The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine: A Novel by Alina Bronsky; translated by Tim Mohr (New York: Europa Editions, 2011. 304 pp)
Alina Bronsky was born in Yekaterinburg, an industrial town at the foot of the Ural Mountains in central Russia. She moved to Germany when she was thirteen. Her debut novel, Broken Glass Park, was nominated for one of Europe’s most important literary awards, the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize.
Tim Mohr is a New York-based translator, author, and editor. His translation of Guantanamo by Dorothea Dieckmann earned him the Three Percent award for best translation. Mohr also collaborated with Duff McKagan on It’s So Easy (And Other Lies).
Head in the Clouds
I tend to be oblivious of my surroundings. Perhaps, like the famous Socrates, I suffer from my head in the clouds. This issue—one my wife constantly seeks to alter, much to my appreciation—leaves me prone to saying something stupid, ignoring a friend in a social setting without realizing, or alienating an individual. I truly mean no harm, but sometimes it ends up happening anyway.
For this reason, I find similarities with the characters in The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine.
Three Generations of Tartar
Alina Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine outlines the lives of three generations of Tartar women. The pugnacious matriarch and narrator of the novel, Rosa Achmetowna, grew up in an orphanage and meanders through Soviet Russia in a loveless marriage.
Her daughter, Sulfia, is a bland and lazy nurse impregnated on questionable terms:
“Sulfia sat on the stool and in answer to my questions told me that her sudden pregnancy could only have come about from dreaming of a man at night, while asleep, and I believed her immediately. The streets were full of pretty girls in short skirts, and a real man would never come anywhere near Sulfia unless he was nearsighted or perverted” (14).
Finally, Sulfia’s daughter, Aminat resembles her grandmother and quickly becomes the apple of Rosa’s eye.
“She was given coloring books and felt-tip pens, tights, oranges, and a toy doctor’s kit. She opened the kit up immediately and began to sort through the instruments. Watching her warmed my heart. I could tell as soon as I saw her playing that my granddaughter was going to be a doctor one day, and quite a doctor at that” (33).
The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is not plot heavy. Rather, the novel dictates the many ways in which Rosa, Sulfia, and Aminat relate to one another in the pursuit of a better life outside of Russia.
The Complicated Mother-Daughter Relationship
In particular, the relationship between Rosa and Sulfia takes center stage. Sadly, Rosa postulates her daughter to be a poor mother.
“Sulfia held the hand of my little girl. I could see immediately that Aminat was carelessly dressed. She didn’t have a scarf on, and her hat had shifted so that her ears were exposed to the biting cold. Her black hair hung in her face. Her nose was red. She definitely had a cold, and no wonder with this mother” (45).
As the narrator, the reader tends to side with Rosa. With the world revealed through her words, we want to take Rosa’s side. Yet, Rosa continually reveals her own arrogance.
“I didn’t look anything like a grandmother at all. I looked good. I was pretty and young looking. You could see that I had vitality and was intelligent. I often had to mask my expression to keep other people from reading my thoughts and stealing my ideas” (61).
In fact, this arrogance leads to unwanted consequences later in the novel when Rosa is unable to perceive the ways in which her beliefs and actions inflict harm on those around her.
“She screamed that I should never again interfere in her life, a life I had already destroyed, this time forever, broken her heart, robbed her of her dear little daughter, taken away her family, shattered her future, and chained her and poor Aminat to me” (142).
Despite her character flaws, Rosa truly loves her daughter and granddaughter—even with the criticisms of Sulfia’s looks.
Family: A Collection of Broken People
To a certain extent, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine reveals a deep-seated brokenness of humanity. Rosa’s brash arrogance is her way of attempting to communicate, correct, and contribute to her family. However, these traits only serve to inhibit the lives of those around her.
Despite our best intentions, we always maintain the ability to inflict massive amounts of pain on others unknowingly. Those closest to us sometimes, in fact, receive the brunt of our mistaken intentions.
Alina Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is an intriguing character study on misplaced motives and broken families. If you are a fan of European fiction, character studies, and multi-generational family stories, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is for you.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5
How about you? Do you suffer from obliviousness? Does the complexity of a character add to a storyline? Does this book interest you?
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