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.

6 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Catherine Bailey on Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park, which was published by Europa Editions in Tim Mohr’s translation.

Catherine Bailey is a new reviewer for us—she’s a writer, artist, and activist from Seattle, WA who is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in English and a Graduate Certificate in Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Rochester. (Hence the connection.) And based on this, I’m hoping she can find some time to write a few more reviews for us . . .

Bronsky is an interesting figure. She was at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, and her latest book was on the longlist for this year’s German Book Prize. (And I believe is forthcoming from Europa Editions.)

Here’s the opening of the review:

“Sometimes I think I’m the only one in our neighborhood with any worthwhile dreams. I have two, and there’s no reason to be ashamed of either one. I want to kill Vadim. And I want to write a book about my mother.”

So begins Broken Glass Park, the achingly beautiful debut novel by Russian-born Alina Bronsky (a pseudonym). This casual treatment of deeply harbored aggressive fantasies is characteristic of Bronsky’s central protagonist, seventeen-year-old Sascha Naimann, whose thinly veneered emotional turbulence reflects the collective restlessness of the inner city housing “projects” in which the story unfolds, and in which Bronsky herself lived for a time. Like Sascha, Bronsky emigrated from Russia to Germany during early adolescence and experienced the life ascribed to those residing in a small, peripheral community suffering from economic disadvantage, cultural displacement, and linguistic marginalization. But while Bronsky’s family found its way out of the projects, the Naimanns remain, resulting in tragic consequences that span generations.

The source of Sascha’s venomous hatred for Vadim is swiftly revealed: an abusive figure from the start, he murdered her mother one night in a fit of rage before the very eyes of Sascha and her two younger half-siblings. The novel opens approximately two years after the slaughter, and though Vadim is behind bars for his insidious crime, the horror of this loss is no less fresh—nor forgivable—in the mind of the protagonist, who also serves as the narrator. As Sascha’s inner monologue winds its way, somewhat disjointedly, through reminiscences of the days before her mother’s death, the profound intellectual rigor and thoughtful, psychological gravity to which the young woman was predisposed become apparent; yet, simultaneously, so does the fact that she has since devoted these energies toward the singular objective of her stepfather’s demise, for which she waits with an infinite and calculating patience. Sascha’s roiling detestation of Vadim and consequently, of all men, is kept in check only by the layer of pointed apathy with which she meets the rest of life. At one point Sascha muses, “A Russian children’s poem comes to mind: ‘My nerves are made of steel, no, actually, I don’t have any at all.’ It’s like it was written about me. I don’t have any.” She is as a walking corpse, disdainful of the petty tribulations saddling the people in her life, kept alive only by her ardent desire to bring death to her stepfather and a symbolic resurrection to her mother through the immortal act of writing.

Click here to read the full review.

6 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Sometimes I think I’m the only one in our neighborhood with any worthwhile dreams. I have two, and there’s no reason to be ashamed of either one. I want to kill Vadim. And I want to write a book about my mother.”

So begins Broken Glass Park, the achingly beautiful debut novel by Russian-born Alina Bronsky (a pseudonym). This casual treatment of deeply harbored aggressive fantasies is characteristic of Bronsky’s central protagonist, seventeen-year-old Sascha Naimann, whose thinly veneered emotional turbulence reflects the collective restlessness of the inner city housing “projects” in which the story unfolds, and in which Bronsky herself lived for a time. Like Sascha, Bronsky emigrated from Russia to Germany during early adolescence and experienced the life ascribed to those residing in a small, peripheral community suffering from economic disadvantage, cultural displacement, and linguistic marginalization. But while Bronsky’s family found its way out of the projects, the Naimanns remain, resulting in tragic consequences that span generations.

The source of Sascha’s venomous hatred for Vadim is swiftly revealed: an abusive figure from the start, he murdered her mother one night in a fit of rage before the very eyes of Sascha and her two younger half-siblings. The novel opens approximately two years after the slaughter, and though Vadim is behind bars for his insidious crime, the horror of this loss is no less fresh—nor forgivable—in the mind of the protagonist, who also serves as the narrator. As Sascha’s inner monologue winds its way, somewhat disjointedly, through reminiscences of the days before her mother’s death, the profound intellectual rigor and thoughtful, psychological gravity to which the young woman was predisposed become apparent; yet, simultaneously, so does the fact that she has since devoted these energies toward the singular objective of her stepfather’s demise, for which she waits with an infinite and calculating patience. Sascha’s roiling detestation of Vadim and consequently, of all men, is kept in check only by the layer of pointed apathy with which she meets the rest of life. At one point Sascha muses, “A Russian children’s poem comes to mind: ‘My nerves are made of steel, no, actually, I don’t have any at all.’ It’s like it was written about me. I don’t have any.” She is as a walking corpse, disdainful of the petty tribulations saddling the people in her life, kept alive only by her ardent desire to bring death to her stepfather and a symbolic resurrection to her mother through the immortal act of writing.

