Posted by: Lizzie Ross | January 20, 2012

Do cannibals make great chefs?

Eight Skilled Gentlemen (1991), Barry Hughart, 255 pp.

I’m sorry, but I must begin with a nod and a tip of the hat to the lifeboat sketch from Monty Python (which, btw, segues very nicely into the undertaker sketch). The reason for this, and for the post’s title, is the cannibalism motif that runs through Hughart’s third novel in the Master Li and Number Ten Ox series.

When we last saw these two, they were hot on the trail of a gang of murderous, laughing monks bent on destroying a fertile valley. Now the two are in search of the evil offspring of a couple of minor deities who are hoping to destroy the world.

A pivotal scene involves Master Li disposing of an inconvenient body by cooking it up for a many-course feast for his enemies. It’s better than any Greek myth, because Master Li gives a running commentary on each dish, with all ingredients. Poor Number Ten Ox finds it hard to write the full description, but he manages. There are several other instances of cannibalism, including the most disgusting one, which happens off-stage. We hear only the slurping, and the screams.

As Number Ten Ox would say, Gllgghh!

A minor character who pops up occasionally is a mass murderer and cannibal who can’t stop talking about his favorite recipes, and he knows hundreds. But don’t let the Hannibal Lecter-ish flavor keep you away. Hughart combines humor and mystery, Chinese history and mythology, puzzles and misdirection in a wonderful concoction. There’s a neck-and-neck boat race, puppetry, gymnastics, and a shamanka (female shaman) who would love Number Ten Ox if she could.

Hughart had originally planned 5 Master Li novels, but stopped after this one. A shame. I haven’t had my fill yet.

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