Translated from German by Tim Mohr
Alina Bronsky’s novels do not make good advertisement for Russian grandmothers. Are they really all controlling child-snatching tyrants?
In anticipation of this new release, I read The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine for the third time. I suspect my sense of humour has changed somewhat, because, while I still find the grandmatriarch Rosa outrageous, I am no longer amused by her narcissist machinations.
In this novel, young Max’s grandmother, Margarita, is just as controlling as Rosa, though her tactics are of a different ilk. Max, an orphan, is being raised by his grandparents, who have emigrated to Germany. His grandmother is convinced that Max is both sickly and stupid. She has a file full of medical certificates attesting to his various ailments. Eating sweets and those delicious German cakes – out of the question! He is certainly not allowed out to play, and when he reaches school age, she forces her way into the class room as a personal classroom assistant. (A state of affairs which lasts only for as long as she can keep up with the lessons.)
Munchhausen’s comes to mind, except she doesn’t actually inflict physical harm, so I’m not quite sure that this is her syndrome.
Max’s grandfather, Tschingis, generally lets Margarita have her way. When Max starts piano lessons, grandpa takes him there with ulterior motives. He is in love with the teacher. Max, a quiet observant child, knows everything, even that his grandmother, who is totally preoccupied with her own obsessions, hasn’t noticed a thing. Yet when a child – the spitting image of Tschingis – is born, facts can no longer be ignored.
What happens next is surprising … entertaining … and utterly implausible. This started me pondering on Bronsky’s intent. The humour (albeit in various shades of black) allows her to explore her serious themes, without casting a cloud of doom over her readers. And forget political correctness – Margarita is vocally antisemitic. (The words in her mouth are real quotes, said Bronsky, who refuses to sanitise her writing by airbrushing them). In actuality, Margarita is raging at the loss of her homeland (although emigration from Russia to Germany was her idea) and growing old. Becoming a matriarchial tyrant gives her a sense of control in a world of diminishing opportunity. (And that is something she shares with the aforementioned Rosa).
Tschingis’s affair is one of the heart, but it too is a rebellion against his age and a search for some relief from the actuality of his home life. It is telling that in the course of the novel he is never given one word of direct speech. Not one word. Whereas Max has a multitude – he is the narrator. A sympathetic narrator who never plays the victim card. Astute with it too. Out of the mouths of babes and all that.
The novel runs from Max’s childhood through to late adolescence. During which time Max begins to quietly assert himself, without losing affection for his grandparents. And discovers a family secret, which might just enable the cutting of the apron strings (or braid) that bind him …
(From the publisher’s website) “Europa Editions is an independent publisher of quality fiction. The company was founded in 2005 by Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, who are also the owners and publishers of the Italian press, Edizioni E/O. The idea behind the creation of Europa Editions was to capitalize on Edizioni E/O’s deep roots in European publishing to bring fresh international voices to the American and British markets.”
As the publisher introducing Elena Ferrante and Muriel Barberry to the Anglophone market, Europa Editions have had great success. Theirs is a catalogue I always enjoy perusing. Recent enjoyable reads include The Second Rider (Alex Beer) and A Girl, Returned (Donatello di Pietrantonio), and last month I enjoyed the first in their new Passenger series, which taught me lots of things about Japan.