There’s a moment in Alina Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine when Rosa, the book’s comically antiheroic narrator, tries to restore order to a chaotic situation. Rosa’s granddaughter, Aminat, has become violently ill, and their flatmate Dieter has started to panic. Rosa, who prides herself on her unfailing sangfroid and icy composure, attempts to take control:
“Calm down, calm down,” I said. “This is Germany. Nothing bad happens to people here.”
Dieter looked at me as if I were crazy. He often looked at me that way.
Dieter’s not the only one. It doesn’t take long for the reader of The Hottest Dishes—the second novel by Russian-German novelist Bronsky—to realize that Rosa is as unhinged as she is completely un-self-aware. The novel starts with Rosa, a Russian of Tartar extraction, listening to her daughter Sulfia—whom Rosa considers “rather stupid” and “deformed”—admit that she’s pregnant. Rosa attempts to abort her daughter’s pregnancy, but it doesn’t work: months later, Sulfia gives birth to Aminat, and Rosa almost immediately decides to take the child as her own, rebuffing all of Sulfia’s attempts to raise her own daughter.
Rosa is cruel, impatient, angry and, quite possibly, insane. As a mother, she almost makes Joan Crawford look like June Cleaver. But she’s also so unique, so engaging, that it’s impossible to stop reading. Bronsky never lets the reader forget Rosa’s viciousness, but she draws us in to a kind of folie à deux—you might hate Rosa, but in spite of yourself, it’s difficult not to follow her twisted logic, until you actually begin to like her.
And that’s something more than just a neat trick. The Hottest Dishes abounds with tragedy—it’s set mostly in the Soviet Union of the 1980s, and the spectre of Communism hangs over much of the narrative. More than one character dies in the course of the novel, and even those who survive must contend with poverty, heartbreak and psychological trauma.
So how is it possible that The Hottest Dishes manages to be not only sad, but also, well, hilarious? Bronsky’s novel boasts several laugh-out-loud moments, almost all of which draw their humor from Rosa’s outsize ego and stubborn obliviousness. When Aminat, in a fit of rage, calls Rosa an “evil grandmother,” she’s chiefly insulted by the second part:
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.
At least in the first part of the book, Rosa expresses almost no doubt at all about her own abilities. She’s smart, she’s beautiful, she knows what’s best for everyone. It’s not until she’s blindsided by a tragedy that she begins to soften, to become a little more generous, a little more understanding.
To be sure, it’s not a sea change. As The Hottest Dishes winds to a close, the reader has begun to feel for Rosa—not pity her, exactly, but identify, if just a little, with her. The change in her personality is so slight, it’s nearly imperceptible. But in Bronsky’s extraordinarily gifted hands, the transition doesn’t seem forced—it goes just as maddeningly slowly as you’d expect. People change, of course, but very seldom do they change suddenly. Bronsky has the shrewdness to chronicle Rosa’s late-life (slight) metamorphosis, and the patience not to rush her development. It’s all told with a subtlety that doesn’t detract from the book’s pitch-black humor, and the book ends where it should—it’s wry, heartbreaking and brilliant.
Too often, American publishers have been loath to print translated literature—U.S. readers only care about the U.S., goes the conventional wisdom. Thankfully, New York-based publisher Europa Editions has, with a few other indie presses, stepped up to fill the void. (Europa also published Bronksy’s first novel, the acclaimed Broken Glass Park.) It would be a shame for any reader, American or European, to overlook this original, ingenious tragicomedy—Bronsky is a rare talent, and The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is a rich, funny and unspeakably delicious novel.
Michael Schaub is the managing editor of Bookslut and a frequent contributor to NPR.org. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. A native of Texas, he now lives in Portland, Ore.
The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine
By Alina Bronsky
Translated from the German by Tim Mohr
Paperback, 246 Pages, $15.00
Released April 26, 2011