Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine

Bronsky, Alina. The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine. New York: Europa Editions, 2011. Translated from the German by Tim Mohr.

Bronsky's novel takes place somewhere in Russia in the years leading up to and following the fall of the Soviet Union. Rosalinda and her husband Klalganow are of Tartar descent. Kalganow, who embraces the Soviet concept of the sameness of all people, chooses to disregard his Tartar past, while Rosalinda continues to embrace what she remembers of the Tartar language and food. Rosalinda calls her daughter by her Tartar name Sulfia, while Kalganow calls her Sonja. The novel opens with Sulfia telling her mother that she has become pregnant after dreaming of a man. Rosalinda, who narrates the novel, immediately sets about to abort the child. This sets the tone for the novel as Rosalinda compulsively takes charge of everything and everyone, most prominently her daughter and granddaughter, Aminat. Rosa excels at whatever she puts her mind to, but she is woefully unaware of the needs, desires, and feelings of those around her. Having decided that Sulfia is stupid and ugly she trusts her with nothing, including Aminat. Sulfia grows up cowed by her mother until she finally breaks away, not without trial and error, and finally finds herself successfully married, employed, and with a growing family. When she and her Jewish husband and in-laws decide to move to Israel, Rosa, this time inadvertently, disrupts the process throwing Sulfia's and Aminat's lives into tatters. As determined as ever, Rosa proceeds to do what she sees proper to repair the situation in ways that are shocking and disastrous.

Bronsky's novel is not just a comic story of a family in chaos and turmoil, perhaps mirroring the chaos in Russia at the time of the fall of the Soviet Union, but it is also a tragic story of a Russian woman who works within a system of deprivation and desperation to achieve what she considers to be success for herself and her family. She uses everything within her grasp to achieve her ends, whether it is her own good looks or the desires of a pedophile. She is at the same time cavalier and fiercely protective of her loved ones and she can't imagine that what she wants isn't best for them, or ultimately what they will want. 

I was both put off and drawn to this novel. While one may never learn to like Rosalinda, one can understand her and see her personality and actions as a result of her environment just as Sulfia and Aminat are shaped by their life under the care and direction of Rosalinda.

When I had the opportunity to visit my daughter while she was living in Krasnoyarsk in (what I would call but is perhaps inaccurate) south central SIberia, We spent an evening with a 70+ year old woman who worked full time as a pathologist at the local hospital in Mariinsk (Марии́нск). She lived with her son and daughter-in-law and young grandchild in, what I found to be typical, a one bedroom apartment. Outside the apartment, this hardworking grandmother had an immaculate and productive garden. I asked how she worked, kept the household, and maintained this garden, she answered me that this was what all Russian women had to do. She invited my daughter and I to have dinner with her as long as my daughter made the salad and I cooked the fish. When we saw the fish we found it be the size of the table. I somewhat ashamedly said that I wasn't particularly skilled at cooking fish and I had no idea how to approach a fish this size. She gave up on both of us and cooked us a very simple but very nice meal that I will never forget. The next day I asked her about the fish and she said she was up all night cutting it up and cooking it bit by bit. Russian woman--practicality and endurance combined with hospitality and kindness.

I will look forward to reading Alina Bronsky's first book, Broken Glass Park (2010).

Look for Alina Bronsky's books at your favorite bookstore or library. My favorite libraries are the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library at the University of Pennsylvania.

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