The Hottest Dishes of the
translated by Tim Mohr
Europa Editions ($15)
by Daniela Hurezanu
Like actors, novelists are of two kinds: the Clint Eastwood type, who create an overarching persona, and the Robert de Niro or Meryl Streep type, who invent a new character for each role they play. Alina Bronsky is from the latter category. Rosa Achmetowna, the main character and narrator in The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, has a very different voice than Sascha Naimann, the protagonist in Bronsky’s first novel, Broken Glass Park. Rosa is a devious, selfish, cruel, yet by no means simplistic character; the archetypal Soviet matriarch and a sum of the grotesqueness of the Communist female, she is both a monster and a human being who should be pitied. Emblematic and singular at once, Rosa is a powerful, vivid character whose voice will stay with you long after you close the book.
Bronsky is extremely good at creating scenes and writing dialogue, and her descriptions are minimal. This gives her novel an immediacy and a natural tone (for which translator Tim Mohr also deserves some credit) that keep the reader hooked as if one were listening to some very juicy gossip. The plot develops mainly out of the interactions between characters and their dialogue, and could be summarized as a mixture of relationships: that between Rosa and her daughter, Sulfia; that between Sulfia and her oldest daughter, Aminat; and that between Rosa and her granddaughter Aminat.
A monument of political incorrectness, Rosa doesn’t beat around the bush, nor does she try to sweeten reality. Does she think Sulfia is ugly and stupid? She doesn’t mince words, and doesn’t think twice about destroying Sulfia’s life by forbidding her to go to Israel so she won’t lose her granddaughter. Rosa adores Aminat, yet she doesn’t hesitate to use her as bait for a German man who pretends to be interested in Sulfia, but who in fact has eyes on the child. This is how Rosa, Sulfia, and Aminat move to West Germany, where Rosa continues to display the same self-confidence in spite of the fact that she can’t speak almost any German. When she informs Dieter—the German man—that she would like to work as a teacher, and he answers, “But you can’t speak any German,” she says, “Of course I could speak German. I tried to explain this to Dieter in his own language, but he didn’t want to understand.” When Dieter arranges a job interview for her, and Rosa finds herself before an interviewer who shows her “the toilet and even the toilet brush,” Rosa wonders candidly, “Did she think I wanted to move in?” Presented with a pair of rubber gloves, she brushes it off with “There had obviously been some sort of misunderstanding,” then, with the same self-confidence, she takes off her high-heel shoes and begins to mop and clean. The novel is full of such funny scenes, and once you begin to read it you can’t put it down.
Anyone who wants to understand what Communism has produced should read this novel. This isn’t, however, some kind of moralizing history lesson¬—Bronsky couldn’t be further from such an enterprise. Instead, she has written an extremely entertaining novel with a hilarious narrator whose hilarity is a reflection of a deeply disturbed, un-funny world.