Stone dead, half-frozen octopus dropped from a small fishing boat into the waters off the coast of Sicily. Plummeting to their second deaths, with all the metaphorical weight of a dead albatross. All for one man, who’s snorkelling below, filmed by an attendant camera crew.
In the wetsuit, Anthony Bourdain, writer, ex-cook and maker of original, funny, dozen-thoughts-per-minute television. He’s in Sicily for season two of Parts Unknown (2013). He’s meant to be catching this ocean delicacy for real, not being fed them from above like an aquarium-caged sea mammal. The local restaurant owner orchestrating the sham obviously didn’t get the memo that for Anthony Bourdain authenticity is everything.
Underwater, with a snorkel in his mouth, Bourdain, the charismatic, natural communicator is unable to say a word. The anger he’s feeling cannot be expressed in a series of trademark expletives. Just the silence of the pathetic deceit reigning down on him. He’s powerless to stop the bullshit.
It’s through the narration added afterwards in the editing studio that Bourdain gets to speak the horror of what he experienced. “I’m no marine biologist,” he deadpans, “but I know dead octopus when I see one… Strangely, everyone else pretends to believe the hideous sham unfolding before our eyes, doing their best to ignore the blindingly obvious.”
As octopi thud lifelessly onto the seafloor, he continues the despairing monologue: “I’ve never had a nervous breakdown before, but I tell you from the bottom of my heart, something fell apart down there, and it took a long, long time after the end of this damn episode to recover.”
This wasn’t just a tragic-comic scene, a good story for his television show, it was an existential crisis of monsters-from-the-deep proportions. The look on his face back on shore said it all.
Faith in humanity was at stake. Faith in himself. It’s like those falling dead octopus are Bourdain’s own burdens, mistakes and regrets, piling on top of humanity’s greater follies, from gluttonous overfishing to run-of-the-mill everyday media fakery. And here he was complicit in it all. That’s one hell of a guilt load. So Bourdain gets blindly and sourly drunk on gin cocktails. It’s his birthday.
This story, both painfully real and artfully presented for fist-punching dramatic effect, is what Bourdain could crystalise in a few minutes of TV. There are countless scenes from No Reservations and Parts Unknown that make you laugh out loud and want to cry at the same time. Have you doubting our very worth as a species one minute, then making you believe eating grilled sardines at a bistro with good company is the greatest joy possible.
As a cook, Bourdain might not have been an artiste, but as a maker of hour-long television, he was in my mind an artist. The flawed, witty, passionate man that he presented to us on screen was like a fresh oyster off the rocks compared to the bland fast-food celebrities we’re so often forced to consume. I was a fan.
From this distance his suicide is unfathomable, an act lacking any easy explanation. We’re left with a big tidal pool of doubt.
Which is the feeling you often got watching his shows filmed in places like Beirut, Jerusalem, Libya, Detroit, Moscow or the Congo. In his later shows, when he was more serious about what he was doing, Bourdain never gave easy answers to the world’s problems and conflicts. He didn’t have them, and he didn’t pretend to have them. Like all good sceptics, he put the onus on us to figure it all out.
In a recent interview, he said: “I don’t like comfortable conclusions. Life’s not like that. I’d rather leave people hanging even with a lingering doubt or a feeling of being unsettled.” And yet his brutal honesty, natural empathy for ordinary people, and unwavering internationalism were a kind of answer. It must be part of the reason so many people around the world have voiced their sadness at his passing.