by Michael Paterniti
Random House, 7/30/2013
Hardcover, 368 pages
In the picturesque village of Guzmán, Spain, in a cave dug into a hillside on the edge of town, an ancient door leads to a cramped limestone chamber known as “the telling room.” Containing nothing but a wooden table and two benches, this is where villagers have gathered for centuries to share their stories and secrets—usually accompanied by copious amounts of wine.
It was here, in the summer of 2000, that Michael Paterniti found himself listening to a larger-than-life Spanish cheese maker named Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras as he spun an odd and compelling tale about a piece of cheese. An unusual piece of cheese. Made from an old family recipe, Ambrosio’s cheese was reputed to be among the finest in the world, and was said to hold mystical qualities. Eating it, some claimed, conjured long-lost memories. But then, Ambrosio said, things had gone horribly wrong. . . .
By the time the two men exited the telling room that evening, Paterniti was hooked. Soon he was fully embroiled in village life, relocating his young family to Guzmán in order to chase the truth about this cheese and explore the fairy tale–like place where the villagers conversed with farm animals, lived by an ancient Castilian code of honor, and made their wine and food by hand, from the grapes growing on a nearby hill and the flocks of sheep floating over the Meseta.
What Paterniti ultimately discovers there in the highlands of Castile is nothing like the idyllic slow-food fable he first imagined. Instead, he’s sucked into the heart of an unfolding mystery, a blood feud that includes accusations of betrayal and theft, death threats, and a murder plot. As the village begins to spill its long-held secrets, Paterniti finds himself implicated in the very story he is writing.
Equal parts mystery and memoir, travelogue and history, The Telling Room is an astonishing work of literary nonfiction by one of our most accomplished storytellers. A moving exploration of happiness, friendship, and betrayal, The Telling Room introduces us to Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras, an unforgettable real-life literary hero, while also holding a mirror up to the world, fully alive to the power of stories that define and sustain us.
The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese by Michael Paterniti isn't really about cheese, and yet it is. This nonfiction narrative certainly began with cheese as the inspiration in 1991, when Paterniti accepted a part time job as a proofreader for Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan. While proofing the articles, he came across a description of the cheese, Páramo de Guzmán, and thus began the fascination and perhaps a tad bit of obsession about this cheese. Páramo de Guzmán is made from the fresh milk of Churra sheep, and is named after the village in the Castile region of Spain where it was made.
Paterniti kept the information about the cheese in the back of his mind until 2000 when he actually travels to Spain and the village of Guzmán. He finds Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras, the man who originally made Páramo de Guzmán, and hears the story of love, devotion, deception and, ultimately, betrayal all surrounding the making of the cheese. This original meeting set the stage for the ten years Paterniti obsessed over the many faucets of Ambrosio's story.
A telling room is found in the bodega, a cave built into the hills on the northern boundary of Guzmán that served as cold storage in the past for the family who owned it. Now they are primarily places to go, eat, drink wine with family and friends, and tell stories. The Castilian way of storytelling is full of digressions, asides, and footnotes. Paterniti tells this story in the same manner. The footnotes are wonderful rabbit trails of other information or history or comments based on the narrative.
Therein lies the reason for the complete enchantment I felt and rapt attention I gave to reading The Telling Room. The layers upon layers of stories and history were shared and the book became about more than the cheese. It morphed into something more. It is a drama of mythical proportions that beautifully illustrates how we can subtly deceive ourselves when we tell and retell stories about our lives, how the telling can change the facts. How story telling can help you find a measure of acceptance over what has happened in your life and perhaps also some closure.
But it is also a humorous, delightful book as it follows Paterniti's life and recurring obsession with Ambrosio's story. I don't want to give away any of the conclusions. As I was reading, right at the start, the word "delightful" popped into my head and stayed firmly planted there for the whole book.
I had to laugh aloud over the line (found in the excerpt below) "We each had a futon and a stereo — and everything else (two couches, black-and-white TV, waffle iron) we'd foraged from piles in front of houses on Big Trash Day." You see, I live in a city with a very large university and now is the time for those "Big Trash Days" as most leases end the last day of July and begin the first day of August. The streets are currently filled with Uhauls. The areas with predominately student rentals have huge piles of trash in front of them and there are lines of cars and trucks, trolling the piles, looking to pick through the trash for good stuff.
This is an exceptionally well written nonfiction book. I am a big fan of footnotes, so the myriads of footnotes gave me great joy. I was reading The Telling Room as an ebook, however, which just doesn't do footnotes justice, in my opinion. I would have preferred a print copy so I could easily read the footnotes as they came up in the text. See the link below to a footnote, and nested footnotes, to get a better understanding of why I would have preferred a print copy.
Very Highly Recommended - one of the best
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Random House via Netgalley for review purposes.