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The Taste of a Man

by Slavenka Drakulic,Christina Pribichevich Zoric, trans.

Call it the revenge of the edible woman. Almost 30 years after Margaret Atwood’s Marian McAlpin baked a cake in the shape of a gal – complete with bright pink icing dress and chocolate curls – and served it to her fiancé so he could consume it instead of her, along comes Slavenka Drakulic’s Tereza, a woman who would much rather eat than be eaten.

Traipsing unflinchingly into the literary no-man’s land of the last taboo – beyond incest, beyond necrophilia, beyond the beyond – to a place that evokes revulsion in even the most jaded, Drakulic sets her sights on cannibalism. It’s not giving anything away to disclose that Tereza kills and eats her lover, José – Drakulic reveals as much in the first 10 pages, if not in her title: The Taste of a Man. The rest of the novel deals with the how, and more importantly, the why.

The idea of the woman in danger of being devoured was a classic view of late-sixties feminism, as British author Joan Smith points out in Hungry For You (Chatto & Windus), a recent anthology about food in literature. “You’ve been trying to assimilate me,” Atwood’s Marian tells Peter as she brings him the cake, “But I’ve made you a substitute, something you’ll like much better.” Peter doesn’t devour it – he turns tail and runs.

The most pithy evocation of this theme I’ve seen is the late poet Pat Lowther’s searing “Baby You Tell Me” from This Difficult Flowring (1968), reprinted this spring in the posthumous Time Capsule (Polestar):

Baby you tell me
to grow teeth in my cranium
and crunch down on
the gristliest parts of my brain
so as to make me more

I say there are diners enough
with dear, sharp extensions
of their fingernails
manufactured for the purpose
with clubs ready to strike
at the pulse
of a hidden fontanel
(everybody’s got a soft spot)
and teeth filed to approximate perfection.
I won’t do your dirty work for you.

Anybody’s going to eat me
he’s going to know
he’s had a meal.

Drakulic, a respected journalist and novelist who recently relocated to Toronto from the killing fields of her native Sarajevo, does a 180 on this theme in The Taste of a Man. Tereza is a young Polish poet and José is a Brazilian anthropologist who’s writing a book about the Uruguayan rugby players who crashed in the Andes and ate their dead teammates to survive. Tereza and José meet in New York, where they are both doing research on short-term grants. They make passionate and vicious love for three days. Then José moves in with Tereza. There’s only one hitch: José has a wife and infant son back in São Paulo.

Tereza grows increasingly obsessed with José and soon decides there’s only one way they can remain together forever. Her justification comes from José’s own research, which is focused on the debate about cannibalism and the Catholic Church that followed the crash in the Andes. “… [E]ating the flesh of their dead comrades was an act of communion, and as they said later, they would never have been able to do such a thing had their faith in God not been strong enough,” Tereza says. “My decision was simple and pure and since it was based on love and faith, no moral doubts plagued me.”

The Taste of a Man is completely graphic. Not a detail of the dismemberment and the consumption is overlooked, although it’s all narrated by Tereza in the same matter-of-fact tone she might use to give someone directions to the nearest subway station – an interesting counterpoint to the horror of her actions. Even in genre horror like The Silence of the Lambs, the cannibalism is more oblique than in Drakulic’s novel.

Other cultural excursions into cannibalism have treated the topic either more metaphorically and satirically (from Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” to The Edible Woman, to the cult film Eating Raoul); or as high symbolism (reaching its apogee in Peter Greenaway’s film, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, when the wife makes her husband eat her roasted lover); or as fairy tale, legend, and myth (from Jack and the Beanstalk to the urban myth about the babysitter putting the turkey in the crib and the baby in the oven.)

One of the most fascinating cannibal legends comes from the Canadian North. In Strange Things (Oxford, 1995), Margaret Atwood writes about the Wendigo, a cannibalistic monster with a heart of ice that populates the stories of the Woodland Cree and Ojibway. Human beings can ‘go Wendigo’ and develop an insatiable hunger for human flesh, particularly that of their own kin. In the novel Winter Hunger (Goose Lane, 1990), Ann Tracy writes about a would-be anthropologist who spends a winter at a northern native settlement with his wife and infant son. The Wendigo myth – and the isolation – affect him and he develops obsessive fantasies about consuming his wife, Diana. “… [H]e was obliged to suffer visions of himself delicately slicing away his wife’s flesh or amorously ramming her down his throat, whole and living.” Alan escapes to Toronto to chill out, but when he comes back it turns out it’s Diana who’s “gone Wendigo.”

Then there is “survival” cannibalism, as in Alive, Piers Paul Read’s 1974 account of the Andes crash survivors, and in Marianne Wiggins’ terrific 1988 novel, John Dollar, a sort of female Lord of the Flies in which shipwrecked young girls eat the flesh off the legs of the still – but barely – living sailor, John Dollar. The short glimpse and sudden revelation of what they’ve been up to temporarily short-circuits the reader’s brain.

There is an element of survival cannibalism in The Taste of a Man, metaphorically speaking. Two lonely people stranded in a strange place – the island of Manhattan – cling to each other as if to life rafts. Then one of them decides that devouring the other is the only way to survive.

This is the kind of book that could launch a thousand doctoral dissertations, but isn’t truly engaging as a novel. The topic is more interesting than the actual story. The sparse prose and repetitive nature of the narrative will probably appeal to those who like hermetically sealed tales of obsession, such as Drakulic’s previous novel Marble Skin, in which a daughter is obsessed with her mother’s sexuality. “I enter a dark chamber where nothing but the senses exist,” Tereza says early on in The Taste of a Man. And yet, this book is of the mind, not the senses. It’s more theoretical than visceral.

Though no moral doubts plague Tereza, they do niggle at me. If the roles were reversed and José was the predator, we’d be treading on American Psycho territory. Is this somehow more palatable because a woman, a feminist, is writing it? Drakulic is showing what the desire for total possession can lead to if pushed to its ultimate conclusion. And we’re all too familiar with the all-too-frequent real life tragedies of women killed by the men they’ve rejected. (If I can’t have her, nobody can! And then the coward puts a bullet through his own brain.)

In Winter Hunger, Alan is both an unappealing protagonist and a real jerk. When Diana goes Wendigo and he becomes dinner, I thought, “Good riddance.” In The Taste of a Man, poor José is a cypher, more pale shadow than flesh and blood man. When he dies, I found it difficult to react. And – again here are those moral niggles – I suspected I was being set up to think that he had somehow earned his fate. José, it seems, had had a series of “light” affairs: “He did not realize that with every such encounter he risked the possibility of real change, madness, suicide, murder.” Unlike the very Newt Gingrichian Fatal Attraction in which the nuclear family survives intact while the evil temptress goes the way of the boiled bunny, here the philanderer is filleted.

A controversy has bubbled for years in anthropological circles about whether cannibalism has ever really existed. It’s now returned to the fore in a spring issue of the magazine Lingua Franca. The naysayers point out that there are zero eyewitness accounts and blame confusion, racism, and colonial condescension for a false ethnographic record. “This raises the intriguing possibility,” writes Joan Smith in Hungry For You, “that cannibal narratives fascinate developed cultures not only because they validate notions of racial superiority but because they embody our darkest urges and fears about sex. Cannibalism involves the literal incorporation of the other, that fusing of two into one which is at the heart of so many sexual fantasies.”

I keep returning to the author photo on the back French flap of The Taste of a Man. In it, the beautiful Drakulic has an intriguing expression. She looks like the cat who ate the canary.