Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Tasty Treat: Bronsky’s Hottest Dishes

Rosa Achmetowna, narrator of Alina Bronsky’s new novel The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, translated from the German original Die schärfsten Gerichte der tatarischen Küche by Tim Mohr, was a perfect companion when I caught a cold last week. The book was lots of fun, though I’m glad Rosa’s fictional and didn’t take up residence in my house: she’s a battleaxe. The old homestead would have been sparkling clean, but I’m sure Rosa would have slathered me with mustard plasters, rubbed my feet with vodka, and stuffed me to bursting with tea and raspberry jam.

It’s obvious from the book’s first paragraph that Rosa values appearances: when her teenage daughter Sulfia announces she’s pregnant, Rosa focuses on her own posture and the elegance of how she folds her hands in her lap. Sulfia and Rosa’s big-eating husband share a communal apartment in 1978 Soviet Russia, and Rosa repeatedly reveals herself as bossy and repeatedly reminds her readers that it’s a tough job to do what’s best for her numbskull family members… even as they do their best to escape her.

Though Hottest Dishes is far more humorous, even absurd, than Bronsky’s debut Broken Glass Park (previous post), like Broken Glass Park, it is an extended character study of a book. Lots of things happen – the birth of Sulfia’s daughter Aminat, Sulfia’s marriages to three of her medical patients, and lots of arguments and leave-taking – but the book is primarily Rosa’s self-centered self-portrait describing the havoc she wreaks on other lives in the name of what’s best.

“What’s best” eventually leads Rosa, Sulfia, and Aminat to Germany, to be with a man named Dieter, who was in Tatarstan collecting recipes for a cookbook. I think the novel’s energy peters out a bit when it crosses the border: the observations about life and characters’ actions felt a little rushed and less reflective. Of course this may be partly because of my strong interest in things Russian, where Bronsky’s insights into Soviet life are concise and sharp, poignant and funny.

The Soviet chapters touch on topics including religion, housing shortages, bribery, abortion, the mess of eating sunflower seeds, envy, differences of nationalities, and the advent of McDonald’s. Not to mention the battle of the sexes – Rosa’s husband is, after all, just a man – and emigration to Israel. There isn’t a lot of detail about actual Ta(r)tar cuisine, but it’s easy enough to find descriptions – with photos – on Wikipedia. Ah, plov! (I digress: this blog post shows the same Uzbek cooking method, with garlic and a plate, I’ve been shown and used. I was advised to use more spices, though…)

I think part of the fun of reading The Hottest Dishes is that I’ve known so many woman like Rosa and watched them attempt to control everything in a household, from the dirt on the floor to the destinies of others. All while perfectly dressed and groomed: I remember Russian women advising me to always put on lipstick and make sure my hair looked good (as if!), even for a jaunt to the corner kiosk to buy bread. They meant well, too; it’s torment to live in an environment where you don’t have much say over your own life. I won’t reveal whether or not Rosa decides to lighten up. But I will say that her rants, some of which are laugh-out-loud funny and beg to be shared, are a gentle reminder to find humor in life, calm down, and let a few things go.

Up next: ?

Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine from Regal Literary. Thank you! Europa Editions will release the book in late April (says Amazon) or mid-May (says Europa).

Image credit: Plov photo from Aydar Ghaliakberov, via Untifler on Wikipedia.

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