The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, by Alina Bronsky

All of us have mother issues, to some extent, but I doubt that anyone’s mother is as awful as Rosalinda Achmetowna. Of course, Rosa could not imagine that anyone would think she’s a bad mother and grandmother. In Alina Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (translated by Tim Mohr), Rosa is very careful to explain that everything she does is for her daughter and granddaughter’s own good. If it weren’t for the fact that Rosa is hilariously oblivious to everyone around her, this book might be too much to bear. Even with the humor, Rosa is clearly a candidate for worst mother ever.

When we first meet Rosa, she’s trying to arrange an abortion for her daughter, Sulfia. Sulfia only goes along with it because no one says no to Rosa. Sulfia has been browbeaten so much over the years that she’s adopted a strategy of passivity when it comes to her mother—which, unfortunately for her, makes Rosa doubt her intelligence. When Aminat is born, it comes as a surprise to everyone. Rosa sees her granddaughter as a chance to raise a perfect child, since she failed (through no fault of her own, she would tell us) with Sulfia. Thus begins the great battle for Aminat’s soul between mother and grandmother.

For most of the book, Rosa is firmly convinced that she is right and everyone else is wrong. They could be better if they only tried harder and just obeyed her commands. She is not above pulling Aminat’s hair or threatening to take away her kitten if the little girl doesn’t “behave.” Rosa is also a master of emotional blackmail. Perhaps she’s just a product of late Soviet life. She grew up in an orphanage and learned how to hustle, Soviet style. But the techniques she uses to manipulate officials are probably the worst techniques for parenting.

It isn’t until much later, when Rosa and Aminat move to Germany (the result of an appalling trade Rosa makes) that the façade starts to crack. Aminat begins to seriously rebel and Rosa can’t get a legitimate job in a country where blackmail and bribery are not a matter of course. (She is shocked when an instructor only charges her for the cost of the driving test.)

In the end, we’re left to judge Rosa for her deeds. Does it matter that she really might have meant well when she did so much damage? How much can we trust what Rosa tells us? It’s hard to take her seriously when her manipulation of her daughter and granddaughter also benefits Rosa’s situation. The fact that I’m still asking these questions is a testament to how well Bronsky uses her unreliable narrator. It’s possible to see though Rosa’s lies, to some extent. But the fact that the entire story is presented from her point of view keeps things just opaque enough that Rosa remains a complex character enough to avoid stereotypes.

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