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A Banquet of a Book

ONCE upon a time, there was Menippean satire, named for that famous Greek Cynic, Menippus.This often-hilarious genre consists of a rambling tale that relates the adventures, but more often misadventures, of a hero who has more in common with Friar Tuck than Robin Hood. In the course of an apparently absurd and garrulous narrative, the author gently satirizes current politics, historiography, art, literary fashions, and whatever else happens to amuse him. Cervantes's "Don Quixote," James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake," Rabelais's "Gargantua and Pantagruel," Sterne's "Tristram Shandy" are all examples of Menippean satire. Now Erik Orsenna's "Love and Empire" can be added with delight to this exclusive list. This French bestseller won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1988. The narrator of "Love and Empire" is Gabriel Orsenna, a round man with rounder cheeks and a passion for rubber - rubber balls, rubber tires, rubber anything. He passes his boyhood in an odoriferous Paris suburb with his grandmother and his father, Louis, who sells books. Louis is studying to be a colonial administrator at the grandmother's behest - a vocation he will never fulfill. He is, above all, a hypochondriac as far as tropical diseases are concerned. Unimpressed by her son's concerns, the grandmother continues to plan and pack for their colonial adventures. Meanwhile young Gabriel espouses the positivist philosophy of Auguste Comte. This arcane knowledge earns him a tutorial post at the Brazilian Embassy in London, which leads to his introduction to the Brazilian rubber industry and his vocation in rubber. Returning to France, he apprentices himself to a tire-making firm and communicates with his apologist father by telegram. Disappointed that the family will play no part in France's great colonial empire, his grandmother has become silent. En route to London, Gabriel falls in love with the Knight sisters, Ann and Clara. After a courtship that could have come straight out of a Woody Allen comedy, he marries one of them, and with his bride begins touring the world of the rubber industry. But he continues a lifelong relationship with the other sister. With consummate artistry, the author distills the essence, emotion, and effervescence of each setting, each experience. As one might expect of a cultural counselor to France's President Mitterand, Erik Orsenna - the name is a pseudonym - writes prose as sweet and smooth as Creme Chantilly, as light as mousse. Whether the subject is love, rubber, farcical diplomacy, or the exotic locales of Brazil, Indochina, or Cornwall, every passage is crafted with clarity and originality as here when he speaks of the dawn in Brazil: "First the light. It was like a punctiliously observed agreement between two powers. After centuries of negotiation, shadow and sunlight had divided the city between them. Every morning they retreated unprotestingly to demarcation lines calculated down to the last millimeter. For shadow: the alleyways, the mango-lined walks, church porches, warehouse eaves. For sunlight: all the rest, the squares, the ocher river, the too-broad avenues, the open carriages, the hackneys, the incautious bald-headed men." Orsenna opens his picaresque tale with a line calculated to captivate bibliophiles: "In the beginning was the bookstore." But quickly, "Love and Empire" moves to include the whole of humanity in its whimsically absurd world - a world which frequently bears more resemblance to reality than the version flashed before our eyes on the evening television news. It's that world where things never turn out as one wishes they would or thinks they should. Like a master chef, Orsenna has created a comedic feast of plot, prosody, character, and humor that spans decades and continents. It's a table where readers are treated like royalty and leave the banquet full and buoyant.

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