"Garlic, Mint and Sweet Basil: Essays on Marseilles, Mediterranean Cuisine and Noir Fiction" by Jean-Claude Izzo
French author Jean-Claude Izzo was best known for his “Marseille Trilogy” (“Total Chaos”, “Chourmo” and “Solea”) as well as single handedly inventing the “Mediterranean Noir” novel. Two other novels of his exist - “A Sun For the Dying” and “The Lost Sailors”, both of which (especially “The Lost Sailors”) had personally catapulted him to the top ranks of my favorite contemporary authors. I haven’t gotten to the trilogy just yet but I am very eager to, now that I own all three volumes. This book - a collection of essays - is the most recent and perhaps (sadly) the last book we will see from Izzo, being that the literary world lost him some 13 years ago. But when word got out about this collection, I immediately jumped on it and bought it as soon as it hit the shelves. A short book - just a little over 100 pages - I devoured it, reading it in it’s entirety in the course of a round trip subway ride.
The essays included in this book are about just what the subtitle says - ruminations on food, music, literature (Noir fiction in particular) and most importantly Marseilles and the Mediterranean region in general. What you have here is a genuine love letter to the Mediterranean - its culture and its people. What was special about it for me, personally, is that Izzo has articulated the very thing I’ve been thinking about and feeling for the past decade. Being that I come from Mediterranean stock, what was written between the lines (and sometimes explicitly) spoke to me on a very personal level. Izzo is one who believes in a “Mediterranean Culture”, where there are no significant boundaries between the nations which border the sea. For two thousand years the Mediterranean has been the crossroads between the West and the East, and each of these cultures came together, blended, shared and influenced one another in remarkable ways. This is something that I have been thinking about as well, and something I’ve felt, especially the more I delved into my own family history.
What makes this such a wonderful read is not only the history and the little known factoids about the Mediterranean culture and people, his city, Marseilles, is presented in such a lyrical, poetic way that it makes one want to jump on the next flight out. Izzo was clearly articulating the need for the region to think of itself as one, something that I tend to agree with. Yes, there are differences (sometimes volatile differences) but these differences are merely invented social constructs, being that whether or not you’re in Marseilles, Seville, Barcelona, Oran, Tangiers, Naples, Sicily, Istanbul, or Athens, the people have more in common with one another than they have differences - and it’s this commonality that Izzo articulates in these beautifully written essays.
An absolutely wonderful read.