Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

Translated from the German by Tim Mohr

"I was a fundamentally generous person, and I valued the interchange between generations. Helping support Sulfia in raising my grandchild didn't bother me at all. Neither did drawing Sulfia's attention to her own frequent mistakes. All I ever did was for her to improve herself."

Perhaps this should be called The Battle Hymn of the Tartar Mother....The narrator of this fast-paced novel is a mother more like Mommie Dearest than June Cleaver.  She's actually kind of scary.  Yet her witty observations, completely oblivious of her own sinister attitude, makes the reader both laugh and cringe.

As it begins, Rosalinda is bemoaning her stupid daughter--an ugly thing with no prospects for success and an unplanned pregnancy to boot.  She believes in some sort of immaculate conception because she's sure no man would have her hideous offspring.  Eventually, the child is born and it's up to Rosalinda to try and create a stable and loving environment away from the child's hapless mother.

And yet, Bronsky has given us an unreliable narrator, the classic type that makes you begin to question everything about the story.  Little hints are thrown out, via Rosalinda's stream-of-consciousness thinking, that tell you more about why she is so difficult.  It soon becomes fairly clear that her daughter is not the idiot we're made to envision.

"I had tried to teach her that nobody should be able to see when you were scared. That nobody should be able to tell when you were uncertain.  That you shouldn't show it when you loved someone.  And that you smiled with particular affection at someone you hated."

The story progresses as the three generations of women fight for survival, and Rosalinda's influence is felt everywhere.  She really is the story;  the characterization of her is full of revealing details.  She knows just when to let her hair down (literally) to get her way, and when and what kind of flowers to send for a bribe.  She knows that certain events require heels and the fur coat, while at other times her beauty must be downplayed.  And she thinks nothing of throwing a boot at her daughter's face to get her way.

Aminat and Sulfia aren't as fully developed...but really, how could they, given the magnitude of Rosalinda?  Another character that is intriguing is Kalganow, Rosalinda's husband, who leaves her after a particularly harrowing cross-examination by her.  His presence in the story is at the periphery, but every scene he appears in is priceless. 

In all, the story had me laughing in shock and awe at her atrociousness.  Yet it grew tiring too, by the end, as she never seemed to mellow.  I still enjoyed it, but I thought that underlining her pushy character was already done and I was convinced.  I did like how certain factors that explained her behavior were subtly incorporated without excusing her.  This will likely be in my top five fiction titles for the year....and the cover art is just brilliant.

Special thanks to Europa Editions for the Advance Review Copy.


  1. I am planning on reading this in the fall for the Europa Challenge. It sounds like something I'd love!

  2. I am curious and considering it!