Translated from the German by Tim Mohr
(New York, NY: Europa Editions, 2011)
What about me? That was the question my boyfriend’s ten-year-old brother, J., asked approximately three dozen times over the short weekend during which we saw him recently. If we paid too much attention to other members of the family, if his mother talked too long about her own interests, if his father nattered on about his business, first J. would try to nudge his way into the conversation, and when that failed—when we continued to acknowledge the existence of others, the fact that they, too, were worthy of our notice—invariably he would complain: What about me? It cracked me up for the same reason that kids’ comments often do: because it was brutally honest, completely lacking in self-consciousness, and something that most adults probably feel more often than we’d like to admit. We’re just better at hiding it.
Despite his slightly grating persistence, J. provided most of the weekend’s entertainment. Eager to get a laugh, and utterly sure of his own convictions, he offered withering assessments of his mother’s prissy housekeeping, his teenaged brother’s inability to make friends, his uncle’s tacky taste in women. The rest of his family may have made for more easygoing company, but J.’s the one who I’m still thinking about weeks later.
That kind of compelling voice—one you might not want to live with but won’t quickly forget—is what I found in Rosa Achmetowna, the anti-heroine who narrates Alina Bronsky’s second book, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, which has been nominated for the prestigious German Book Prize. Its narrator, Rosa, is overly opinionated, controlling, even delusional, and she doesn’t have youthful immaturity as an excuse for her self-centered behavior. The novel centers on how she torments her daughter, Sulfia, and her granddaughter, Aminat, out of a mixture of arrogance and genuine, misguided love. What I admired about the book is what little interest Bronsky seems to have in whether or not we “like” Rosa. Indeed, much of the plot seems devoted to ensuring that we can’t possibly like or relate to her. Her misbehavior goes well beyond her words; a short catalog of her misdeeds includes forcing her daughter to have an abortion, virtually kidnapping her granddaughter, lying about her daughter having a mental illness so she can have custody of her granddaughter, and attempting suicide to prevent the two of them from moving away. Who would do such things? Rosa would, and that’s the great pleasure of the book: hearing how she rationalizes her behavior, even while it has disastrous results for herself and the people closest to her.
Because she is so certain about everything, Rosa has no filter whatsoever, and a good deal of the humor derives from the gaps that readers see in her understanding but that she misses altogether. When unmarried Sulfia blames her pregnancy on dreaming of a man, rather than having sex with one, Rosa accepts her unlikely explanation. To do otherwise would mean challenging her own perceptions of her daughter: “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.” Rosa’s strident complaints about her daughter are quietly undermined by the novel’s events. Though Rosa insists her daughter is ugly, Sulfia manages to marry eligible men—three times. When Rosa visits her daughter’s home with her first husband, she can’t comprehend Sulfia’s good fortune: “It turned out they had two bedrooms, not one. All to themselves. Just the three of them. This wasn’t some foreign paradise. Who here had a huge apartment for three people?” She wonders, “How did Sulfia manage to land someone like this?” She tries to convince her granddaughter to be nice to a German man with an inappropriate sexual interest in her because she believes it might improve the family’s fortunes: “I told her that we all had to clench our teeth and be friendly to people we didn’t particularly like because it might lead to a better life for us.” To Rosa, however, all her efforts are simply meant to “help.” She says, “It didn’t bother me at all to help support Sulfia in raising my grandchild and to draw Sulfia’s attention to her own frequent mistakes. All I ever wanted was for her to improve herself.” The thing is, Rosa means it. She wants Sulfia and Aminat to be happy—it’s just that she can’t conceive of the possibility that others might define their happiness differently than she does. In her own way, Rosa is familiar; who among us doesn’t have an overbearing relative or friend? (What about me?) Or if we’re really honest with ourselves, who hasn’t been, at least on occasion, the overbearing relative or friend? It’s easy to laugh at how Rosa justifies her behavior because she’s so over the top. But as I watched her gradually wreak havoc on her family, I couldn’t help but feel like the joke was on me, too, and all of Bronsky’s readers.
Underneath the novel’s dark fun there is also a strong undercurrent of tragedy, grounded in a specific cultural moment. The book is set in the waning days of the Soviet Union, and conditions for Rosa and her family and neighbors become increasingly desperate, to the point that Rosa uproots Sulfia and Aminat to begin a new life in Germany. We learn that a lack of money led Rosa to have several abortions before Sulfia was born: “I stopped counting the number of innocent souls I sent back to heaven as a result. But it wasn’t any more than anyone else.” She convinces herself that cleaning wealthy Germans’ houses is a noble calling because she’s desperate for money: “I felt a bit sorry for the people whose places I cleaned. They were like children—unable to look after themselves. Without me they’d have been forced to bathe in a tub of standing water because the drain was clogged with hair.” Thus Rosa’s delusions take on a greater poignancy as a coping mechanism, not merely a character flaw. Her unwillingness to see anything but what she wants to see enables her to adapt to the Soviet system she games to her family’s advantage, to the crumbling economy in which the old rules no longer apply, to a new country and culture where she builds a new life.
So, yes, Rosa may be outrageous, but Bronsky doesn’t let us dismiss her as merely an obnoxious, manipulative mother. She’s also a survivor, in large part due to her delusions, the greatest of which may be that she can avoid pain: “I had tried to teach [Sulfia] that nobody should be able to see when you were scared. That nobody should be able to tell when you were uncertain. That you shouldn’t show it when you loved someone. And that you smiled with a particular affection at someone you hated.” Her instinct for self-preservation costs her plenty, though (spoiler alert): at novel’s end, she has lost Sulfia to death and Aminat to estrangement, though Bronsky gives her a provisional happiness through a new romance with an Englishman. In the final, fittingly absurd plot twist, Aminat has become the winner of a German television show akin to American Idol, and Rosa can see Aminat only on TV, no longer the granddaughter she knows but instead a constructed person, with ever-more outlandish “stories” about her life filling the tabloids. It’s a pitch-perfect ending, funny yet also sad. In the end, although I may not exactly feel sympathy for Rosa, I feel something. She makes a mess of her life, survives it, figures out a way to move forward. And who among us hasn’t done that? We all need our fictions, Bronsky seems to say—especially the ones we believe about ourselves.
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Marion Wyce‘s review of The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine first appeared in TLR’s Summer 2011 issue, The Rat’s Nest.