Because I did not know if I would like, or want to read all of, “And This is the Light”, I wanted to have an alternative on the plane coming back from Seattle. I went to a terrific book store located in the Pike Place Market and picked up Alina Bronsky’s “The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine”. Why? First, because the book had an appealing title and an appealing cover. Second, because it was a paperback in very good condition. Third, because it was stated to be a satire and no place more lends itself to satire than late 20th century Russia. And fourth, because it was on a “bargain” shelf, and only cost me $2. (Was the last point the most compelling? Perhaps.)
At any rate, I didn’t read the book on the plane but for some reason the next day I was too tired to do much of anything (I told my wife I was suffering from temporary old age), and I spent a good deal of the day, sitting on a couch, reading “The Hottest Dishes……”. What a good day it turned out to be.
I don’t know who Alina Bronsky is. Apparently, she is not Alina Bronsky, which is a pseudonym that she has adopted to protect the privacy of her family. If you google her, you will find her picture, but then again, is it really her picture, or only a pseudophoto? I don’t know. It is true that she was born in Russia and moved with her parents to Germany, where she still lives, when she was a young teenager. The book was written in German and translated into English. It was published in Germany in 2010, and in Canada (my copy) in 2011.
The book is a lot of fun. The book is written in the first person. The narrator is also the chief character in the book – Rosa Achmetowna, an Auntie Mame-like woman of enormous beauty and talent (just ask her!). She lives, for most of the book, in a large Russian city (not named) 27 hours by train south of Moscow. Her ancestry is Tartar, but her parents died when she was young, and she was raised in a Russian orphanage. Her husband, for most of the book, also has Tartar ancestry, but he is a died in the wool Communist who believes in the universal brotherhood of man and the obfuscation of all ethnic differences.
They have a daughter, Sulfia, who is an enormous disappointment to her mother, particularly so when she becomes pregnant at age 17 (she claims never to have had sexual relations with a man, so that the origin of her child is a big question). But her daughter, given by her grandmother the Tartar name of Aminat, is the perfect child. So perfect that Rosa decides to raise her as if she was the mother, not the grandmother, under the supposition that her daughter is totally incapable of being a mother.
Well, this doesn’t really work out very well, and Sulfia turns out to be a little more capable than her mother thinks she is (which means she meets a very, very low bar). In fact, sometimes as a result of her mother’s engineering, and sometimes in spite of it. Sulfia marries three times. Her first husband, a sort of normal brute, leaves her when he finds a beautiful, sophisticated alternative. Her second husband, a Jewish mother’s boy, leaves her (or perhaps she leaves him – depends on your interpretation) when he (and Sulfia’s second daughter, along with her in-laws) emigrate to Israel. Her third husband is Dieter, a German author (giving him the benefit of the doubt) who lives in a small town near Frankfurt, and who gives Rosa, Sulfia and Aminat the opportunity to leave Russia and move to the prosperous west.
Again, things don’t quite work out right, Sulfia dies, Dieter proves a bigger disappointment than he was when he already appeared to be a bitter disappointment, Aminat runs away from home and becomes her own person, Rosa’s granddaughter from Tel Aviv suddenly appears, Rosa thinks she becomes a perfect German as a result of her discovering how German society works as a result of her work cleaning houses, and she finds a boyfriend (well not a boy, exactly, but an elderly English expatriate).
Bronsky’s writing is very clever and insightful; the style reminds me of two books recently read, Mary Kay Zuravleff’s “Man Alive” and Meir Shalev’s “My Russian Grandmother and her American Vacuum Cleaner”. Her book starts out as a first class satire, and miraculously morphs into a rather sad story of the life of a very sad individual, whose bravura only can carry her so far. The outrageously humorous incidents become more rare; the pathos increases.
And the title? Well, Dieter was writing a cookbook of ethnic recipes from Russian minorities. He wanted Tartar recipes, and Rosa complied. Did the fact that she had no idea how Tartars cooked matter? Not at all – she had eaten Uzbek (I think, Uzbek) food once. Don’t you think this would be like Tartar cooking? Perhaps, with a small change here or there? No problem. “The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine” is worth much more than the $2 I paid for it.