According to Spanish legend, medieval knight Rodrigo Díaz, known as El Cid, was valiant, honorable and faithful, loyal even to the king who unjustly exiled him. The reality: Well, maybe not. Modern historians say El Cid really existed, but he was a much more mercenary and self-interested character than the hero immortalized in epic poetry, ballads and film.

What on earth does that have to do with a guy named Ambrosio Molinos, who made a really good artisan cheese in the Spanish village of Guzmán for a short time back in the late 20th century? More than you might think, as Michael Paterniti demonstrates in his lovely, rollicking new book, The Telling Room, an exploration of his decade-long attempt to write about Ambrosio and his cheese, Páramo de Guzmán.

Paterniti first heard of this great cheese when he was working for Zingerman’s, a gourmet deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Years later, when he was an established freelance writer with a young family, he sought out Ambrosio, who turned out to be a writer’s delight and a teller of innumerable folktales (among them El Cid’s legend). Ambrosio’s greatest story is his own: about how his best friend betrayed him and cheated him out of his cheese company in a bitter dispute. The “telling room” of the book’s title is the small room in the Molinos family’s storage cave (yes, cave) where Ambrosio, the Zorba of Guzmán, waxes poetic.

Infatuated with Ambrosio and Guzmán, Paterniti moved his family to the remote village, only to become blocked, unable to finish the book. Clearly, he worked his way through the dilemma, but only after overcoming his reluctance to check into Ambrosio’s story. It turns out—surprise!—Ambrosio, like El Cid, is perhaps not the perfect knight, any more than Guzmán, with its Franco-era secrets, is a fairy-tale village.

Paterniti writes with charm and verve, providing cultural context with discursive footnotes that mimic Ambrosio’s own circuitous style. He leads the reader down his own twisting path to a deeper understanding of why we need the Ambrosios of the world: They are the storytellers whose magic makes reality bearable.

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