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San Francisco Chronicle: "Mordantly funny"

Date: Jun 6 2011

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Gregory Leon Miller, Special to The Chronicle

Sunday, June 5, 2011


The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine

By Alina Bronsky; translated from the German by Tim Mohr

(Europa Editions; 262 pages; $15 paperback)


Let those who decry the dwindling American market for international literature take a moment to toast the fine folks at Europa Editions. Amid a culture inclined to complain that recent Nobel Prize winners for literature are too obscure, Europa has been a small but significant counterweight since its inception in 2005. Now comes the 100th title of an impressive catalog, "The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine." Fittingly, the book is worthy of celebration on its own terms as well.


Alina Bronsky's mordantly funny second novel is narrated by Rosa Achmetowna, a prodigiously self-satisfied Tartar woman who lives with her husband and daughter in the former Soviet Union.


Set primarily in the 1980s, the novel opens with Rosa's discovery that her 17-year-old daughter, Sulfia, is pregnant. Given that Sulfia is unmarried and has no idea who the father is - indeed she attributes her condition to a dream - Rosa sets about trying to terminate the pregnancy through a series of home remedies. First up is a hot bath in a tub filled with mustard powder. When her daughter complains about the scalding water, Rosa replies, "It's even hotter in hell."


Nothing works. The day comes when Sulfia's condition can no longer be hidden from her oblivious father, Kalganow, so the ceaselessly practical Rosa must improvise:


"Because I knew my husband would never believe the story about being impregnated in a dream, I told him she'd been raped by the neighbor two floors up from us. The neighbor was related to my husband's most senior supervisor. After that Kalganow didn't say anything more."


Rosa has long thought her daughter an especially dim bulb and in the past "hoped that her simplemindedness might prove attractive enough to some man that he wouldn't notice her awful legs until the two of them were already standing in front of a justice of peace." So Rosa is astonished and delighted to discover that her granddaughter, Aminat, is the exact opposite of her mother - naturally, she takes after Rosa.

Sure, there are some early concerns:


"At first Aminat lagged far behind in verbal skills. I had even begun to worry whether she might be slightly retarded. I kept repeating words to her, but she just ignored everything until one day her little mouth opened and out came an entire sentence: 'When is stupid grandpa coming home from work?' "


Soon it becomes obvious to Rosa that Aminat must be separated from her mother for her own good. A plan to be granted custody works for a while, but Sulfia eventually wins her daughter back. Sulfia does her utmost to keep her mother out of her life.

Rosa, however, is relentless. When Sulfia marries, Rosa sees the husband as a way to access Aminat. After all, "it tickled [him] to have such a graceful swan like me as his mother-in-law, especially given that he had married such an ugly duckling."


Her daughter's marriage also gives Rosa a new avenue for dispensing unwanted advice. About the early years of her own marriage, Rosa recalls, "I knew how a wife had to behave. The most important part was not to point out to the husband what stupid things he said. A woman's tolerance in this area was key to a stable marriage." When Kalganow leaves her for another woman, Rosa is stunned but soon enjoys a phase of promiscuity, drawing the line at men who ride the bus. "With one exception: those who looked as though they were riding the bus because their car was in the shop."


Rosa, an unreliable narrator par excellence, is a marvelous comic creation. Even more impressive, Bronsky unflinchingly catalogs this woman's behavior, which ranges from obnoxious to monstrous, while gradually making readers understand and even sympathize with her.


With time we see that much of Rosa's aggression springs from a fierce drive to serve her family. She wants Aminat to have opportunities - Western opportunities above all - that were unthinkable for herself or for her daughter. The last third of the book, while losing none of its humor, becomes surprisingly moving.


"The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine" confirms the promise of its predecessor - and further confirms the discerning taste and foresight of Europa in bringing Bronsky to American readers. Long may the relationship last.


Gregory Leon Miller is a member of the National Book Critics Circle

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