muse and the Omniscient assume human form and interact with the Russians, I was reminded of nothing so much as Thorne Smith’s The Night Life of the Gods.
But what’s really central to Tambour’s tale is the romance of food. Among the senses, taste is usually scanted in fiction. True, there have been some epic instances of eating in fiction. The meals in Tolkien and Peake stand out, and of course there’s the famous banquet scene in Tom Jones. Yet for the most part, fantasy and science fiction tend not to dwell on this very primal pleasure and method of processing reality, as if eating were too mundane an activity for consideration. Yet what could be more central and universal to being alive? So for a real parallel to what Tambour accomplishes here, we have to turn to the cinema. Films such as Big Night, La Grande Bouffe, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, and Babette’s Feast are the true ancestors of Tambour’s multi-course spread.
But of course, as with every field of endeavor, there are limits and lessons to be learned. The crandolin says to Kippax at the book’s climax, “Not everyone is for eating.” This is followed before too long by the sourceless maxim, “Kiss the beast you cannot eat.”
Good rules to live by, in this interdependent, commensal world.