Rome is the first European city I ever visited. In fact, it’s the first city I ever visited outside of South Africa. I arrived with a backpack, some money, a group of friends and anticipatory terror of being somewhere alien where I couldn’t make myself understood. It was February, which I know now is the worst month in Europe, and even Rome was cold, grey and unwelcoming. Later in my gap year, I visited Rome in the middle of a glorious autumn and fell in love with it.
Purely by chance, the last two books I’ve read have been set in Rome, so I’ve enjoyed a double evocation of a great city. The first is The Food of Love, a first novel by someone called Anthony Capella, who may not be but sounds like a chef. It’s about chefs, and food, and love, and contains gorgeous descriptions of food. Briefly, Bruno is a brilliant young chef who’s deft with food but not with women. His best friend, Tommaso is a waiter who’s very deft with women, especially foreign ones. Laura is an American student entranced with the Eternal City and a foodie. In order to win Laura, Tommaso claims he’s a chef at one of Rome’s top restaurants, but he has to call in Bruno to do the cooking. Bruno also falls for Laura, seduces her on Tommaso’s behalf with his breathtaking culinary skills. It’s all a bit Cyrano de Bergerac, and of course, the right guy eventually gets the girl, but not before he cooks a series of stunning meals that leave you very hungry. Light as meringue, it’s a great escapist read.
The other book, which I’m still reading, is Imperium by the brilliant storyteller Robert Harris. Set 2000-odd years before The Food of Love, it presents Republican Rome and specifically the career of the lawyer and orator Cicero. My classical education is sorely lacking, so I’ve found it extremely enlightening about the politics and pressures of Ancient Rome. The book is written in the voice of Tiro, Cicero’s secretary and slave, who, at the end of his own life, sets out to review the great man’s career. Tiro’s main role in Cicero’s household is to take notes, and as Cicero is so prolific, he is forced to invent what we now know as shorthand in order to cope with the flood of words from his master.
What I’ve found fascinating is the juxtaposition of great sophistication of the senatorial life with the very brutal horror of ordinary life. People like Cicero were making learned orations and just around the corner, men and beasts were tearing each other apart at the Colosseum. There’s a brilliant description of Cicero politicking in the Senate, which evokes a Tony Blair or a Bill Clinton:
… here a hand resting lightly on an elbow, there a heavy arm clapped across a pair of meaty shoulders; with this man a coarse joke, with that a solemn word of condolence, his own hands crossed and pressed to his breast in sympathy; detained by a bore, he would seem to have all the hours of the day to listen to his dreary story, but then you would see his hand flicker out and catch some passer-by, and he would spin as gracefully as a dancer, with the tenderest backward glance of apology and regret, to work on someone else.
I know people who can work a room, and this is what is looks like.
I’ve always enjoyed Robert Harris’s books. He has the ability to take a period in history, research it exquisitely, people it with characters both real and invented, and fold into it a gripping tale that keeps you buried in the pages. Like The Food of Love, it’s escapist stuff, but it’s altogether meatier.