In rural Spain there exist caves dug in the hillsides called bodegas. Each bodega has an entry room, a threshold known as a contador, or telling room. The caves are places for people to gather to tell stories, eat meals, and enjoy the fruits of their harvest together.
Michael Paterniti’s new memoir The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese tells the story of a passionate Spanish farmer named Ambrosio Molinos, a man who lives big and dreams bigger.
A seed was planted when Paterniti read a footnote about Ambrosio in a deli newsletter in Michigan, and for some reason never forgot. Eventually, he went to Spain to meet Ambrosio and hear his story. “What,” he asks, “was so crazy about believing in purity – and then going to find it?” Sitting in his contador after meeting Ambrosio for the first time, Paterniti hears his whole story, all in one 8-hour session.
Stepping out of the cave, Paterniti launched into the orbit of Ambrosio Molinos, the little Spanish village called Guzman, and the hope, loss, betrayal, and revenge swirling around a legendary piece of cheese.
The book is a sort of literary “telling room” itself – taking its time in the sweet, magical details of a truly amazing life story, and pulling in gobs of context through its abundant (though often amusing) footnotes. But it always comes back to the cheese.
A story like this had the potential to lose the thread of the main story in a maze of contextual tangents, personal asides, and temporal confusion. But it doesn’t. Even an occasional turn towards the purple (which he defuses with well-timed footnotes), and an attempt at metacognitive psychology can’t cover the inherent worth of a story like this. Paterniti nails it.
Ambrosio had been a successful cheese-maker at one point in his life – winning international competitions, and supplying expensive artisanal Spanish cheese to the elite class. Then one day, he stopped. That is, he was forced to.
With an idyllic lifestyle in the hills of rural España, with enough good food, good friends, and stories to last a lifetime, Ambrosio lives the life every desk jockey and poet has dreamed of. This is a man who can step out his front door and sink his toes into earth owned by his family for generations. A man who understands how privileged he is to be free of the rat race, and to live a life of passion. A man who will use any excuse to wax eloquent on the glory of the earth and all that is therein. He is a modern prophet of slow-food, an old-school knight in a farmer’s body.
He quickly becomes Paterniti’s mascot and conscience – a 250-pound Spanish Jiminy Cricket with a knack for making beautiful cheese.
However, Ambrosio might not be all that he claims to be. Like that most famous of Spanish knights, Don Quixote, he too bears an open wound on the dividing line between dreams and reality. His best friend stole his cheese, and Ambrosio wants revenge.
Besides being a great story, “The Telling Room” is also about the way stories shape our perception of reality. Ambrosio understands instinctively the power of stories, and has shaped his in a way that isn’t always consistent with the facts. The truth is what people say it is. And so, he repeats his story the way he wants it told.
Paterniti at times attempts to analyze his own thoughts and feelings, especially as he ponders the difficulty of writing the book. These are the only sections where the self-indulgent memoirist style rears its ugly head, and they are quickly squashed by the main attraction. Reading about a writer writing about writing this book was a little too “meta” for me. It slowed sections of the conclusion, but Paterniti would have to try to ruin a tale like this.
I’m not quite sure what to call this book. It’s not easily categorized. It exists in the ether, somewhere between memoir, “new journalism,” slow-food manifesto, a brief history of Spain, small town mystery, and Don Quixote remix. At its heart, it is a story about idealism versus practicality, and the difficulty of building a life worth living.
Besides all those super deep/profound things, it’s just an amazingly well-crafted story. We should all admire Michael Paterniti – first for bringing us this story, and second for telling it the way it's supposed to be told.