Write This Book! is a series in which Julia Langbein describes a book that does not exist: a book based on a recent curiosity from the real world; a book that, ideally, you will write. Has your generous columnist ever actually written a book? No. But did Jean Paul Gaultier need breasts to design the perfect bra?
Last month, Russian tycoon Dmitry Stroskin “accidentally” ordered the razing of his own 18th-century French chateau. The event that will have to serve as inspiration for a fictional account because a) Stroskin is either duplicitous or stupid and b) calling a duplicitous and/or stupid Russian tycoon names in a non-fiction book is a terrible idea. It’s portentous enough that no one can pin down his real name, the American sources calling him “Stroskin” and the French “Strokin.”
But we do know that a crew hired by the real Stroskin demolished the 250-year-old, 140,000-square-foot Chateau de Bellevue, which he had bought only two years earlier. Many believe this is no accident, the dissident voice represented by the expertly sarcastic online commenters at the regional newspaper, Sudouest, who balk above all at the fact that the valuable old stones and moldings were mysteriously “evacuated.” One commenter writes (my translation), “and hop! They up and left on their own little paws, these bricks.” Another: “He really takes people for a bunch of assholes.” The official story is that the Polish demolition team misunderstood instructions to knock down the garden shed, which is now the only thing standing.
A guy goes to the doctor to get a leg amputated. His wife comes to pick him up and the doctor hands her a leg and says, “He did beautifully.”
If you want to make this book a sinister tale of global capital and local intrigue, there’s plenty of material: Just combine Stroskin’s story with that of the sale of the chateau de Gevrey-Chambertin and its vineyards, one of the most storied properties in Burgundy, to a Chinese gambling tycoon for ten million dollars. The greedy mayor’s garage sprouts a new BMW while the 250-year-old stones that ran off on their own little paws decide to sell themselves to a Russian contractor for use abroad. A nosy sarcastic journalist from Sudouest and one murdered old winemaker later, this book is John LeCarré’s The Constant Gardener except there really is constant gardening.
But the book I’d really like to see takes the comic route — Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence (bumbling foreigner versus quirky locals) with sharp witty corners sanded down: Dmitry Stroskin, in glorious pseudonym of course, should annihilate ancient culture wherever he goes, like a Russian Clark Griswold, sheerly through the contamination of his adoring idiot touch. He shows up wide-eyed at the Chateau de Bellevue, buys a Jacquard hunting thong and three Dogues de Bordeaux (the gingerbread mastiffs bred to hold pipes in their wet scowls). One benevolent bungle after another ensues. I love the scene where, playing pétanque with Cardinal Richelieu (one of his Dogues), Dmitry knocks off the gardener, Monsieur Lemée, with an errant toss. He hires a baffled Ke$ha to sing the recessional at Lemée’s funeral because she is #1 on the US Billboard charts. After a less-than-doleful performance of her hit “Die Young,” Ke$ha decides that the 12th-century baptismal font in the Yvrac church is “amazeen’” and has it sliced off at the stem like a two-ton Portobello mushroom and slid into the hot pink vegetarian panini of her trailer before zipping away to Paris. Villagers rebel and burn Dmitry’s vines. In the final scene, he sits on the last cornerstone that remains on the empty lot of his former castle, pondering the charred flora, until the little brick upends him and runs away, leaving tiny footprints in the mud.
Stay tuned for the next Write This Book!, in which you will find yourself more tempted to write the history of Tombstone Pizza than you have ever been to eat Tombstone Pizza.