Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

Rating: 3 Stars
[Translated from the German by Tim Mohr]
Its saucy title seems designed to lure in readers seeking spice in their reading, or kitchen, or elsewhere, as it may be. Generally, I avoid chick-lit like a leper colony – too much belly-aching from women obsessing about their looks, boyfriend difficulties, and unresolved issues with their mothers. The protagonist of Alina Bronsky’s book, Rosalinda Achmetowna, has no problems with how she looks, thank you very much. In her own modest esteem, her appearance is often the envy of lesser women. She also happens to have her men exactly where she wants them – either wrapped around her little finger, or out of her life. Having no mother, she has no issues with her. Her own daughter, Sulfia, is too intimidated by Rosa to cross her in anything.
Rosa has decided that Sulfia will forever be a disappointment to her. She has such a low opinion of her that when seventeen year old Sulfia tells her she is pregnant, Rosa finds it easier to believe in an immaculate conception, rather than the possibility that a man might have actually impregnated her. She then proceeds to try a number of home remedies to abort the pregnancy, but for once in her life she fails. However, when her grand-daughter Aminat is born, it’s love at first sight. No wonder; Aminat resembles her so much that she seems to be the daughter Rosa would much rather have had. This book is about these three generations of Russian women, and their difficult relationship with each other that steers the course of their lives.
The book begins in the last years of Communist Russia, and later moves to Germany, while making brief visits back home. The mainstay of this book is the characterization. Rosa is a termagant who plows through life like a force of nature. Capable of tackling any crisis, she is one of those terrifying competent types who should be building empires, and demolishing enemy factions. Give her anything less than that, and her natural skills are seriously misused. It’s not that her heart is not in the right place; she is just not someone who will ever look into someone else’s heart, and see the vulnerability and need hidden there.
“…I didn’t have anything against my daughter Sulfia…Helping Sulfia in raising my grandchild didn’t bother me at all. Neither did drawing Sulfia’s attention to her own frequent mistakes. All I ever wanted was for her to improve herself.”
Sulfia is the perfect foil to Rosa. She is everything Rosa isn’t – gentle, timid and soft-hearted. Though she initially seems incapable of looking after herself, let alone anyone else; that is actually the one area in which both she and Rosa excel. They care for everybody who crosses their path, and needs their help. Unlike Rosa though, Sulfia’s caring is selfless. Aminat is caught between these two women – a grandmother who insists on knowing what is best for the whole family, and a mother who is bereft of direction. The book starts out wickedly funny, but the comic flavor dries out halfway through the story. Enjoying it after that  hinges on sympathizing with these three people and their bad judgment calls.
Russian-born author Alina Bronsky's ‘The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine’ was nominated for Germany’s book award in 2010. After all, happy homes only result in pleasant childhood memories and well-adjusted adulthood. Dysfunctional families are apparently the way to strike literary gold.

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