1 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Adelaide Kuehn on Alina Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, which is translated from the German by Tim Mohr and available from Europa Editions.

Adelaide is a former intern and translation student, who has written for Three Percent a couple times in the past.

We ran a review a very positive review of Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park back in the day, and I’m really glad we’re finally able to post something on her new book.

Also worth noting that The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is the 100th book published by Europa Editions—a pretty amazing accomplishment, especially since it seems like just yesterday that they were launching their operation . . . Ah, time . . . Europa’s month long celebration is technically over, but you can read about the festivities here.

On to the review:

“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.

Read the full review by clicking here.

1 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“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.

26 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a sharp critique by Adelaide Kuehn of Robert Pagani’s The Princess, the King, and the Anarchist, which was translated from the French by Helen Marx and published by Helen Marx Books.

Adelaide Kuehn is one of our interns this semester (and will be next semester as well, so expect to hear more from her) and is reading a ton of books from both Zulma and Les Allusifs. Over the past summer, Addie also had a chance to intern at the Villa Gillet during the International Forum on the Novel. (An event I’ve wanted to attend for years . . . )

Anyway, her review is a bit testy . . . which seems fitting to post today, post-Thanksgiving, in the midst of Black Friday, when most everyone is griping about crowds, our family, that missing flask of alcohol, the fact that the Lions always suck, the horridness of omnipresent holiday music, the ways in which 2010 was just as meh as 2009, the inevitable gift disappointment right around the corner, etc., etc.

So here’s her opening:

The Princess, the King, and the Anarchist by Robert Pagani follows the three characters in the title during a royal marriage turned violent. The novella is based on the assassination attempt of Spanish King Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenia on their wedding day in 1906, winding its way through the thoughts of the three main characters to portray the events leading up to the wedding day. The young, naive British Princess Mary Eugenia Victoria spends the entire novella first having to pee during the procession to the palace and then worrying about her wedding night because she has no understanding of basic human biology. The King Alfonso XIII is preoccupied by an insistent erection while he points out different buildings in Madrid as they move slowly to the palace. In the days leading up to the bombing the bitter and depressed anarchist, Fernando, wanders around Madrid cold and hungry.

The novella is intended to be a snapshot into the royal lifestyle but is so simplistic that it comes off as forced and unrealistic. Even though the Princess has blood all over her dress and sees bowels oozing at her feet, she feels a little bit nauseous but quickly recovers. The King is practically grateful for the disaster because he can cancel the planned dance and can get down to business with the princess. The whole thing is so improbable, which in itself is not so problematic but when combined with the bizarre sexual subtext of the novella, just does not add up.

Ouch. But definitely check out the full review if for no other reason than to read her bits about the wacky sex stuff in this novella . . . And Merry Christmas!

26 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Princess, the King, and the Anarchist by Robert Pagani follows the three characters in the title during a royal marriage turned violent. The novella is based on the assassination attempt of Spanish King Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenia on their wedding day in 1906, winding its way through the thoughts of the three main characters to portray the events leading up to the wedding day. The young, naive British Princess Mary Eugenia Victoria spends the entire novella first having to pee during the procession to the palace and then worrying about her wedding night because she has no understanding of basic human biology. The King Alfonso XIII is preoccupied by an insistent erection while he points out different buildings in Madrid as they move slowly to the palace. In the days leading up to the bombing the bitter and depressed anarchist, Fernando, wanders around Madrid cold and hungry.

The novella is intended to be a snapshot into the royal lifestyle but is so simplistic that it comes off as forced and unrealistic. Even though the Princess has blood all over her dress and sees bowels oozing at her feet, she feels a little bit nauseous but quickly recovers. The King is practically grateful for the disaster because he can cancel the planned dance and can get down to business with the princess. The whole thing is so improbable, which in itself is not so problematic but when combined with the bizarre sexual subtext of the novella, just does not add up.

One would hope that adding a little sex into an otherwise benign and somewhat pointless plot would help this book out, but alas, it does not. The princess spends the entire novella trying to piece together the small bits and pieces she has heard about sex to figure out what exactly she is in for that evening. She remembers what a few of her cousins had told her:

Emily had specified: like a medium-sized carrot. And the orifice was so narrow! It got bigger: the flesh down there was unbelievably expandable. “Do you realize, Mary, how expandable in order for an eight-pound baby to go through?” But even so, a large carrot is hard to believe. Wouldn’t shorter and skinnier have been better? Did the seed need that kind of bulk to pass? Or rather, did God want women to suffer? But why? What had she done to deserve such punishment?

And if that does not satisfy your crazing for perplexing sexual references, the King continually frets about when he will get his much anticipated “release.” Here the King visits the queasy princess in her quarters as she gets ready to come down to the celebratory dinner that “evening”:

The word “evening” renewed his stiffness. His rod, an erect mast in the middle of his body, is ebony, steel. What will he do if nothing changes? What if, stubbornly, it has decided to keep this sign of hardness until consummation?

“I leave you now, Mary Eugenia, and shall return in ten minutes. I will give the order to delay the first course a quarter of an hour.”

He exits, climbs the staircase, and reaches his private quarters. He feels around the erect baobab of his pubis, an intense, painful tingling. What will happen this evening if she has not recovered, if she wants to see the doctor or has a fever? What if she goes to sleep and doesn’t wake up until morning, then what will he do? Watch over her, as taut as a bow with an arrow ready to fly?

Seriously, “erect baobab of his pubis”? Really? There are times when this novella reads like an early twentieth-century harlequin. And not in a good way.

The princess’s neurotic interior monologue is annoying and the king is a sleazy narcissist who can think of nothing else but sealing the deal with his new wife. By default, the anarchist is the most likeable character in the novel and his portrayal is highly simplistic. For example, he has planned every detail of the bombing but readers are supposed to believe he has no escape plan? Unlikely. Where the story really goes off the deep end is when the princess and the anarchist, both of whom have snuck into the royal garden, have sex in a shed. There is no explanation, context or emotions expressed about this loss of virginity right before going to bed with her husband for the first time.

The Princess, the King, and the Anarchist, released by Helen Marx Books and translated by Helen Marx, is a fluffy and baffling novella.

....
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