When I dislike the main character in a novel, I usually don’t like the novel. So how can I explain my fascination with Alina Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine? Rosalinda represents all that is wrong with motherhood – she constructs her relationships with her daughter and later her granddaughter completely strategically, always thinking how she might benefit from their interactions. She’s seems almost completely unaware of how she is viewed by others. It’s totally over-the-top. Which is probably why she’s makes such a compelling unreliable narrator.
Rosalinda is inordinately proud of her Tartar heritage (which comes along with a host of folk medical remedies that are truly hilarious). She’s proud of her beauty and youthful appearance (especially her shapely legs, which she believes men swoon over). She’s proud of her family (or at least she believes she could be, if they’d simply do as she tells them). Her lack of self-awareness has benefits, as she walks around Russia and later Germany convinced of her own important place in the world, even if she’s cleaning someone else’s toilets – or rifling through someone else’s private papers.
Of course, her megalomania has disastrous effects on the people in her life, especially on her daughter Sulfia, who can never quite escape Rosalinda’s sphere of influence and therefore misses every chance at happiness with her own daughter, Aminat. Aminat herself watches Rosalinda with a keen eye, and the reader has the impression that she’s just waiting for her chance to act – she reminded me of a mouse eyeing a big, Persian cat, just waiting for the cat to lower it guard enough for the mouse to make its move.
What Bronksy gives the reader with The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is a true tragicomedy, which succeeds only because Rosalinda is so totally outrageous that it’s funny, in a thoroughly disturbing way. It reminded me of Voltaire’s Candide, but without the main character’s growing realization that perhaps everything wasn’t alright with the universe after all – despite tragedy after tragedy, Rosalinda remains convinced of her own omnipotence from start to finish. This book really worked for me, although I can appreciate that it might not work for everyone. With a good sense of gallows humor, I think the reader will enjoy the novel despite their feelings about the narrator, a pretty interesting feat for Bronsky to pull off, in my opinion.
I was planning on this being a weekend cooking post, but after reading the novel, it doesn’t seem right – the only thing foodie about the book was the title. But it still counts for the Europa Editions Challenge, and I’ll be cross posting this on the Challenge Blog. The semester ends on Friday, so I’m still hopeful I can finish up a couple of the challenges I have lingering before then. If only I had some little elves to do my grading for me, so I could just read my holiday break away!