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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Hottest Dishes
of the Tartar Cuisine

Alina Bronsky

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To purchase The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine

Title: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine
Author: Alina Bronsky
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 262 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine - US
The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine - UK
The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine - Canada
The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine - India
Cuisine tatare et descendance - France
Die schärfsten Gerichte der tatarischen Küche - Deutschland
I piatti più piccanti della cucina tatara - Italia
Los platos más picantes de la cocina tártara - España
  • German title: Die schärfsten Gerichte der tatarischen Küche
  • Translated by Tim Mohr

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Our Assessment:

B : engaging narrator, a bit too babbling

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 29/4/2011 Maria Crawford
FAZ . 19/8/2010 Andrea Diener
The LA Times . 27/7/2011 S.S.Reynolds
San Francisco Chronicle . 5/6/2011 Gregory Leon Miller

  From the Reviews:
  • "Spanning 30 years, this is a masterful study in delusion. (...) Bronsky excels in relating heartache through a narrator who refuses to acknowledge it, in herself or others. The result is a story that is, by turns, insightful and subversive, funny and disturbing." - Maria Crawford, Financial Times

  • "Wenn in Saschas Erzählstrom noch etwas beunruhigend Manisches mitschwingt, plappert Rosalinda bisweilen allzu unbeschwert drauflos. Das muss man mögen. Denn nicht nur die Mitglieder der Familie, auch der Roman selbst ist gänzlich auf seine mächtige Hauptfigur fixiert, im Guten wie im Schlechten. Unterhaltsam aber ist es allemal, wie Rosa ihre Umgebung in eisernem Griff hält, Tochter, Mann und Schwiegersöhne tyrannisiert, es dabei gut meint, alle und jeden für lebensunfähig hält und sich dabei selbst natürlich als unzuverlässige Erzählerin erweist, die sich zudem heillos überschätzt." - Andrea Diener, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Bronsky's plots consist of a series of obstacles -- everyday living is a test of her characters' survival skills. (...) Bronsky's other great gift is humor." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(M)ordantly funny (.....) Rosa, an unreliable narrator par excellence, is a marvelous comic creation. Even more impressive, Bronsky unflinchingly catalogs this woman's behavior, which ranges from obnoxious to monstrous, while gradually making readers understand and even sympathize with her." - Gregory Leon Miller, San Francisco Chronicle

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is narrated by Rosa, who begins her story when she finds her daughter, Sulfia, is pregnant. It's 1978, in the deepest recesses of the Soviet Union (Moscow is apparently some twenty-seven hours away by train). Rosa does not have a high opinion of her dull, short, frumpy teen daughter and thinks that "the last time she had spoken to a boy was probably ten years before"; obviously, given Sulfia's condition, Rosa is not particularly observant or attentive.
       Rosa doesn't think it's a good idea for Sulfia to have the child, and she tries to remedy that situation, but it doesn't work out; a few months later Aminat is born. Aminat does not take after her mother, and Rosa is quite taken by her granddaughter -- and she insists on playing an important role in her life. Sulfia is less enthusiastic about her mother's involvement, and a tug of war between them begins that lasts for years.
       Rosa's story covers decades. Along the way Sulfia marries three times and Rosa and Aminat are repeatedly separated and reunited. All along Rosa claims to be trying to do what's best for her granddaughter, but even she has to admit that things don't always work out in the way she expected or planned; she does, however, adapt admirably quickly to whatever does happen.
       Working in a hospital, Sulfia has particular success in winning the hearts of longtime patients. One of these is a comatose foreigner that Rosa sees as their ticket to a better world, a German named Dieter who came to the Soviet Union to collect recipes for a cookbook (hence the title of the novel -- though as to his own project, Dieter tellingly eventually notes: "It is proving practically impossible to write a cookbook about Tartar cuisine"). Unfortunately, Dieter is not so much taken by Sulfia as he is by the then still twelve-year-old Aminat. Rosa is not one to miss an opportunity, however, and leverages Dieter's longing to get the three generations of women to Germany -- certain that she can be watchful enough to see that Dieter doesn't get any wrong ideas about what he can get up to with Aminat. Dieter is a pretty passive and proper German, so Aminat doesn't quite suffer a Lolitan fate, but this aspect of the story is still pretty creepy.
       Pretty much from the start, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is a story of family falling apart, as pieces constantly splinter off. Rosa tries her best, in her own peculiar way, to keep some things together, but it doesn't quite work out. By the end, she's lost everyone she was originally connected to (though at least she's managed to find a kind soul who looks out for her).
       "We were a civilized family", Rosa claims, but that's more wishful thinking than truth. It's also more fun this way: temperamental and independent-minded Aminat, her sluggish mother Sulfia (to whom there clearly is a bit more than Rosa allows for in her descriptions), and the various men that come and go in their lives make for entertaining episodes. Rosa likes to get her way, but she's also devoted, in her own way: she stands on the endless Soviet lines for her family, and she's always ready to do what needs be done. She also adapts well and easily, even when, for example, the job Dieter gets her in Germany isn't quite what she was expecting -- she has her dignity, but there's also nothing below her dignity, if necessary (as it often proves to be).
       Rosa is entirely unreliable as a narrator -- indeed, as a person, as she makes clear, often enough, lying and presenting the facts differently to others if she thinks the situation requires it (from presenting Sulfia as brain-damaged and unable to care for her own daughter to pretending the family is still one big, happy one in order to impress the future in-laws), or even shaving seven years off her age on her official documents when the opportunity presents itself. There's also an admirable forthrightness to her, and a straight-faced humor to her narrative (including such observations as: "I was sure that he wouldn't kill me. In Germany you ended up in jail for that kind of thing"). But of all of this there is also a bit much: Rosa's many changes blur together and apart, especially towards the end, and her lack of empathy means most of the other characters -- including Aminat -- remain indistinct. With little self-awareness (though a whole lot of self-confidence), Rosa also remains somewhat of a cipher, far too much merely hinted at -- her own childhood in an orphanage, her Tartar roots.
       The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is, for the most part, a fairly rollicking read, with good and varied fun. It doesn't add up to all that much, however, or come together in any meaningful way: the center does not hold here, and with Aminat out of the picture Rosa -- and the story -- is left somewhat at sea. Bronsky has lots of decent material, and a good, humorous touch in presenting it, but it feels like she's almost afraid to delve too deeply in it, preferring to keep things superficial and especially to avoid exploring the many darker recesses hinted at here.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 June 2011

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The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine: Reviews: Other books by Alina Bronsky under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature

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About the Author:

       Alina Bronsky (a pseudonym) was born in Russia in 1978 and emigrated to Germany after the fall of the Soviet Union.

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© 2011-2021 the complete review

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