BRAIN FOOD

Financial Mail - - LIFE INBOX - David Gorin

Meal­times can be the set­ting for the gamut of hu­man per­for­mances. Nor­we­gian artist and au­thor Ma­tias Fald­bakken cap­tures the show: the hi­lar­ity and pathos, the monotony and the bizarre, the nos­tal­gia and the san­guine, nar­rated by a neu­rot­i­cally ob­ser­vant waiter at a high-end but old-fash­ioned and fad­ing Oslo restau­rant called The Hills.

At the sharp end of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing how peo­ple be­have when they feel the need to preen in pub­lic but let their guards drop, he misses noth­ing as the staff and din­ers in­ter­act in a mi­cro­cosm of the weird, the worst, and a pinch of the best, in hu­man­ity.

Su­per­fi­cially ex­pert, he main­tains dead­pan deco­rum, in keep­ing with the es­tab­lish­ment’s cul­ti­vated norms and his own un­der­stand­ing of roles and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. He is acutely at­ten­tive in the si­lences, nobly deaf to calami­tous sounds of kitchen melt­down, and re­spect­fully stand­off­ish with the pa­trons. Recog­nis­ing stereo­types and com­plex­i­ties in the char­ac­ters of reg­u­lar cus­tomers, sharp apho­risms ac­com­pany his in­ter­nal di­a­logue as they ar­rive: “I don’t know what a ge­nius looks like, but I can recog­nise one when I see it.” He’s scathing of a fa­mous ac­tor, now fallen on hard times: “Only a scoundrel gives away more than he owns.”

He is also tautly at­tuned to his own sen­si­bil­i­ties, wai­t­er­ing pro­vid­ing “my imag­i­nary ar­mour and shield of ser­vice, rou­tine and pre­dictabil­ity”. But things go awry when a new pa­tron ar­rives, an enig­matic, glam­orous young woman he calls Child Lady. She in­serts her­self mys­te­ri­ously among other ta­bles; sum­mon­ing his pow­ers of de­duc­tion, the waiter con­cludes “She is op­ti­mistic, pos­i­tive, sat­is­fied, en­thu­si­as­tic, cheer­ful. In other words: she’s suf­fer­ing.” With bravura and panache she orders oddly (plates of mush­rooms, quadru­ple espres­sos). The waiter is in­tim­i­dated and con­fused.

Other dis­trac­tions prick into his neu­roses, and soon his sense of place, poise and pro­fes­sional calm dis­si­pates. He dithers; ser­vice sole­cisms are ac­com­pa­nied by screwy di­a­logue with cus­tomers, es­ca­lat­ing to blun­der­ing hi­lar­ity in bouts of slap­stick chaos rem­i­nis­cent of the Peter Sell­ers film The Party, or echo­ing the waiter Manuel in Fawlty Tow­ers.

Al­co­hol, ex­as­per­a­tion or ex­u­ber­ance fuel the din­ers’ un­sub­tle shenanigans too. The waiter is acer­bic: “The farce of ev­ery­day life seeps in, even here at The Hills where we try to keep it at bay through rigid rou­tines.”

In­deed, the restau­rant has a rhythm — ser­vice must con­tinue — and Fald­bakken un­der­scores peo­ple’s pow­ers of re­cov­ery by coun­ter­bal­anc­ing the quirky con­fu­sion with a mi­nor hero­ism which emerges in our waiter-nar­ra­tor when faced with an un­re­lated, mod­est, but im­por­tant chal­lenge.

Largely plot­less, the book blends su­per­fi­cial farce with a touch of satire and dol­lops of in­con­gru­ent di­a­logue or non se­quiturs. It also con­veys the sad­der tex­tures of mod­ern life — class dif­fer­ences and prej­u­dices, lone­li­ness, hu­man frail­ties and foibles, an ex­is­ten­tial empti­ness — in its con­tem­pla­tion of the fray­ing man­ners of mild men and their cop­ing mech­a­nisms to mit­i­gate their dis­con­nec­tion in a hy­per-con­nected age: “I’m re­peat­edly hav­ing small doses of the loath­some present forced upon me. Now­ness makes me un­well,” the waiter ad­mits.

There are no dra­matic twists, or life-chang­ing rites of pas­sage, or a res­o­lute crescendo: the un­cer­tain, in­har­mo­nious con­clu­sion mir­rors the fate of The Hills and, prob­a­bly, our waiter.

The Waiter is en­chant­ing, philo­soph­i­cal, whim­si­cal and with­er­ing. It will re­ver­ber­ate with most read­ers for at least their next few din­ing-out ex­pe­ri­ences.

SIDE OR­DER: Liked

by Amor Towles

In the wake of the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion, an un­re­pen­tant no­ble­man is sen­tenced to live per­ma­nently in his cur­rent abode, Moscow’s splen­did

Try these. Ho­tel Metropol. Like Fald­bakken’s waiter, the count is trapped, al­beit in a dif­fer­ent way. And the gos­sip­ing, hob­nob­bing con­spir­a­cies and odd­ball char­ac­ters are sim­i­larly in­trigu­ing.

by An­thony Bour­dain In the book that launched his fame, Bour­dain ex­plains what drives a chef, and ex­poses the pe­cu­liar­i­ties of restau­rant work — mostly the un­think­able be­hindthe-scenes ac­tion and stress­ful con­di­tions which bond the staff. It’s pro­fane, hec­tic and brassy, with sharp in­sights into hu­man na­ture.

A Gen­tle­man in Moscow The Waiter? Kitchen Con­fi­den­tial

Sulzer

On the sur­face, the du­ti­ful nar­ra­tor is con­tent in his rou­tine at a top-class Swiss ho­tel. But a let­ter re­minds him, painfully, of events 30 years ago, when he fell in love with an­other em­ployee while train­ing him as an­other per­fect waiter. A poignant psy­cho­log­i­cal study of mem­ory, hon­esty and dis­cov­ery.

by Alain Claude

by Ni­chol­son Baker Os­ten­si­bly a peek into an of­fice worker’s lunch break on the mez­za­nine of his build­ing, it’s re­ally a zany dis­sec­tion of thought pro­cesses — the ger­mi­na­tion of ideas that could lead some­where, time per­mit­ting. A streamof-con­scious­ness nar­ra­tion of the psy­chol­ogy of ob­ser­va­tion, and ap­pre­ci­at­ing life’s mun­dane as­pects and ob­jects.

A Per­fect Waiter: A Novel The Mez­za­nine

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