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.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Numbing the Pain: The Blindness of the Heart or The Midday Woman

I read a lot of dark, sad Russian novels about how societal and cultural breakdowns affect individuals, so when I read Julia Franck’s The Blindness of the Heart, translated by Anthea Bell from the German original Die Mittagsfrau, I felt like I’d extended my borders westward. I love many of my Russian novels categorized as chernukha, a genre I usually describe as “dreary naturalism” or “crushing naturalism,” so I appreciate that Franck is unsparing in The Blindness of the Heart, using affectless narration to tell the story of a German woman who abandons her son just after the end of World War 2. The book is very good.

The woman, Helene, is a half-Jewish nurse who comes of age during the Weimar period. Helene’s life is difficult from the start of the book: her mother is mentally ill, her father fights in World War 1, and her older sister engages her in incest. Little gets easier for Helene, and when she and her sister go to live with their aunt in Berlin, she experiences further humiliations; her sister, also a nurse, develops a serious addiction. The one bright period in Helene’s life concludes all too quickly, and she marries a lout, though he obtains false identity papers for Helene, under the name Alice, that allow her to work.

The book is difficult to read for formal and emotional reasons: there are no quotation marks or dashes and Helene faces horrible situations and decisions that are difficult for a reader like me – I’ve had a fairly easy life without the challenge of wartime decisions – to imagine and absorb. The Blindness of the Heart focuses less on Helene’s decision to abandon her son than what leads her to make that decision. That decision is existential: Helene believes her time and energy are best spent relieving her patients’ pain, leaving her with nothing – essentially “as” nothing – to care for Peter. Death to Helene equals simply not being, and one of the terrible ironies of Helene-Alice’s life is that it is so full of pain, the very thing she tries to relieve in her patients.

Physical and psychic pain are constants in the book, as are dubious remedies like opiates and quiet suffering. Franck includes graphic descriptions of bodies and ills, effectively cascading dysfunction and upheaval from German society to human interactions and identity to anatomy. I particularly admire her ability to do that by focusing on private life rather than incorporating lots of information about history. Franck’s unemotional narrative voice and ability to convey the personal tragedy of social changes without hysteria, reflecting Helene’s state of mind, are what make The Blindness of the Heart succeed.

I’m particularly conscious of Franck’s restraint because lately I’ve read books with overlapping themes. One novel – about a Soviet-era college student who is half-Jewish and forges papers –fails, I think, largely because it’s so overwrought in places. I’ve also been rereading Liudmila Ulitskaya’s wonderful Daniel Stein, Interpreter, which includes a woman whose mother puts her and her brother in an orphanage during World War 2. I’m familiar with wartime abandonment from real-life conversations, too: the mother of a woman I knew in Moscow brought her to an orphanage as a young child, leaving her on the steps because she couldn’t feed her. Franck’s father’s mother, a nurse, abandoned him, too.

I want to mention one other thing about The Blindness of the Heart: its original German title, Die Mittagsfrau, refers to the “Midday Woman,” whom a Goethe Institut piece about Franck describes as a “ghost-like mythical character from Lusatia, the eastern German region where Helene was raised, who appears with the sun at noon. Her spell, which causes confusion, dizziness and even death, can only be resisted if her victim talks about themselves and their work.” Franck notes that Helene isn’t the Midday Woman saying, “In her life she doesn’t follow the advice of the myth. But she knows about it.” Helene and her sister think their mother was stricken by the Midday Woman but they both succumb to the spell, too, becoming numb, deadened, in different ways because they are unable – and even forbidden – to interact. With the numbness come personal losses as they deny within themselves the human qualities, the lives, they help their patients to recover so they can survive.

FYI: This book is known as The Blind Side of the Heart in Great Britain.

Disclosure: Amy of The Black Sheep Dances handed down her review copy of The Blindness of the Heart, from Grove Press. Thanks to both! I have spoken with Grove about literature in translation.

Up Next: I’ll be continuing with German novels for a bit, reading Alina Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Motoring Around Mr. Stevens's Head: The Remains of the Day

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day falls into the category of Books I Respect More than I Enjoyed. Is that good or bad? Damning with faint praise? I don’t know. The Remains of the Day and I have a long history: I bought the book shortly after it won the 1989 Booker Prize, read about half in the mid-nineties, set it aside, and lent it to a friend, who read about half before returning it. I had no trouble finishing The Remains of the Day this time around.

A plot summary for the handful of people on the planet who haven’t read the book or seen the movie: The Remains of the Day is a first-person story, narrated by Mr. Stevens, a career butler. Mr. Stevens tells us about a motoring trip in England, but the novel is more of a drive down the Memory Lane within his head. Mr. Stevens plans to meet with a former co-worker, Mrs. Benn, nee Miss Kenton, so he spends most of his time remembering his past – including some incidents with Miss Kenton – rather than describing landscapes. Mr. Stevens sees some beautiful landscapes, too, which Ishiguro plants so we observe Mr. Stevens gaining new perspectives on the world by venturing out of Darlington Hall, his home and workplace for many years.

Rather than rehash more of the book, I’ll focus on a few points that particularly struck me as I read…

Ishiguro’s Language. As with Never Let Me Go (previous post), Ishiguro constructs in The Remains of the Day a beautifully seamless, consistent narrative: Mr. Stevens’s voice is formal and sounds, at least to this American who has never met a butler, quintessentially butler-like with its politesse and phrases like “that is to say.” Some of his exchanges with Miss Kenton are heartbreaking in their circumlocution, though there’s also a fair bit of understated humor.

Dignity and One’s Place in the World. More heartbreaking, though, is the conflict between a servant’s personal and work lives. Mr. Stevens speaks frequently of his dignity, loyalty, and acceptance of his place in the world, even telling a visitor to Darlington Hall that “It is not my place to be curious about such matters [of global importance], sir.” But Mr. Stevens slips up, giving a group of strangers he meets on the road the impression that he himself spoke with world leaders about “great issues of the day.”

Lord Darlington, His Employer. At the end of the book -- and the end of a day -- Mr. Stevens speaks, on a pier, with a former footman he’s just met: they talk about their pasts, and Mr. Stevens confesses that Lord Darlington was courageous but also misguided. (I won’t reveal why except to say that the book involves discussion of world wars.) He also confesses that “I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?” The footman advises Mr. Stevens to stop thinking about the past so he doesn’t get depressed, a bit of advice that Mr. Stevens seems to take to heart, resolving to “adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day.” At the top of the list? Working on being more open to bantering with his new American employer, the man who let him borrow the car for the road trip. There’s nothing like a good road trip – or motoring holiday – to find a nice fork in the road, whether the road is on a map or inside one’s head.

Up next: Julia Franck’s The Blind Side of the Heart, a dark, dark novel about Germany, mostly between the world wars. It’s another book that’s very good but slow to read.