It is now pretty safe to say that the surprise of the year for me was a novel by Eszter Rubin, an author I had never heard of before. I stumpled upon Challah while browsing publishers’ websites, and decided to read it, out of curiosity, without high expectations. My curiosity was raised by the blurb (that is what blurbs are for, after all, but in my experience they hardly fullfill their function), according to which the novel entwines recipes with family stories, like the strands of a challah, an emblematic bread of jewish cuisine (I had not been familiar with neither the bread nor the word before.) This was supplemented by the recommendations of a rabbi, a well known PR-guru-cum-literary man and a not less well known foodblogger – the strangeness of this very mixed triumvirate piqued my interest even more. Then came the surprise. Eszter Rubin’s novel is indeed an extraordinarily original work, mixing elements of “girly novel”, spiritual self-biography, tragedy, satire, and – indeed – family novel and recipe book, with a disarming elegance that is rare in contemporary prose. The book plays on a very wide emotional-intellectual scale: it is very funny and very moving at once; decidedly entertaining, it is captivating but also commands a lot of investment from the reader.
Challah is built of fragments, from which the stories of two Hungarian Jewish families slowly emerge: that of Virág Kohav, the narrator, and of Nathan Stier, her love, who she met at a not-so-young age. Emerges is not exactly the right word: we only get to know episodes from the families’ story, some of them are linked to traumatic historical events – the Holocaust, the 1956 revolution, the change of regime, while others fit into a slower, large-scale progression of time. The fates of the two families meet at several points, a fact that only reinforces Virág Kohav in her view that it was her fate to meet Nathan. This is completed by episodes from the narrator’s own life: family gatherings, how she realized she was Jewish as a child, scenes from her unhappy marriage with an antisemite which eventually leads her to convert to Jewish faith. These episodes follow each other somewhat erratically, in no chronological order, invoking numerous caracters – it needs attentive reading to put the story together. Towards the end, however, it becomes clear that everything had been leading up to one single unspeakable event: here Virág Kohav tells us, without any pretension, but with lots of emotion and a strange bluntness at the same time, what we could only suspect before based on a few hints: her second child died when he was only a few days old.
This fictive self biography takes a peculiar form. There is a fairly straightforward, triumphant, if you like, line of progress as far as finding oneself is concerned: finding Nathan after the unhappy marriage, the story of newfound Jewish faith, and especially the conversion – which is, since the Confessions of St Augustine is the most prolific and popular form of self biographical prose. The opening and closing lines of the book form a similar arc: in the beginning the narrator makes several references to Nathan’s depression and the crisis of their relationship, while the ending line is about the acceptance of the relationship despite the difficulties: “Cecília Weisz’s and Schwartz’s great-grandchildren walk hand in hand, following the winding road, up the hill and down.”
Such stories, beaming with self confidence, of coming at peace with oneself are – let’s be honest – quite rare among highly praised literary works of recent decades, one would rather think they are more fitting for the popular register, such as celebrities’ self biographies. The author of Challah, however, does not seem to care about such preconceptions, for her, the euphoria of finding oneself is as valid a literary theme as the pains of searching. It also has to be noted that none of these narratives dominate the novel, they blend in with all the other parts. They appear and reappear among images of depression, failure, death and exceptionally sensously described morsels of experience about eating, food, desire, sex, love, art, religious faith, Budapest, New York and Israel. The reading experience thus feels more like a rollercoaster ride rather than a slow elevation towards a comforting ending.
The novel’s rhizome-like structure, branching off in all directions, results in the main themes of the book gaining more and more meaning as we progress: judaism, cooking and challah become more and more complex metaphors. “We are Jewish, it does not really mean anything, it only used to.” the parents tell Virág Kohav following a brief family crisis meeting, when she comes home from school chanting an antisemite rhyme. This “coming out” to children, typical in socialist Hungary so often cited by other authors, forces Virág to rethink her Jewishness and fill it with new meaning. With an ambition typical of 3rd generation Jews, the basis of her newly constructed, but still deeply rooted identity is not the memory of the Holocaust but rather an identification with other Jewish friends, culture, cuisine and eventually religion. In her search for identity, traditional Jewish female models play a pivotal role, especially the myth of their exceptional problem-solving abilities (which she no doubt needs in her combat against Nathan’s depression.) At the same time at one point she analyses identity changes in adulthood as a solution to anxiety, with “girly” wit: “Some experiment with new breasts, others with new boyfriends. Or a combination of the two: new breasts often mean new boyfriend. Still others escape to various exotic religions. Judaism is great for that, it lays down strict rules for all aspects of life (…) A Hungarian vizsla you can take out as many as ten times a day easily (…)”.
The other big theme of the book, cooking, also develops into a complex tangle of metaphors as the novel progresses. On one hand, it is the practice of Jewish traditions, in which, according to Kohav, eating plays a primordial role: “They wanted to destroy us, they could not. Let’s eat then! This is what most of the holidays are about.” On the other, the constant cooking, writing of recipes, description of dishes are also linked – similarly to conversion – to neurosis, which culminates, at one point, in a poem-like, magnificient, undulating enumeration of ingredients. The inclusion of recipes in the text is, at the same time, a respectful nod to the ironically, but lovingly described “gastrosnobbers”, whose children demand “tagliatelle with truffles” in the kindergarten canteen, making the novel an important addition to the flourishing contemporary gastronomic culture, which, thanks to foodblogs and other food-related literature has become an important part of literary culture. Eszter Rubin weaves the recipes in the text with masterful skill: they become vital parts of the lives and acts of the characters – grandmothers, mothers, friends and Virág. She is particularly adventurous when associating new meanings to food related words: challah first evokes a childhood duvet, then it is mentioned as a creation of the domestic goddess, the unleavened challah becomes a dead baby, which – as we later realize – signals the untellable, but still told tragedy.
The narrational style, single-handedly mixing registers and genres is already well recognisable after a few pages. Short, tense sentences, missing articles, and no beating around the bush make for a decidedly dynamic and enjoyable, although not easy, reading. This sensuosly rich, caleidoscopic style, that is always ironic but also reveals darker tones reminds me of the self biographic works of László Garaczi.
Similarly to other works playing on the parallels between literature and gastronomy, Rubin’s novel almost forces the person talking about it to continue to play the game. I decided to resist the temptation to use any food-related metaphors in this recension – I borrowed the title from a similarly flourishing area, car criticism. I will not say it is expertly seasoned, beautifully presented, well baked. And I will not urge you to taste it. Only to read it.
Rubin Eszter: Barhesz. Ulpius-ház Könyvkiadó, Budapest, 2012. 240 oldal 3499 Ft