#PerilousDishesReadalong – delightful glimpse of a world long gone

At the beginning of this month I had the honour and pleasure to be invited to join the readalong for The Book of Perilous Dishes by Doina Ruști, translated by James Christian Brown, published recently by Neem Tree Press. You can find further information about the book’s background and how it was translated on the Neem Tree Press site. I attended a Q&A with the author and translator, which helped me understand the book better (and the vast amount of research that went into it, both at the time of writing and at the time of translating).

N.B. I have just realised that I forgot to tag this as part of the #ReadIndies initiative launched by @Kaggsy59 and @LizzySiddal.

Bucharest in the 18th century.

Set predominantly in 1798 Bucharest (although the older heroine travels to Germany and France and looks back upon the events of that year from the year 1829), this is a book that is full of colour, street noises, market aromas, as well as larger than life characters. I knew the historical research was accurate and detailed, but I was surprised to hear that many of the characters are actual historical figures.

It was a tricky time in Romanian history. This is a part of the world which has always been at the mercy of feuding empires. The dichotomy between Cartesian West (associated with modernity) and Balkanic East (associated with oppression but also the church and traditional values) has dominated all of Romanian history and culture.

Wallachia was for several centuries under the indirect rule of the Ottoman Empire, which in practice meant that money and goods had to be sent to the Sultan every year in return for a quasi-autonomy. However, the Sultan’s court couldn’t be bothered to get their hands dirty with administrative details. So instead they appointed wealthy Greeks from the Phanar quarter of the city to oversee these vassal states. It was a much sought-after position (lots of money to be earned through taxation) and there was no shortage of candidates prepared to pay money to be appointed prince of the country.

One of the greatest amusements of the Sublime Porte was to fool some Greek with the notion that he could make himself lord and master over the land of Wallachia for the modest price of a mere four hundred bags of loose change. No one had any idea what the price of a country should be. But it was not the real value that counted, so much as that ‘yours for only…’ which even today makes people restless…

…there and then he became the master of Wallachia, where he fondly dreamed that he was going to spend the rest of his days with subjects falling at his feet. A year later, however, another sucker for a cut-price offer would turn up, with another four hundred bags. Consequently, when I arrived there, Bucharest had already had the pleasure of being ruled by at least thirty Greeks, not to mention the Russian army, which made its way there from time to time, and drove out whoever happened to be the ruler… Fortunately, the Russian soldiers had itchy feet and they never stayed long.

One of the Phanariot rulers, Prince Mavrogeni, trying to flee from the Austrian troops in his stag-drawn sleigh in 1789. What can I say: borders were constantly being fought over and redrawn in this part of the world. And maybe stags run faster than horses?

But fear not! This book is anything but a dry old history lesson. This is the story of the fiery fourteen-year-old Pâtcă who suddenly finds herself alone in the world when her grandmother Maxima gets arrested for witchcraft in the Transylvanian town of Brașov. She respects Maxima’s command to go back to her home town of Bucharest, seek out her great-uncle Zăval and acquire the magical recipe book of Perilous Dishes. Alas, she finds her great-uncle has been murdered and a bottle of powerful poison is missing, while the whole city is in uproar over a cook kidnapped by the Prince, who is able to cook gourmet dishes out of this world. Pâtcă soon figures out that the cook has somehow got hold of her uncle’s book, but is not aware of the dangerous powers of his recipes he is preparing, so the girl has to use all her resources to stay out of prison, recover the recipe book and keep her true identity secret. For she has been told that she is the notorious Cat O’Friday (Mâța Vinerii in Romanian, the original title of the book), the last descendant of a family of magicians who follow the cult of the great pagan god Sator.

Early photos of a market scene in Bucharest.

The book is stuffed to the gills with fascinating characters of all nationalities or ethnic backgrounds, some of them criminals and hustlers like Ismail Bina, some impossibly charismatic and naive (like the French diplomat Dubois), others simply going along with things in order to survive (like the pragmatic Caterina Greceanu, who takes the girl into her household). There are so many plot twists that your head will spin, but I advise just allowing yourself to gallop along. Some flashbacks have been tidied up to create a more logical chronological order in the translated version.

I also like the way the translation manages to convey the funny, irreverent, confessional tone of the young girl, with all of the moodiness, stubbornness and know-it-all attitude of her age. Pâtcă itself is a nickname, meaning ‘Tiny’ or ‘Little’Un’, but the girl is so used to it, she doesn’t understand why people laugh when they hear her name. It’s little details like this, plus her difficulties in summoning up Sator’s powers or finding the houses she is supposed to have inherited, which make me wonder if she is… not exactly an unreliable narrator, but rendered unreliable because her family has been withholding secrets from her.

Translator James Christian Brown has been teaching English at the university in Bucharest for a long time, and his respect for and knowledge of Romanian culture and language shows clearly in this book. However, he admitted that if he hadn’t coincidentally also been given some 18th century documents to translate at roughly the same time, it would have been a huge challenge to do this book justice. It’s not just the vocabulary, but many of the concepts themselves which have fallen into oblivion, so even if you find the ‘correct’ term in English, it would not mean much to a modern reader. I found myself sighing in relief on many a page that I didn’t have to translate this!

With its fast-paced plot and young heroine, I suspect it is being marketed as YA literature in the English-speaking world. However, it is a rollicking good read for adults as well, particularly for its vivid recreation of a vanished world. It reminded me somewhat of Carlos Ruis Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind or Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, so if you liked either of these, I would definitely try this one.