Michael Paterniti’s The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese isn’t really a book about cheese. There are some beautifully written passages in the book about how tasty the Spanish goat’s milk cheese that many cheese connoisseurs once considered the best cheese in the world was. It was “a Herculean cheese…tangy and tart, melting and then flaring again,” Paterniti writes. “With the first crumble it spread slowly, in lava flow, across the palatal landscape, tasting of minerals and luscious fattening buttercream, of chamomile and sage. It tasted of flower and dirt, manure and nectar—and perhaps of love and hate, too.” We’re not talking about Kraft Singles here.
Paterniti issues other lush, precise descriptions of Páramo de Guzmán in The Telling Room, but this is really a book about about seduction—and not really the erotic kind. Paterniti is a well-respected journalist for a number of publications (GQ, Harper’s, Outside, Esquire) who became enchanted with the larger-than-life, complex, vengeful Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras in his village in Castile, about 100 miles north of Madrid. Ambrosio is the person who made the coveted cheese. Paterniti—with his rushed, deadline-driven life— became, he says, a different person when he arrived in Guzman. He wanted, as Ambrosio did as a child, to listen to “the howl of the wind and the groan of the earth, the bleat of sheep and the call of the wheat.” Paterniti saw in Ambrosio “the reflection of an artist who’d taken the rocky, eccentric path, and my slowly drowning self had been buoyed,” despite the fact that the heart of this story becomes about betrayal as Ambrosio vows to murder his former best friend Julian who, Ambrosio believes, has sold his cheese company right out from under his feet. It takes Paterniti a number of years to gin up the courage to confront Ambrosio (and Julian) about the truth of their fractured relationship.
Literature is riddled with the journeys of people who feel muddled and yearn for meaningful simplicity. The difference with Paterniti’s story is that he isn’t content telling the bares bones of that narrative. The Telling Room is about foodie culture, the dramatic history of Spain, rural life, revenge and storytelling itself. It is a multi-layered, ambitious, restless book. As Paterniti maintains his affection for Ambrosio but also realizes that the man’s brain is a “fantastically impractical dream device between his two ears,” his own role in this fundamentally Spanish story enters center stage and he is a vibrant guide to his own story. I asked Paterniti whether he thought he’d remain friends with Ambrosio after The Telling Room is published this week.
Susan Orlean has talked about not remaining friends with her subjects after she writes about them, that she can be nice to them, of course, but that she has a job to do and the job is to get in and out. Do you see yourself remaining friends with Ambrosio?
I agree with Susan that one of the journalistic prerogatives is that the story comes first, but friendships develop along the way. You have to be truest to the story. That is the confusion with this book because I fell in love with this perfect place that was perfectly Andalusian when I first looked on it and the more I hung out and the more I fell into his world, the deeper embrace I found myself in with this family. My family came over for a summer and [Ambrosio's family] was unbelievably gracious in that great Castilian way and somewhere there was this confusion. My hope is that we will be friends but in my mind, to finish the book, I had to accept that there wouldn’t be. I was just back there three weeks ago and I was hanging out with Ambrosio right before I left and he said, When are you coming back? And I said, Maybe people aren’t going to want me back. And he was dead serious and he said, If they don’t like it, you best not come back, and I think that was the first time it really hit me that this place I feel really close to...it’s going to take time to figure that out. Ambrosio’s a pretty strong character and he told me to just tell the truth and do the best I can and supported me in the writing of the book. Maybe that will endure but you have to be ready for the worst-case scenario and maybe you won’t be friends. I became someone else there and that’s partly what I tried to write about in the book, the deeper ecstasy of giving yourself up to these people and making a kind of life.
I’ve read your other work and you always fulfill the job duties of asking the hard questions—this is your most important book and yet it seemed so hard to ask the tough questions of Ambrosio and Julian. Why do you think that was the case?
I was living this complicated life of a young father writing for magazines and I somehow chose this little village 5,000 miles away from my home. I did everything possible to complicate my life and every minute felt pressurized. And this other life that Ambrosio espoused became so meaningful to me; he became the high priest of this other life. Those first couple of meetings where I was a journalist and we started to become friends, I knew there was another version of him and I kept holding out hope that my editor would forget that I needed to ask these questions. Clearly my wife never forgot because she’s the one who took me out to the woodshed and said, You seem afraid to ask these questions you have to ask. Because this story was so centered on the betrayal by his best friend, I didn’t want to get into this inevitable place writers get into where they feel they have to betray their subjects in order to tell the truth. I wouldn’t actually use the word “betrayal”—it’s not so strong as that. People tell you their truths and they don’t expect you to fact-check their truths. This other story of mediating it or filtering it (which might feel like betrayal) became this very sensitive topic. I wanted to be the El Cid character; I wanted to be forever loyal to Ambrosio. I knew I was going to have to track it like a journalist. I knew it was also the thing that was going to get me kicked out of the kingdom.
Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.