From the 2010 German Book Prize Longllist we have “The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine” by Alina Bronsky.
Our narrator here is Rosa Achemetowna , a self-centred grandmother from the Turkic regions of Russia. Our story starts as Rosa finds out her only child, the ugly daughter Sulfia, is pregnant, of course an immaculate conception. We then experience the local remedies, for example, hot baths with mustard, to induce an abortion as a teenage mother is too much for our Rosa to bear. But all home remedies are fruitless as nine month’s later a granddaughter Aminat is born.
The child, a little girl, seven pounds, twenty inches long, was born one cold December night in 1978 at Birthing Center Number 134. I had a feeling even then that she would become the type of kid who could survive anything without batting an eye, She was an unusual child and screamed very loudly from day one.
My husband and I picked up the baby in a taxi when she was ten days old. Along with our daughter, of course.
The little child nestled in a folded knit blanket piped with pink. It was standard issue at the time. My husband took a picture of us: me with the baby in my arms, next to me Sulfia holding a bouquet of plastic flowers lent to us by the clinic to use in the photos – obviously there was no place to get fresh flowers in winter. The baby’s face was barely visible, a little flash of red between the folds of the blanket. I had completely forgotten that newborns are so tiny and ugly. This one began to scream in the taxi and only let up a year later.
Our protagonist is motivated by actions that improve her standing in the Russian community, actions that assist her situation – “Having a real doctor in the house was important especially as you got older. It was a respectable profession, and it would win me the appreciation of all my neighbours and colleagues.” Although being strongly bound to her ancestral roots, Rosa’s story reveals her tyrannical reign over her daughter Sulfia, her granddaughter Aminat and of course her husband.
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.
I went into the kitchen, where my husband was eating a vegetable casserole, and asked him whether I was an evil woman.
He choked and began to cough. I waited patiently. He coughed some more. His round eyes were petrified. I waited. He continued to cough and I hit him on the back.
“So,” I insisted, “am I an evil woman?”
Rosa’s sole motivations are to improve her living situation – of course she sells that to us as wanting to improve the life of her granddaughter, so when a single man comes along who is writing a book about Tartar cuisine, it is only natural to angle a way into his life, as a new life in Germany may be on the cards. Who minds if you have to sell your granddaughter’s soul for such a privilege?
The plot of this novel is almost secondary to the deep characterisations, the outrageous Rosa, the submissive daughter, the awkward granddaughter, the docile husband. This became increasingly obvious to me as late in the novel we started to hear about Sulfia’s illness, it popped up only infrequently, and I wasn’t sure if this was a flaw in the novel or a way of stressing Rosa’s egotism. But then I cam to realise, it is not the illness that is important it is the reaction to such and the effect it has on the family dynamic that is important.
Rosa is manipulative, “If you do abc your mother won’t get ill...if you do xyz she would be so proud”, however this is a novel which contains humour, there are places where you cringe but many where you do laugh out loud.
Late in the novel the question of how do you distinguish Tartar cuisine from other ethnic groups’ national cuisines is raised. Bashkir, Kazak, Uzbek, Azerbaijan and Yakut cuisines, the boundaries are blurred. Just like the female roles in this novel, mother, daughter, granddaughter (with a fake date of birth for a television signing contest), or the forgotten daughter in Israel or even the shallow Tartar, Russian, Jewish, German and English male characters. Yes the boundaries are blurred.
I listened to him – 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. I understood all of this in theory, and then passed muster in practice. I was the perfect spouse.
A fine semi-comic, tragic novel that explores familial relationships with an assuredness which I found refreshing, an easy read but not your standard trash novel which you’ve forgotten as soon as you’ve put it to one side. Rosa will go down in my book as one of the most manipulative characters seen for a long time.