A Pocketful of Sunflower Seeds

I'm going nowhere more exotic than the coast of Maine this summer, but in my head I'll be visiting Italy, Holland, Poland, and France as I lay huddled on some gusty, down-east beach reading the small stack of Archipelago and Europa books I recently purchased. I've already been to the former USSR and Germany, which provide the settings for Alina Bronsky's The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine.

Despite the title, Bronsky's novel isn't all that food-themed. In fact, the title is a bit of a mystery, though my best guess is that it refers to an unwritten sequel suggested by the novel's final chapter. Either that, or Tartar cuisine played a much bigger role in some earlier draft than it does in the final version, and it just never got dropped as the title.

The plot is nicely propulsive, the story funny and depressing by turns (though never quite dark), and told by a fantastically unreliable narrator. Rosa is a hard-core narcissist who has a streak of goodness in her about the diameter of a spider's thread. It's just enough to make her complex.

The story revolves around Rosa's relationship to her granddaughter, Aminat, in whom she sees reflections of herself and toward whom (on account of her narcissism)  she is utterly devoted. She has no respect whatever for her daughter as a person or a mother, and considers it her personal duty to make sure Aminat grows "into a well-bred child." She is so overbearing a presence, however, that her daughter (a teen mother) soon runs away, taking Aminat with her. When Rosa catches up with the two of them, she discovers that her "well bred" program is an uphill battle. For instance, one day, searching through the girl's school bag, she discovers, among other distressing signals (a lot of  money, a lot of unfinished home work, and a lot of hysterical notes from teachers), a few sunflower seed shells. It is the sunflower seeds that upset Rosa most of all.

If you didn't support and look after children, didn't raise them properly and teach them right from wrong, they'd grow up badly. This child was out on her own all the time, and obviously stole money. It was also no coincidence that sunflower husks fell out of Aminat's bag. That meant she was hanging around with the old ladies who sat in front of the market and sold things from their own gardens—potatoes, wild garlic, and lilies of the valley. They had a huge open sack of sunflower seeds and for ten kopeks these uneducated women would fill a cup with seeds and dump them into a baggie made of newspaper or directly into  the jacket pocket of the buyer. . . . In our early years together Kalganow [Rosa's husband] had also bought  himself sunflower seeds, but I quickly broke him of the bad habit. There was nothing more peasant-like, crude, and unhygienic than putting unshelled seeds in your mouth and then spitting out the husk the way old women did, sitting around gossiping on stoops or on warped park benches, dirtying the ground at their feet. I used to root around in all of Kalganow's pockets looking for a seed that would betray him, and now, so many years later, I would have to do the same thing with my granddaughter. To let things  go could be disastrous..."

Obviously, the social-economic insight here is interesting, but what I find most intriguing about this passage is the brief mention of the market women pouring seeds directly into the pockets of their customers. It reminds me of the market scene in E.T.A. Hoffmann's "My Cousin's Corner Window," in which a similar reference is made, but instead of seeds, it is plum jam, and instead of pockets, it is into fur caps that the market women deposit their tasty treats.

RELATED POST: E.T.A. Hoffmann's Description of a Berlin Marketplace

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