The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine
“Sulfia wasn’t very gifted. In fact, to be honest, I’d say she was rather stupid. And yet somehow she was my daughter—worse still, my only daughter.”
As her seventeen-year-old daughter sobs on a kitchen stool after confessing she is pregnant with an unknown man’s child, all Rosa can think about is how stupid, pathetic and unfortunate looking her only offspring is at that moment. After overcoming this disgust for her own child, Rosa feels sorry for the girl and takes action. Scalding mustard seed baths, concoctions made of cranberry and stewed laurel leaves and a knitting needle inserted into the abdomen make Sulfia violently ill but fail to take care of her problem. Several months later, Sulfia gives birth to a baby girl named Aminat.
Alina Bronsky’s novel, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, is the story of a lifetime of manipulations by a mostly, but not always, well-wishing mother. Rosa, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, controls, manipulates and judges everyone around her to get what she wants. She is frustrated by the lazy ineptitude of her daughter and does her best to insure that her grand-daughter does not end up the same way. Rosa believes that her grand-daughter Aminat has escaped her daughter’s bad genes and is on a mission to turn her into the beautiful, intelligent, well-mannered daughter she never had. Rosa takes over full control of the child and goes to great lengths to keep her away from Sulfia’s bad influence.
Rosa believes herself to be a superior being and makes that clear to everyone around her. With psychological domination and a little bribery, Rosa can accomplish anything. Rosa has an unfailing belief in her own actions, appearance, and ability to get people to do what she wants. And to her credit, Rosa almost always gets what she wants regardless of the repercussions for her loved ones. Rosa arranges, and eventually sabotages Sulfia’s three marriages, kidnaps Aminat and sends away Lina, Sulfia’s second daughter and regularly berates Sulfia with criticism about everything from her sloppy appearance to her failings as a mother.
This novel would be supremely depressing if it was not told with Rosa’s hilarious narrative voice. Alina Bronsky brilliantly conveys Rosa’s arrogance and vanity by allowing the reader to experience her thoughts and observations as she moves through the world wreaking havoc. For example, Rosa often congratulates herself for her good looks and impeccable fashion sense:
My son-in-law liked me. It was understandable. I was a handsome woman. In my late forties I still looked as if I were in my mid-thirties at most. My skin was firm and radiant, and I made myself up every morning before I went anywhere—even if it was just to the kitchen. I wore only red and black. I could pull it off.
Rosa’s interactions with her husband Kalganov are also highly amusing. She tolerates him because he has a respectable job working for the government but when he leaves for another woman, Rosa is quite pleased. He still sometimes hangs around the apartment and looks up at Rosa:
Kalganov was good at that: ruining my mood. His presence could cast a shadow over any otherwise splendid moment. The spring day was beginning to fade. The wind no longer felt caressing, but rather treacherous. I closed the window and drew the curtain.
Rosa is happy to be rid of Kalganov because she does not have to carry so many groceries up to the apartment and can feign sadness to get sympathy from Sulfia. Whatever happens, Rosa makes it work to her advantage.
The novel takes place over eighteen years, beginning in 1978 when Aminat is born. The first twelve years are set in Soviet Russia, but when food, water and other goods become scarce, Rosa must formulate a plan to get her family to Germany. The Soviet regime is portrayed in the novel through Rosa’s dealings with hospitals, schools and housing services, all of which rely heavily on bribery and subtle flirting. Rosa eventually cashes in on a German cookbook writer’s inappropriate attraction to a teenage Aminat but convinces the naïve Sulfia that he is really in love with her. With the sponsorship of the German writer, Rosa gets government approval, visas and plane tickets to Germany in hopes of saving her family. While Rosa happily takes advantage of new opportunities in Germany, her family crumbles around her. The tragic ending of the novel is a result of everyone being pushed to, and for some well past, the brink of insanity by the wheeling and dealings of Rosa.
The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is Alina Bronsky’s second novel released by Europa Editions and translated by Tim Mohr. Bronksy’s first novel, Broken Glass Park, was nominated for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine received a nomination for the 2010 German Book Prize. The German translation skillfully conveys the humor in the tenuous mother-daughter relationship, as well as the unfortunate irony of Rosa’s attempts at family betterment.