Shortlisted for the 2020 Global Literature in Libraries Initiative Translated YA Book Prize
In an unspecified time sometime in the past, somewhere not too far away and not too close, a series of pointless wars seems never ending. This doesn’t trouble Tortot the field cook, who finds war and conflict profitable, armed with a magical ingredient called Eternal Soup that he brought from his childhood home a long time ago, with which Tortot can make a meal out of almost thin air. The most mundane ingredients are transformed into delicious, multi-course banquets for officers and soldiers, and his wizardry with cooking more than once saves his skin. Tortot also uses his calculating, canny sense of when his side of the battlefield is about to lose and as soon as he figures that out, he jumps to the enemy’s side, that is the winning side, immediately bribing them with a dish they cannot forget which convinces them to allow him to stay on as their field cook. Tortot leaves with the enemy’s army, now his new company, to fight the next battle. No loyalties, no regrets, that’s how the cold-hearted Tortot makes his way through the world.
Except something absolutely unwelcome and unexpected interrupts Tortot’s successful gaming of the follies of war. He gets a cold and loses his sense of smell right after he deserts one army to go cook for the other side. They are justifiably suspicious of him. He has been allowed to stay and not be executed as a deserter on the condition that he cooks a massive feast for the imminently arriving Imperial Emperors, twin sons of the former Duke of Arcadia who have ruled for almost seventy years of continuous war ruthlessly expanding their empire. The Imperial Emperors’ greed and vanity know no bounds, and during their visits to the sites of military victories, they insist on lavish celebrations and meals featuring their favorite food: pickled gherkins. The elderly twins believe that gherkins are the secret to smooth, handsome skin, skin which neither twin actually have. Both faces are pock-marked, scarred and disfigured, yet because of their power no one in their employ dares tell them so. Tortot’s loss of smell couldn’t come at a worse time, and sends him in desperation to a barrel of pickled gherkins as a test to see if he could at least taste a sour pickle.
But before Tortot can open the barrel, the lid pops off and a small, white face appears. It is the face of a boy soldier named George that Tortot had encountered earlier before the boy’s first battle. Now painfully thin, George, just turned twelve, has lost both his brothers and his legs in battle. Half-George, which is what Tortot begins to call him, has hidden in the gherkin barrel for four days, eaten all of the gherkins, and now realizes, as he sits behind enemy lines, that he has no hope of escaping the war on his own. At the same time, Tortot has no hope of impressing the Imperial Emperors without a sense of smell to taste his cooking and no sour gherkins to serve. They are in a hopeless situation on every level. And then George offers to taste Tortot’s food for him. Tortot, desperate for help for the first time in his life, begrudgingly accepts, being a pragmatist he realizes this is the only way. An uneasy relationship of mutual dependency between the cold-hearted field cook and the boy soldier begins. As the weeks go by and Tortot’s sense of smell gradually returns, he is drawn in against his will to continue to conceal Half-George in the gherkin barrel, at least until his sense of smell returns.
Before they completely understand what’s happening, they become comrades in a series of adventures that expose the futility and terror of unending, meaningless war. They begin to hope, even Tortot the cold fish, for peace. But how can a mere field cook and injured boy turn the tide and find a way home? It will take all of Tortot’s cunning and culinary skills to keep Half-George hidden and bring an end to a world engaged in perpetual war.
A glorious exploration of the causes, costs, and consequences of war, as well as a celebration of the bonds of friendship and family that hold the keys to finding a way out of battle and home again for thoughtful readers ages 12 and up.
Tortot, the Cold Fish who Lost His World and Found His Heart
Written by Benny Lindelauf
Illustrated by Ludwig Volbeda
Originally published as Hoe Tortot zijn vissen hart verloor by Querido, 2015
Translated from the original Dutch by Laura Watkinson
Published by Pushkin Children’s Books, 2017
You can buy a copy of Tortot in English here.
“Imbued with that tradition of storytelling, of tales you really wish were true” for the original Dutch edition from Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant (five stars).
Kirkus Starred Review: Author Lindelauf’s deadpan wit and absurdist satire shine in Watkinson’s masterful translation, combining to produce a thoroughly enjoyable, touching tale for all ages…An irreverent fable that tells a timeless tale of war, friendship, and the redemptive power of love.”
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