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Cleveland Plain Dealer: "'The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine' puts bite in Soviet satire"

Date: Jun 20 2011

In "The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine," author Alina Bronsky, who left Russia for Germany when she was 13, gives us an updated unreliable Russian narrator.

Unlike the nameless ranter in "Notes From Underground," however, Rosa isn't about to be picked up and pushed aside. And she couldn't care less about existential questions for the ages. She just wants to marry off her daughter.

It's a setup that shows off Bronsky's comedic smarts, if you take your humor somewhere between Archie Bunker and Humbert Humbert.

Marrying off Sulfia isn't going to be easy. Rosa complains: "She had no figure whatsoever. She had small eyes and a crooked mouth. And, as I said, she was stupid. She was already seventeen years old, too, so there was little chance she would get any smarter."

Kalganow, Rosa's "turd" of a husband is no help. So Rosa must bear the burden herself, like everything else in her life.

When Sulfia, a nurse, tends to a new patient, Rosa decides he's perfect for her only daughter -- "early forties, clean, in a coma." Then Dieter wakes up, and it turns out this "foreign idiot . . . as if we didn't have enough of our own" has a pedophilic eye on her granddaughter, Aminat.

For Rosa, who yearns to escape 1980s Soviet scarcity, that look is as good as her ticket out of the country. To set the hook, she hocks her fur coat and hires a photographer to take a portrait of Aminat, which she plans to let Dieter ogle in private.

Rosa bullies, lies and pimps out her granddaughter, yet it's hard not to root for her anyway. She does have her pluses -- she's an excellent cook, and while she harbors no small amount of anti-Semitism, she can still whip up tzimmes and gefilte fish with the best of the bubbes.

The clever Bronsky delivers such a delicious satire of Soviet life, and family life in general, that the rules shift. Some of the credit for this must go to translator Tim Mohr, who won a Three Percent Award for best translation of 2007. He also nails her everyday poeticisms. For example, Kalganow and his mistress aren't merely happy together, they're like "two drops of grease on the surface of a bowl of soup that melt into one."

Much of the pleasure of "The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine" comes from experiencing Rosa's whacked point of view. A botched ski lesson is alchemized into a Jack London-esque war against the elements. It's not that she can't ski. It's that the mountain wanted to kill her.

Maybe Rosa's delusions and deceit were triggered by a loss of identity. "The problem was that I myself had not been raised on Tartar cuisine," she admits. Not really knowing her ancestral dishes doesn't stop Rosa from promising to prepare them. That promise extends to the title of the book itself, so anyone who picks up the novel has already (lucky for them) been suckered by her.

Lucky for all who pick up this saucy read.

By Karen Schechner