Review: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine

Book by Alina Bronsky

Marni Jackson

The hottest dishes of the tartar cuisineThis is not a cookbook. And it’s not your average novel, either. Bronsky is a young German writer, born in Russia, whose first novel, Broken Glass Park, was shortlisted for one of Europe’s top literary awards. To judge by this second novel, she’s definitely someone to watch. Her writing is muscular and mordantly funny, and with this book, set in the Soviet Union and Germany, she’s created a magnificently unpleasant and irresistible main character, Rosa Achmetowna. Rosa is profoundly selfish, and doesn’t know it. Her opinion of herself is high, very high. “I stood up elegantly. Not everyone had the ability to gracefully extricate oneself from a soft chair. But I did.” Even when she gives thanks to God before she goes to sleep, she does it so “He wouldn’t feel totally useless.”

Rosa is proud of her intelligence and good looks but despairing of her teenage daughter Sulfia, who is ugly, she declares, and stupid. “And yet somehow she was my daughter.” In fact, Sulfia is a soft-hearted, loving woman who lets her mother ruin her life, drive away her husband and dominate her only daughter, Aminat. All “for her own good,” of course. Rosa is so fixated on the survival of her family and so eager to escape their life in the Soviet Union that she uses her own granddaughter as bait, to snag the affections of a creepy German food writer who is researching ethnic cuisines. Rosa cooks Tartar dishes for him, and the three women leave Russia for the West, where life is hard in a fresh way.

Rosa’s monstrous ability to feed her own ambitions, all in the guise of “caring for others,” would become tedious if Bronsky didn’t manage something impressive as the novel deepens. We begin to feel for Rosa and the profound loneliness she has constructed for herself. And in this comic portrait of a dysfunctional family struggling to survive, we’re also reminded of how capricious our own destinies can be.