The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine Paperback – Apr 26 2011
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"What begins as a cruel comic romp ends as a surprisingly winning story of hardship and resilience." — The New Yorker
"Bronsky lands another hit with this hilarious, disturbing, and always irreverent blitz." — Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"A rich, funny and unspeakably delicious novel" — Bookslut
"Bronsky's great gift is humor." — Los Angeles Times
About the Author
Alina Bronsky was born in Yekaterinburg, an industrial town at the foot of the Ural Mountains in central Russia. She moved to Germany when she was thirteen. Broken Glass Park, nominated for one of Europe’s most prestigious literary awards, the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, is her first novel. Alina Bronsky is a pseudonym.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I picked up Alina Bronsky's The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine with anticipation and a little bit of trepidation. I very much enjoyed Bronsky's first novel, Broken Glass Park and thought it could mark the start of a very promising career. But second novels are challenging, both for the author and for the reader. The author is challenged to live up to the promise of her first work. The reader is challenged by virtue of his or her own heightened expectation and anticipation that the second work will outstrip the qualities of the first novel. Bronsky has met his challenge with ease. Hottest Dishes was a delight to read.
The `heroine' and narrator of Hottest Dishes is one Rosa Achmetowna. She is one of those forces of nature who, if you met them in real life you'd shake your head after she'd left and sit down while you figured out exactly what hit you. An ethnic Tartar living in the Soviet Union (it appears she may be in Sverdlovsk, Ukraine) in the 1970s, Rosa is single-minded, abrupt and blunt to the point of rudeness and quite singe-minded when it comes to getting what she wants. She is at once hyper-critical and blithely unaware of the impact of her words and actions on the people around her. Told through Rosa's eyes you get a glimpse of the world as she (and only she) sees it while wincing at her inability to see even for a moment just how toxic she is being. The personality of Rosa in many ways reminded me of the narrator in After Claude (New York Review Books Classics) who was also something of a force of nature in a fine book by Iris Owens.
The book opens with Rosa berating her 17-year old daughter Sulfia. She is hopeless, she is stupid, she's not nearly as attractive as her mother and she'll never get a man if she doesn't change her ways. So Rosa is both astonished and mortified when Sulfia tells her that she's pregnant and has no idea how it happened. Despite Rosa's herculean efforts to end the pregnancy using everything from Tartar herbal remedies to a gruesome attempt at an in-house `procedure' that almost kills her, Sulfia delivers a baby girl, Aminat. Much to her own surprise Rosa notes that Aminat has her Tartar looks and immediately falls in love with the girl. The rest of the book pretty much tracks the adventures and misadventures of three generations of Achmetowna women. Although the book is driven as much or more by strength of narrative than by its plot I think it best to leave it to the reader to discover how their lives progress.
Two things stand out for me. First, I think Bronsky did a terrific job finding Rosa's voice. Bronsky was born in Russia and moved to Germany with her family as a young girl. Broken Glass Park was narrated in the voice of a young girl, Sascha, who was born in Siberia and moved to Germany as a young girl. Although Bronsky's life was not at all close to that of Sascha's I did wonder whether Bronsky could find a different voice that seemed as `true-to-life' as that of Sascha's. I had no need to be concerned. Despite her rather unique personality I really felt that I was hearing the thoughts of a real, if very problematic, personality. So, as I became absorbed in the book I could not help but begin to see the world as seen by Rosa with some sense of empathy. By the time I was half-way through the book I was finding Rosa to be almost endearing.
However, and this is second element that stands out for me, first impressions aren't necessarily correct. I laughed my way through the first half of the book. It was funny and the characters were charmingly toxic. But like a Coen Brothers movie the initial laughter lulled me into a false sense of where the book was heading. What Bronsky has done so well here in terms of both plot and narration is to gradually let things slip out until you reach a point where I just thought "really?" followed shortly thereafter by an "oh my." What Bronsky does so well here, is to change the tone from comedy to drama in a manner that unfolds almost accidentally.
All in all The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine more than exceeded my expectations. If you prefer your Tartars saucy you will enjoy this book. L. Fleisig
Perhaps this should be called The Battle Hymn of the Tartar Mother....The narrator of this fast-paced novel is a mother more like Mommie Dearest than June Cleaver. She's actually kind of scary. Yet her witty observations, completely oblivious of her own sinister attitude, makes the reader both laugh and cringe.
As it begins, Rosalinda is bemoaning her stupid daughter--an ugly thing with no prospects for success and an unplanned pregnancy to boot. She believes in some sort of immaculate conception because she's sure no man would have her hideous offspring. Eventually, the child is born and it's up to Rosalinda to try and create a stable and loving environment away from the child's hapless mother.
And yet, Bronsky has given us an unreliable narrator, the classic type that makes you begin to question everything about the story. Little hints are thrown out, via Rosalinda's stream-of-consciousness thinking, that tell you more about why she is so difficult. It soon becomes fairly clear that her daughter is not the idiot we're made to envision.
"I had tried to teach her that nobody should be able to see when you were scared. That nobody should be able to tell when you were uncertain. That you shouldn't show it when you loved someone. And that you smiled with particular affection at someone you hated."
The story progresses as the three generations of women fight for survival, and Rosalinda's influence is felt everywhere. She really is the story; the characterization of her is full of revealing details. She knows just when to let her hair down (literally) to get her way, and when and what kind of flowers to send for a bribe. She knows that certain events require heels and the fur coat, while at other times her beauty must be downplayed. And she thinks nothing of throwing a boot at her daughter's face to get her way.