And yet, as the text carries on, we see that this is not so. Unbeknownst to Sascha, she is, in fact, a caring sister, a dedicated (if outwardly exasperated) friend, and a wellspring of sensual emotion. Through a fortuitously placed newspaper article, Sascha encounters Volker Trebur, the mysteriously alluring city section editor, and his son Felix. A complicated web of relationships develops between the three, revealing nuances of Sascha’s tenderness even as it demonstrates the extent of the damage done to her ability to give and receive love by the trauma she has sustained. Ultimately a character study, Broken Glass Park offers a poignant and telling portrait of the human condition through Sascha: she is furious, she is helpless; at times she is downright ugly, yet her compassion delivers others from pain. She is broken, and in struggling to repair herself, she often does nothing but widen the cracks in the pane of her fragile existence. Bronsky’s gift for subtle characterization makes Sascha a sympathetic, frustrating, and compellingly imperfect heroine.

Interestingly, Broken Glass Park is not composed of individual chapters; rather, it flows continuously. This stylistic choice greatly enhances the content of the novel, given that Sascha’s thoughts and perceptions are expressed in the present tense. The uninterrupted flow of the text allows for a seamless blending of the protagonist’s immediate moods and sensations with her tangential, introspective narration of actual past and imagined future. Reading Broken Glass Park is, at times, much like listening to someone think aloud—the free association so structurally important to the character’s voice leads to revelations far more significant than any dialogue would provide (though on the occasions in which it arises, Bronsky’s dialogue is solid). Moreover, the unceasing progression of the plot as told through Sascha’s eyes lends thrust to the ubiquitous sense of agitated ennui that permeates her fractured urban community. Its inhabitants are desperate for their various reasons, but escape seems distant if plausible at all. The droning of the narrator’s voice invites readers to participate, if only vicariously, in the relentless aimlessness of a journey devoid of destination—a phenomenon felt on a societal level by the impoverished immigrants of the projects, and on a personal level by Sascha’s cavernous depression. The text does not blink, so to speak, and the device is potent. There is no relieving respite from the imposition of the next heavy thought, the next unpleasant memory. There is nothing to do, in light of Sascha’s tragedy, and in light of the many unsung episodes of the troubled population around her, but to continue.

Among the novel’s most engaging themes is Sascha’s relationship with the polarities of her own emotional development. Though she condemns her mother’s gentle nature as the source of her downfall and swears to despise all men, Sascha finds herself drawn into various avenues of romantic and sexual experimentation. In her approach to these predominantly bumbling attempts at connection, she is at once mature beyond her years and alarmingly naïve. Likewise, her efforts to harden her heart for the task of exacting revenge on Vadim are counteracted by her role as a nurturing maternal figure to her young siblings and even her legal guardian, who is in many ways a child. By sending Sascha swinging, pendulum-like, between the forces of self-desecration and self-preservation, Bronsky implies that there are no absolute paths to personal fulfillment. In illustrating this tension throughout the entirety of her work, the author has given us a noteworthy body of ideas to contemplate long after the final page is turned.

Broken Glass Park, released by Europa Editions and translated by Tim Mohr, is a captivating and unsettling read. It was recently nominated for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, a distinguished award in Europe, and with its delicate treatment of the existential complexities surrounding the perpetuation of violence and the salvation of acceptance, it is likely to garner much more critical acclaim.

16 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Running a bit behind with the news here, but the Fall 2010 issue of the Quarterly Conversation is now available online. As always, there’s a lot of great content here, including an essay on Nicholson Baker as the missing link between Updike and DFW, a piece on Helene Cixous’s So Close, and tons of interesting book reviews. Here are a few additional highlights:

Mexican writer Roberto Ransom is nicely featured in this issue. First up is the translation of ‘Lizard à la Heart,’ which is part of Desparecidos, animales y artistas, a collection that Daniel Shapiro received grants from the PEN Translation Fund and the National Endowment for the Arts to translate. It’s an odd, fantastical story about a woman talking talking to her pet—a lonely crocodile locked in the bathroom.

In addition, there’s an interview with Ransom conducted by John Pluecker, which includes some interesting bits about the origins of “Lizard à la Heart” (he cites V, and the experience of buying a house only to have the ex-owner show up at all hours of the night drunk and demanding his house back), and this story about Borges and Bioy Casares:

“Just last night I heard an unforgettable quip by Borges that goes more or less as follows. As an old man, master Borges turns to his lifelong friend, Bioy Casares, and says, ‘Do you remember that towards the end of that terrible year of ’45 we considered committing suicide?’ ‘Yes, in fact, I do,’ responds Bioy. ‘What I don’t remember,’ continues Borges, ‘is if we did so or not.’”

