Thursday, March 12, 2009

"An Instance of the Fingerpost"

The word fingerpost is so obscure*, that most people I've talked to are put off just by the title of Iain Pears' book, An Instance of the Fingerpost. So I begin with the definition: it means a signpost with pointer-shaped indicators that show the direction of nearby towns or cities. These appear on all the roads in the British Isles, and have been in use since the 17th century, at least. By extension, fingerpost means a pointer or proof of any sort.

An Instance of the Fingerpost is an exercise in unreliable narrators: four, to be exact. Further, each narrator questions lots more unreliable witnesses in attempting to understand various events. Two of the narrations are by fictitious characters. Two are by historic figures, though the events and narratives are fiction. Each has a very special character, reflected in his writing.

The events in question take place in 1663. The narratives are from later. The principal locale is Oxford, England. One murder and many mysteries about the politics of the Restoration of the King of England after the death of Oliver Cromwell obsess these narrators. A plot summary would require many paragraphs, and never do justice to the continual reverses of this entirely fictitious tale.

Food plays only a small role, but as I always focus on how authors use food, I made it a point to notice its appearance in each narrator's part. I suspect that Pears did his homework, though I think he might exaggerate some of the unattractiveness of English food at the time.

The first narrator is an Italian, Marco da Cola. Pears clearly chose a newcomer to England to open his complex tale in order to introduce all the unfamiliar features of English life, and have an excuse to contrast it with the much more sophisticated refinement of Venice in that era.

"If the climate of England was difficult for a Venetian to become used to, then the food was impossible," Cola writes. "Even the more modest sort habitually eat meat once a month at least, and the English boast that they have no need of sauces to cover up its stringy texture and unpleasant taste... Simply roast it and eat it as God intended, they say, firmly believing that ingeniousness in cooking is sinful and that the Heavenly Host themselves tuck into roast beef and ale for their Sunday repast." Also, he notes a lack of fruit and vegetables, and pressure to drink too much beer. (p. 35)

Cola also describes an Oxford college dining hall and its customs, where the high table is elevated from the floor and so on -- just as it continues today. "As the food is scarcely fit for animals, I suppose it is not surprising that they behave like beasts. They eat off wooden platters, and in the middle of the tables are vast wooden bowls into which they toss the bones... I ended up with food splattered over me from Fellows talking with their mouths full, spraying each other with bits of gristle and half-masticated bread." (p. 74-75)

At a tavern meal, where Cola meets among others the illustrious John Locke, Cola tries the pig's head, which costs tuppence, with unlimited cabbage and beer for a ha'penny. Cola hopes it will be "a nice head roasted with apples and liqueur, and perhaps with a few shrimp as well." But it isn't: it's boiled in vinegar, and he can't even eat it. (p. 99-100)

Viewed by the English narrators, Cola's sensibilities are frivolous or worse -- associated with the hated Catholic religion. His habit of wearing perfume is especially annoying to them: "All dressed up and elaborate so you can't tell what's underneath," remarks a critic of his, "Garlic or incense. It's the same thing." (p. 629)

The three English narrators say much less about food than Cola did, and never find it so disgusting. For example, Wallis, the third narrator, meets Boyle -- two more historical personages that Pears includes in his elaborate plot. "I asked him to visit and gave him a fine meal of oysters, lamb, partridge and pudding and then persuaded him to treat the conversation in the utmost confidence." (p. 455) Usually, though, the others provide no detail: "Then I ate in at an inn, for being a prisoner is hungry work..." (p. 504) For them, food is simply a necessity, or at worst a danger.

An Instance of the Fingerpost makes for challenging but quite enjoyable reading. Lots of layers of detail about a variety of topics, food included, make this a good read. The author's success at creating insanely varied takes on the same events, and using the variation to highlight the insanity of the era in English history, is amazing.

*I thought fingerpost might be in current use in Britain, but my friend -- a highly educated native speaker of British -- calls them signposts and had to look up fingerpost just as I did.

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