Anthony Bourdain's last written work, Hungry Ghosts, is Haunting
I recently picked up Anthony Bourdain’s last written work, “Hungry Ghosts”, and it’s hard to read it without thinking of his suicide. I’m usually not terribly affected by celebrity deaths but Bourdain’s suicide was a particular kind of loss. It was the loss of an every man, a guy you thought you might bump into in your local bar. I don’t particularly like graphic novels but I picked up “Hungry Ghosts” because he wrote it, along with his friend Joel Rose.
The book is thick with Bourdain’s particular kind of cynicism, and black view of human nature; the kind of impulse that drove him to write “Kitchen Confidential”. Hungry ghosts is filled with bad ass chefs, arrogant patrons and mortal sins punished in gritty detail. True or not, reading it makes you feel like your gaining some insight into Bourdain’s mind.
The story starts after a rich Russian oligarch gathers a bunch (a gaggle?) of expert chefs to cook a decadent meal. After finishing, he invites them all to participate in a samurai tradition, kaidan. This is a game in which samurai sit in one room telling ghost stories while in the next a hundred candles burn. After each story, the story teller walks over to the next room and blows at a candle before looking in the mirror, ensuring that he has not been possessed. As each candle gets blown out, the chance of being possessed increases.
It pains me to say that the writing is clunky but the imagery easily makes up for it. The themes running through this novel, however, are distinctly Bourdain. The majority of stories consist of ghosts taking revenge on the living for their petty little faults. A middle class business owner refuses to feed a poverty stricken man and is eaten by a ghost. A gluttonous estate owner is haunted by his last meal. A group of starving farmers is punished for eating a sacred cow. Most stories have one thing in common: the punishments exacted by the ghosts are for crimes we are all guilty of to some extent. In a sense the ugliness of our own souls is magnified by the extent of the punishment.
Curiously, there is one story that is not based on a petty crime. One story is about a woman taking revenge on the crew of a pirate ship looking to abuse her. This is a twist from the traditional monster the woman is based on, the sagai oni, who are supposed to be the ghosts of lustful women thrown overboard by pirate crews for their wanton ways. Not this woman, this one was exacting her revenge for their behaviour. I’ll just let that hang there.
The graphic novel is a quick read. The images are exquisite and the ghosts are sufficiently freaky but it’s impossible to read this book without thinking of Bourdain’s suicide. If you read this book in one sitting, like I did, you are forced to confront how our small imperfections, our most petty acts of unkindness, are actually the most frustrating problems with out species. Maybe Bourdain, with his unpretentious attitude towards his crew and his hosts was trying to tell us that the most important thing in life is just very simple kindness. Watching his specials and seeing how he interacts with the people around him, it’s clear he was no asshole.
Reading this and thinking of the petty injustices I’ve committed, I wonder how to feed my own hungry ghosts.