Archive for the ‘Marc Fitten’ Category

I have got a couple of disappointing books to talk about today, which, if it weren’t for the Eastern European Reading Challenge, I would probably skip reviewing altogether.  However, since they must be reviewed (and I am again falling woefully behind in reviewing my books for this challenge), they shall be dealt with as quickly as possible.  I could go off on a little rant about how Eastern Europe is defined for this challenge (having nothing to do with physical location and everything to do with the former Eastern Bloc) but, since it gives me ridiculous freedom with my book choices, I won’t indulge.  I will however say that Hungary is Central Europe and Croatia is Southern Europe but anyone who can read a map already knows that.  So there, crotchety rant ended.

Elza’s Kitchen by Marc Fitten is set in the fictional Hungarian town of Delibab, where forty-eight year old chef Elza runs Tulip, a successful but modest restaurant.  She was married years before to a man who wanted a family but the ambitious Elza had no interest in children.  Now, she has a lover, her sous-chef, a man eighteen-years her junior but he too is starting to make unwelcome mentions about a future together, talking of marriage and children. (This was one of the more bizarre features of the novel: characters talk about Elza having children in the future very matter-of-factly and the only barrier mentioned is her disinterest, not the biological improbability of a woman closing in on fifty being able to conceive.)  Irritated by her lover and bored with the restaurant, Elza decides she needs a challenge: she will get a famous food critic to come and review the restaurant and she, who has spent more time in the office than the kitchen the past few years, will cook for him, a new and wonderful dish.  Why she is doing this and what she hopes to achieve by it is less clear.

This book is all over the place.  There is some promise in the character of the Critic, whose darkly comic encounter with a prostitute on the worst day of his life was the highlight of the novel for me, and though he goes off and has adventures, evolving in a way I desperately wished Elza would, we don’t get to witness them.  Dora, the ambitious young pastry chef at Tulip who takes up with the Sous-Chef after Elza rejects him, is also intriguing – bright, skilled, and a child of capitalism – but, again, she remains very flat.  They, sadly, are the best of the bunch.  Everyone else, including Elza, is simply boring.

And then there are the gypsies.  Fitten, an American, lived in Hungary during the nineties so has some idea of the tensions that exist between most Hungarians and the Roma but nothing about Elza’s interactions with a Romani family felt remotely true to life.  I have no trouble recognizing the stereotypical Romani family he created – the children beg in front of the restaurant, the fathers scam Elza out of money and possessions later on – but Elza’s response to them felt incredulously free of all of the nasty social prejudices that are part of the culture in Central Europe, especially Hungary.  Even the ‘harsh’ responses from those around her were shockingly mild.

For a novel about food, set in a restaurant, the descriptions are disappointingly bland.  Food needs description.  The reader needs to hear about the smells and the colours and the tastes and all the memories each bites evokes.  Here, we get a few perfunctory lines about paprika, butter, and sour cream and that’s it.  It is entirely free of passion and entirely unconvincing – much like the book overall.

Then, there was Every Day, Every Hour by Nataša Dragnić, which was a much better book but perhaps even more disappointing, tantalizing me with moments of brilliance that could not save the story from truly idiotic characters.    Dragnić is Croatian and the novel was first published in German, and then translated to English by Liesl Schillinger.  I would love to be able to say that my problems were translation-based, but they weren’t.  I really enjoyed Dragnić’s style of writing.  It is beautiful and flowing, complimenting the fantastical elements of her story.  But then she inserts dialogue between her Too Stupid To Live characters and everything falls apart.

In a small seaside town in 1960s Croatia, Luka and Dora meet for the first time in their Kindergarten classroom.  He is five and she only two but from that moment on they are inseparable and the intensity of their connection is recognized by everyone around them.  Four years later, they are separated when Dora’s family moves to Paris.  They grow up, Luka caring for his family and nurturing his skills as a painter, Dora embracing France and pursuing a career as an actress.  It is not until they are in their twenties that they meet again, when Luka comes to Paris to show his work, but the connection is still as intense as ever and they begin a turbulent love affair that spans decades.

Yes, decades.  These are not people who can manage their lives neatly.  It could not be as simple as “Oh, I love you and want to spend my life with you.  Let’s do that.”  No, no, no.  It must be “I love you, I burn for you, I will learn Spanish so I can recite Pablo Neruda’s love poems to you but I am also a crazy Slavic person who feels that depression is my natural state so I must do as much as possible to work against a happy ending and make myself miserable.”  Sigh.  That is the crux of the issue.  If you like doomed lovers who active conspire against their own happy endings, this is the book for you.  If, like me, you want to slap people who make their lives unnecessarily messy and painful by having happiness in their grasp and then running in the opposite direction, give this a miss.  It is Dragnić’s debut novel and though I didn’t love it, I did really like her style and I’ll look forward to seeing what she writes next.

At least I can say there is one positive both books share: the cover designs are lovely.

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