The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, by the immensely talented and shockingly young Alina Brodsky, is just terrifying. And hilarious. And so outrageously similar to my own Soviet PTSD childhood that if I am ever fortunate enough to meet the author I’ll be sure to give her a suffocating hug and charm her into sharing a steaming hot cauldron of plov (look it up – it’s delicious, all that lamb and raisins and rice, mmm).
So what do we have in these 200-odd pages of tragicomedy… At the center of it all, in the middle of perestroika, the rationing and the bread lines, amid the collapse of cosmopolitan Soviet identity and a still birth of the old-new Tartar ethos, in the very throbbing nucleus of all this apocalyptic soup, there stands a Woman. In fishnet stockings and red lipstick. A narcissist, a stakhanovite, a gold-digger, an abusive mother and a loving grandmother, a shitty wife and a strangely charismatic lover, a master puppeteer and a savoury sex object with special popularity among pasty-white and sometimes rich Westerners. Her ability to bombshell the lives of everyone around her is phenomenal, just like the depth of her sadomasocistic love for the very people she poisons, like a slowly seeping nuclear reactor. She is the penultimate Cronus, the mythical Greek god who devours his children out of fear and jealousy. A Cannibal-Mother that charges some hefty interest for giving you life, so hefty, in fact, that she chooses to repossess her selfless gift while her offspring writhes in pain and gasps for air. Freud would inevitably roll his eyes and sigh predictably.
She survives through all historical cataclysms that befall her generations (from being a post-war orphan to witnessing the death of the Soviet empire) with the grace of a swan and the evolutionary prowess of a cockroach. There’s a popular saying that characterizes the enduring strength and kamikaze courage of a Russian woman: she can “stop a galloping horse and run into a burning house.” Our main heroine is capable of that and more: bribery and extortion, homemade abortions, making preserves, contraband, forcing men to marry one’s daughter, immigration, Yiddish food, Tartar food, Russian food, breaking up marriages, driving German cars, flirting with ski instructors, and living, always living through it all with clenched fists and snapping teeth, always pushing through obstacles in classically Darwinian fashion.
Nothing is off-limits in this book, because nothing is off-limits in real life. The worst thing that can happen will happen, and no amount of good graces with God, Karl Marx, or Uncle Sam will ward off the corrosive stench of failure. Our characters, oscillating between Tartar and Soviet identities, pilgriming to the better side of the Berlin Wall in search of McDonald’s and bubble gum, all come off of the totalitarian conveyor belt with a potent “tough life” vaccine. Will it be strong enough to preserve them against the infections of the Western kind? Do you get a rationing card for your very own Happily Ever After once you cross that international border? Might as well spit three times over your left shoulder for good luck because, as the Russians say, “free cheese can be found only in mousetraps.”
Now, I may have painted a bleak landscape, but don’t get me wrong, the stuffing is, nevertheless, pure hilarity. We are treated to hours of laugh-out-loud humour, inappropriate, disturbing, awkward, and downright messed up. Don’t laugh too hard though for, as the darling Russians caution, “laughter without reason is a sign of imbecility.” Keep it dignified, keep it on the DL.
Image: Candidate for the beauty contest. Riga, 1988.