Aminat and Sulfia aren't as fully developed...but really, how could they, given the magnitude of Rosalinda? Another character that is intriguing is Kalganow, Rosalinda's husband, who leaves her after a particularly harrowing cross-examination by her. His presence in the story is at the periphery, but every scene he appears in is priceless.
In all, the story had me laughing in shock and awe at her atrociousness. Yet it grew tiring too, by the end, as she never seemed to mellow. I still enjoyed it, but I thought that underlining her pushy character was already done and I was convinced. I did like how certain factors that explained her behavior were subtly incorporated without excusing her. This will likely be in my top five fiction titles for the year....and the cover art is just brilliant.
But they're her family so she does what she has to to survive.
On Sulfia, her only child:
I had heard that goat's milk made you strong and healthy, and Sulfia was so scrawny.
Every morning and every evening Sulfia got a glass of freshly milked goat's milk. Obviously boiled, because everything out here was full of germs. I boiled it myself using a cast-iron cauldron built into their earthen stove. Sulfia made a rueful face whenever she saw the full cup. She didn't like the taste. I told her it was a vaccination against stupidity. Sulfia sniffed the cup, disgusted, unhappy. She looked at me. My gaze was enough to make other people jump out of a window. So it was child's play to make Sulfia drink her goat's milk. The first time she gulped it down. Then she grabbed her stomach. When you drank it so quickly, naturally you got a stomache ache. Sulfia's pathetic expression drove me nuts. Then she suddenly put her hands over her mouth, ran out, and threw up into the raspberry patch outside. She was a brave little girl and would never have made a mess on the floor. After she had regurgitated the goat's milk, I gave her a second cup and made sure she drank it very slowly. I'm not sure she would have survived to school age without this milk. I sacrificed myself for her betterment.
I myself didn't drink any goat's milk. I did taste it once out of curiosity, after Sulfia complained about its bitterness--she never complained about things otherwise. I took a sip and instantly dashed out to the raspberry bushes. Yes, this milk was not enjoyable stuff, and I was happy I wasn't the one who had to drink it.
So get to the point already: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is set in the 1970s in the Soviet Union. At the opening of the novel, we learn that anthrax spores have leaked from a lab and that Rosa's daughter Sulfia is pregnant. Rosa doesn't think much of her daughter. She uses a few natural methods to abort the child--who was purportedly conceived because Sulfia dreamt about a man--before their flatmate Klavdia, who works at a birthing center, volunteers to take care of it. It appears that she's successful until Sulfia shows clear signs of pregnancy.
"Must have been twins," Klavdia said, shrugging her shoulders. "So what?"
To her surprise, Rosa finds in her newborn granddaughter Aminat all that was lacking in Sulfia. And she intends to raise this child right, despite Sulfia's inability to do anything. So we follow Rosa, Aminat, and Sulfia--Kolganow pops up here and there but this book is about the women--through lean times, through extra-marital affairs (Rosa's and Kolganow's), through failed marriages (Sulfia's) to Germany, where they shack up with Sulfia's former patient, a German cookbook writer who fell sick in the Soviet Union while researching Tartar cuisine but had, through some scheming on Rosa's part, brought the women to live with him.
I don't want to leave you with the impression that this is all laughs. There are glimpses of a different reality--in Aminat's sad childhood and the social/political landscape that serves as a backdrop to the story--that peek through Rosa's cutting remarks. She had no choice, at least in her way of thinking.
I mini-raved about this book on its release date and I'll rave again. This book is my favorite read of the year and it will appeal to those of you looking for a refreshing read with a wickedly funny protagonist who you'll love to hate. I cannot wait to see what Alina Bronsky has planned, though I won't ask her about if I ever see her in person. In the meantime, I'm glad that I have her first novel, Broken Glass Park, to turn to while I wait.
In one interview, author Alina Bronsky remarked that "Most readers understand very quickly who Rosa is. She is obviously not very nice, but she tries to be. I had expected people to hate her. To my great surprise lots of readers love her, even if they are aware of all her tricks."
Indeed, Hottest Dishes is a disturbingly entertaining story of the untidy lives of three women (mother, daughter, granddaughter) set against the backdrop of a rapidly disintegrating country. Men, meanwhile, are incidental to Rosa's narrative -- just bothersome outsiders that are useful to have around from time to time, provided they are suitably docile or provide a sound stepping stone to the achievement of Rosa's ends -- to craft a better life for herself, her granddaughter and her daughter, in that order.
While the novel's story line is compelling, it is Rosa's narrative voice that will seduce you. Every few dozen pages she comes out with a line that makes you laugh out loud:
"I listened to him -- I knew how a wife had to behave. the most important thing was not to point out to the husband what stupid things he said. A woman's tolerance in this area was key to a stable marriage."
"I had always tried to make up for the failings of others, whether through advice, action or my own good will. That's a notoriously thankless job."
Convinced that she is the only glue holding her family's life together, the only surety that will give her granddaughter anything like a normal life, Rosa schemes her hapless daughter through an abortion, a series of loveless marriages and emigration. All the while, as disasters mount, she repeatedly assures us that her fine figure, excellent education, perfect Russian, superior cleanliness and personal fortitude will save the day. And then, when she finally thinks she has things sorted out, things take a turn even she could not have anticipated.
In the end, Rosa finds that the only life she can have some semblance of control over is her own. And that just barely.
As reviewed in Russian Life