One of the big essays in this issue is a long piece by George Prochnik on Stefan Zweig’s World of Yesterday: An Autobiography. It’s a very interesting piece that mostly focuses on Zweig’s exile and eventual suicide. Some very interesting bits in here that make it definitely worth reading:

Zweig was obsessed with the impossibility of attaining any distance on catastrophe in an age of enveloping mass media. He saw the inability to escape word of fresh disaster wherever and whenever it was happening—a phenomenon he labeled the “organization of simultaneity”— degrading humanity’s capacity to respond to suffering. “People speak so lightly of bombardments,” he wrote in one of his final letters, “But when I read of houses collapsing I collapse with them.” Over time, his justifications for being in Petropolis come to sound like dutiful recitations of holistic prescriptions. “Montaigne speaks with infinite sorrow of people who live the sorrows of others in imagination, and advises them to withdraw and isolate themselves,” he told Friderike. The contrast between the sight of Rio’s Carnival revelries (“_Très érotique, très érotique!_” he exclaimed to friends) and the latest news of wartime abominations gave the final prod to suicide. Zweig’s defeat in exile was due, also, to an inability even briefly to sustain the psychic quarantine he sporadically craved. [. . .]

Rather than staking a claim on the “real” beauties of the past, Zweig poses the question that haunts the experience of many a nostalgic émigré to this day: what do present circumstances offer by way of compensation for loss of the invariably exaggerated fantasy of sweet home? Although “it was a delusion our fathers served, it was a wonderful and noble delusion,” Zweig wrote, “more humane and more fruitful than our watchwords of today; and in spite of my later knowledge and disillusionment, there is still something in me which inwardly prevents me from abandoning it entirely.” Zweig’s paean to the aesthetic intoxication that characterized the Vienna of yesterday recalls Nietzsche’s dictum, “We have art in order that we may not perish of truth.”

Unfortunately, the only Zweig I’ve read is The Post-Office Girl, which I really enjoyed, and which made me want to read more—a desire that’s been stoked by this piece.

*

Quarterly Conversation‘s review sections is one of the highlights of each issue, and the new one doesn’t disappoint. Especially pleased to see a piece by Matt Rowe on Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s A Life in Paper, which was translated by Edward Gauvin. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I completely agree with Matt on the Cortazar connection:

Although the stories in A Life on Paper have many precedents and parallels in American writing, from Irving to Poe to Twain, the fantastic mode has been in eclipse for a century. In recent years Ray Bradbury’s freaks and dreamers, unfairly relegated to the genre shelves, are perhaps a better match than the biting humor and socio-cultural satire of a Vonnegut, despite their surface similarities. The success of writers like Kelly Link and Aimee Mann may be sign of a renaissance, or merely the exception that proves the rule.

Other literatures don’t relegate the modern fantastic to a lesser tier. Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s closest Latin American kin is not any practitioner in the overstretched category of magical realism but the inimitable Julio Cortázar; Italian readers know not only Calvino’s post-modern play but the works of his contemporaries Dino Buzzati and Tommaso Landolfi and many others. And beyond the many works of Châteaureynaud not yet in English, translator Gauvin says there is a whole school of the fantastic in French and especially Belgian letters.

This kind of tale is foreign not in its language (thanks to Edward Gauvin) but in its mere unfamiliarity. A Life on Paper is itself a talisman for preserving an endangered world.

*

Linda Lê is someone I’ve been meaning to read for a while, especially The Three Fates, which is translated by Mark Polizetti and published by New Directions. Here’s a bit from Promita Chatterji’s review:

From its first lines depicting an old man, “tired, broken . . . sitting in his small blue house like King Lear in his hovel,” the novel aligns its main characters with the most canonical of literary figures. “King Lear’s” daughters turn out to be the “Three Fates” of the title: two sisters and their cousin; three women who have left their father behind while emigrating to France from Vietnam during the early 1970’s. Living a life of relative wealth and comfort, the novel’s main thread revolves around their discussions as they plan to bring him out for a visit.

But it’s Lê‘s style that sounds most intriguing to me:

While the majority of these stories are inherently fascinating and excruciatingly detailed, The Three Fates is by no means an easy read. Although it is relatively short, the novel’s overriding feature is its forceful, difficult narration. Written without chapter or paragraph breaks—and with only a few, intermittent “section” breaks—and without any dialogue or direct discourse, the novel creates a fractured, dream-like surface that glides from one perspective to another. [. . .]

The translation, by Mark Polizetti, is impressive in its ability to render the perspectival shifts and general pacing of the language. At times, the tone of sarcasm and cruelty feels a bit over the top and the nicknames can seem clunky, but overall works quite successfully to render the fragmentation and tension that characterize the novel.

*

Finally, there’s also a piece by Anne Posten on Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park:

In some ways, Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park is exactly what one might expect from a debut novel whose narrator and heroine is a seventeen-year-old girl. The book is fast-paced, engaging, and not exactly challenging in terms of form or style. What makes the book worth reading, however, is the fact that the story is a unique one, and one which is told with great simplicity, straightforwardness, and ease. Sascha Naimann is a flawed yet very lovable heroine, and it is very difficult not to be drawn in by her voice and story.

The story takes place in Frankfurt, where Sascha lives with her younger half-brother and half-sister in a housing project filled mostly with Russian immigrants like themselves. The fact that many of the characters are meant to be speaking Russian and the interactions between newly-learned German and the mother tongue provide an interesting challenge for a translator, and one that Tim Mohr dealt with smoothly. His pop-culture background is also very well suited to the diction of a teenager, and the switches between colloquialism and precocious articulateness are navigated with ease.

Yep—another book for the “to read” pile . . .

....
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