The Hottest Dishes of Tartar Cuisine
By: Alina Bronsky
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
When she discovers that her seventeen-year-old daughter, “stupid Sulfia,” is pregnant by an unknown man she does everything to thwart the pregnancy, employing a variety of folkloric home remedies. But despite her best efforts the baby, Aminat, is born nine months later at Soviet Birthing Center Number 134. Much to Rosa’s surprise and delight, dark eyed Aminat is a Tartar through and through and instantly becomes the apple of her grandmother’s eye. While her good for nothing husband Kalganow spends his days feeding pigeons and contemplating death at the city park, Rosa wages an epic struggle to wrestle Aminat away from Sulfia, whom she considers a woefully inept mother. When Aminat, now a wild and willful teenager, catches the eye of a sleazy German cookbook writer researching Tartar cuisine, Rosa is quick to broker a deal that will guarantee all three women a passage out of the Soviet Union. But as soon as they are settled in the West, the uproariously dysfunctional ties that bind mother, daughter and grandmother begin to fray.
I believe I first encountered this book while browsing a list on GoodReads on translated literature. The premise sounded oddly amusing, but it’s also placed in a setting that I like reading from (in and around the Soviet period) plus I read good things about the author online (award-winning and all). So I finally caved last year and picked it up after staring at it for a good long time 🙂
Thematically it was an interesting read, especially looking at the mother-daughter relationships through three generations and everything that brings them together and wedges them into dividing lines (personalities, experiences, expectations, goals in life). Rosa, Sulfia, and Aminat, despite of their shared blood are very much different from each other and pretty dysfunctional in their relationships to one another: Rosa is pretty antagonistic towards her daughter and looks down on her but loves her granddaughter to the ends of the world and beyond, Sulfia is pretty detached from both mother and daughter much of the time as though she’s sort of sleepwalking through her life, and Aminat runs from one extreme to another. At first she serves as something of a mediator between Rosa and Sulfia but over time becomes too unruly for both to understand. Yet despite the turnstyle of men, families, career developments, achievements and socio-political situations these women have stuck it out for better or for worse. I also thought the novel was an interesting look at nature versus nurture in the ways both Sulfia and Aminat had turned out and Rosa’s hand in both of their developments.
Despite of all these fascinating components, I found it was a bit difficult to read this book in that Rosa is…something else, lol. It was hard to dwell on the humourous bits at time because most of the time Rosa was just horrid and hard on everyone around her! Of course you can’t always like a character, and Rosa was a fascinating character in that she’s tough and she has her own hopes and expectations underneath her uber-practical facade, not to mention the fact that she doesn’t dwell on matters much (perhaps a little too extreme when it comes to certain aspects of her life that doesn’t quite occur to her that they were the most important. Or maybe she does realise it and doesn’t react to it the way others would). She’s obviously a product of her times, but her expectations of other people was just too high, of course people were bound to fail her as a result. And she was just so hard on them too, especially Sulfia (I had a feeling she would see past her own assumptions eventually, which left me a bit self-satisfied at the end 😛 ). I felt bad for Sulfia; at times you find yourself silently willing for her to stand up to her mother, but at the same time her mother’s character is just such a force that Sulfia grew up to sort of shrivel back from her mother and react the way she does so I can’t blame her for how she turned out and how she dealt with every hand that came her way in life.
Hmm, it occurred to me now how you can sort of view Rosa-Sulfia-Aminat as an allegory of sorts to Russia at the time: Rosa as the firm authoritarian government, Sulfia as the Russian people, and Aminat as that uncertain underground force stepping forward into an unknown future. I’m sure that’s not the intention of the author, but given the time period that this novel is set in, one can’t help but ponder about it a bit 😉
Overall The Hottest Dishes of Tartar Cuisine was an interesting read. At times difficult because of Rosa’s interactions to the people around her (albeit yes, I admit, I did note some of the funny lines she said here and there, however grim or worrying the situation was) but it was also an interesting look at families and relationships. Plus, it’s also nice to read more translated books from the German language so yeah, if this sounds like your thing (dysfunctional families, tumultuous times, an abrasive and unapologetic protagonist/narrator), I would recommend you checking this book out.