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Belletrista: "Quite funny"

Date: May 10 2011

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HOTTEST DISHES OF THE TARTAR CUISINE

by Alina Bronsky

Translated from the German by Tim Mohr

Reviewed by Tad Deffler

 

Rosalinda Achmetowna is a woman who delights you on the written page but would horrify you should she appear on your doorstep, suitcase in hand. She rules her home and acquaintances with an iron hand, positive of both the fact that they are utterly useless and the corollary that she knows exactly what is needed to whip everyone into shape. Of course, standing on your doorstep, she would utterly fail to recognize your horror for she is the most generous, most capable, and prettiest woman you have ever met (just ask her). That look in your eye must mean you are somewhat dim-witted and she will have to work especially hard on you.

 

The story opens with her daughter, Sulfia, "explaining that she was pregnant but that she didn't know by whom." We see everything through Rosa's eyes as she arranges an abortion that doesn't quite take (twins, and no one noticed the second child), sets about getting her daughter a husband, bond to her granddaughter with surprising force, is left by her husband for a more placid woman, decides upon appropriate medical treatment for everyone, and generally orchestrates the lives of four or five individuals with an absolute disregard for their wishes in anything or the havoc she wreaks.

 

Yet, we cannot quite resist a small liking for her. First, many in her life are somewhat useless and she is rather capable in her own way. Second, she truly does want those around her to be successful and happy. Most of all, however, she refuses to spare herself: no effort is too great if it helps her family; no job is too menial if it earns her the money she needs to pay medical bills; no confrontation too embarrassing if it will provide a bit of education for her granddaughter, Aminat. In Rosa we see that driving mentality that refuses to let being an orphan, being poor, being a single parent or any other factor in her life stop her.

 

And, she's quite funny. It's a dark, biting humor but you can't keep from chuckling at times.

A good tragicomedy has you smiling even as the story is saddening, and that undercurrent of sadness is woven through the entire story. In a matter-of-fact tone that does not permit the background to become the main story, Bronsky gives us a picture of the squalid life of the poor during the collapse of the Soviet Union, the lack of food and hopeless medical care, the endless corruption. She shows us something of the immigrant experience when Rosa, Sulfia and Aminat emigrate from Russia to Germany.

 

Bronsky has a talent for taking the story to the edge and then stopping just short of absolutely horrifying us. At one point, in order to achieve some kind of reasonable life, Rosa decides that Sulfia must marry a foreigner and leave Russia. The only candidate is the German, Dieter, a budding pedophile. Rosa uses his lust for Aminat to force him to marry Sulfia and take them to Germany. Hearts sinking rapidly, we watch—only to see Rosa use trickery, lies and outright blackmail to thwart his approach to Aminat at every opportunity.

Perhaps the greatest sadness comes from the glimpses the reader gets of how other people perceive Rosa: Sulfia finds her domineering and unbearable, and strives to get away; Aminat sees her as abusive; Dieter finds her horrifying. Rosa simply cannot grasp the effect she has on others and the contrast between this and the perspective we have from inside her thoughts is heartbreaking.

 

In the end, I found that Rosa had exerted the same influence over me as she had over her family, guiding me down her chosen path. Despite seeing her flaws, my sympathies lay with her, and the bittersweet resolutions she experienced became mine as well. The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine might not be a book that everyone enjoys but, if a little pain with your laughter is okay with you, and it amuses you to like a woman impossible to like, give this a try.