Friday, 24 May 2013

Book Review: The Chef by Martin Suter
Every one of us has a history that moulds and forges us. Some personal histories are pleasant, while others are dreadful because they are linked with war, death and flight. Many true stories are being told these days and they sell. I prefer to review a book that is pure fiction, but this doesn’t prevent it from carrying a message and much truth. Out of a variety of novels I picked The Chef of the Swiss author Martin Suter.

The writer Martin Suter was born in Zurich, Switzerland, in February 1948. At first he earned his living in advertising while writing reports for newspapers and screenplays alongside. Since 1991 Martin Suter is a full-time author. He gained some renown with his columns Business Class and Richtig leben mit Geri Weibel (Living Right with Geri Weibel) that appeared weekly or monthly respectively until about 2007. His first novel, Small World, was published in 1997 and received immediate acclaim as well as literary awards. Several other successful novels followed, among them A Deal with the Devil (Der Teufel von Mailand: 2006) and The Chef (Der Koch: 2010). Martin Suter lives in Spain and Guatemala with his family. 

The Chef in Martin Suter’s novel is the Tamil refugee Maravan who works as badly paid kitchen help in a posh restaurant in Zurich. He’s a trained cook and a genius in his profession, but as an asylum seeker he is limited by Swiss law to doing unskilled work. One night he cooks a traditional Indian dinner for his Swiss colleague Andrea who more or less invited herself to teach the other cooks and waiters in the restaurant a lesson. She spends the night with Maravan, but being a lesbian she doesn’t understand why. Later she figures out that it had to do with the dishes that the Tamil cook served her. She asks him to prepare the same aphrodisiac meal again for her and a friend who so far resisted all her advances. He agrees and Andrea is delighted with the success. Meanwhile Maravan lost his job in the restaurant and struggles to make ends meet with the unemployment benefits. Then Andrea suggests that they team up and start their own business, a catering company called Love Food. Hesitatingly Maravan plunges into the adventure because he needs more money to support his family in Sri Lanka. The special qualities of his cooking get round and attract new customers. Love Food slowly slips into the abyss of politics and dirty business. Before soon Maravan and Andrea are confronted with questions of moral and responsibility that are closely associated not just with their business, but also with their private and family lives. 

The language of The Chef is simple and humorous. At first glance it seems to be a light story about two people who start a love business of an innocent kind, but in reality Martin Suter touches on many serious topics in his novel and he starts with it right on the first page. The economic crisis of 2008 serves as a red thread that connects the different levels of the story. There’s Maravan, the Tamil asylum seeker who lives in Zurich now and who remains despite all entangled in the difficulties, above all the civil war in his home country Sri Lanka. There are the refugees who are forced to make their living with any job that they can get or in the case of Makeda as prostitutes. There are the politicians and arms dealers who keep the spiral of violence and flight going. 

When I first made up my mind to read The Chef by Martin Suter I wasn’t quite sure if it would be worth the while since his earlier book A Deal with the Devil hadn’t particularly impressed me. Luckily, The Chef was a very positive surprise. I liked the mixture of a light story with serious topic of international business and politics. The book certainly shows that the life of an immigrant, moreover an asylum seeker in Europe isn’t a bed of roses as many believe. It’s a read that widens the horizon and for that alone I recommend it.

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