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Interviewing Doina Ruști and James Christian Brown: The Book of Perilous Dishes

By Ana Matute


Creative process is a path that has the potential to take many different directions, where the desire to explore is unimaginable. The Book of Perilous Dishes is narrated by Pâtca in her oldest years, where she uses writing as an introspective process. Her story is one of a magical journey with twists and turns that mirror those life has to offer, whilst at the same time providing a way to learn about the diversity that Romanian culture has in abundance.

Doina tells us about her process of writing to appreciate how the magic of Bucharest took form, and how always history hides in literature, while James Brown shares his experience as first a reader and then a translator of this delightful Romanian novel.


Whilst reading The Book of Perilous Dishes I learned a lot about Romanian culture, but I also endeavoured to learn as much as I could about the historical events to better my understanding of the book. I wonder, Doina, how was your process of writing and research?


“By chance, I came across a short manuscript from 1798 in which a woman complained that her slave had been kidnapped because he was the best cook in town. Of course, I immediately wanted to know what he could have been cooking and how his food tasted, so I started looking for recipe books. It's amazing how many recipes have been kept in the National Archives! From here on out, multiple other questions arose about ingredients, costs, historical context, etc., so when the cook’s story took a definite shape, I wrote it unhindered, uninterrupted.”


Translation is also a process of keen understanding and careful reading to transport an original piece into the hands of new readers. James Christian Brown shared with us how his translation project was also a work of reading.


Did you think the role of translator gave you a varying point of view of The Book of Perilous Dishes across multiple languages?


“I’m not sure about a varying point of view, but certainly, when I started reading it, I was already thinking about how it might sound in translation – what sort of style would be appropriate, how some of the difficult passages might be rendered, and so on. So, I could say that as I experienced the Romanian text, I was imagining a future English text at the same time, trying out possible versions in my head. But it wasn’t necessarily the English text that finally took shape. For example, I toyed at first with the idea of making the voice of the narrator, Pâtca, more suggestive of the English of her time, but I fairly quickly changed my mind about that. Doina has immersed herself in the historical period, and she recreates it vividly, but not in a way that calls for a Jane Austen pastiche or anything like that.”


As Borges said, translation is a process between writing and reading that brings connections in and through the language and literature, can you James relate to that in your work, and during this translation specifically?


“Well, certainly can agree that translation is a process that bridges reading and writing. As I see it, the task of the literary translator is first to read attentively what someone else has written, be sensitive to nuances of language, the cultural context, and everything else that makes the text meaningful, and then do their best to recreate what they have read by writing a new text in another language, a text that is expected in some sense to be faithful to its original, while at the same time being capable of standing on its own and engaging new readers for whom the original is inaccessible. It’s a tall order, and ultimately the perfect, once-and-for-all translation of a work of literature will always elude us – but at the same time, if there is to be understanding across barriers of language and culture, then it’s essential that we keep trying. Personally, I find it helpful to see literary translations in terms of a scale between two poles proposed by Friedrich Schleiermacher at the beginning of the nineteenth century: moving the original writer closer to the reader (in other words, domesticating the foreign text) versus moving the reader closer to the writer (in other words, letting the foreignness of the text continue to challenge the reader, even in translation). I presume that Borges, who favoured a free treatment of the form of the original text and who is quoted as saying that he wanted his own work to come out simpler and more monosyllabic in English translation than it could ever be in Spanish, would prefer the first approach.


In practice, I think that in translating literature, most of the time we have to try and find an appropriate balance, to bring the author of the original book and the reader of the translation together somewhere between the two extremes. In translating The Book of Perilous Dishes, I certainly wanted to draw the reader over the threshold of a world that is foreign to them in space and time – after all, don’t we want something a bit foreign when we choose to read a book translated from another language? And I want them to get a sense of Doina’s rich style, including her use of metaphorical images that can be as surprising in Romanian as they are in translation. At the same time, however, I would like their journey to be free of the sort of unnecessary discomfort that might be caused in places by a pedantically word-for-word rendering. At the end of the day, my hope is that my translation will give the reader as much enjoyment as readers of the Romanian original and of the translations that have already appeared in German, Hungarian, and Spanish have already found in The Book of Perilous Dishes – and indeed as I have had in translating it.”


This novel reminded me of The Cheese and the Worms, and makes me wonder, Doina, if there were other books that inspired you during the process of writing?


“My novel focuses more on the adventure, it tells the story of a teenager left alone in the world, she is about to lose her freedom, her trust in people, and even in the family spells. She will be saved by a woman's generosity and a few tricks she learned from her relatives. Her family is part of the cult of the satorines, which led me to the countless mystical books of the 18th century, from the cryptic imagery created by the Rosicrucians to the mysticism of Maistre, to the meta-reality of Swedeborg but especially to the fantastic enlightenment in Jan Potocki’s Manuscript Found in Saragossa or Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Indirectly, all these books are part of novel’s foundation. Of course, medieval zoologies cemented them, as well as some amazing recipes (pharmaceutical or culinary), folklore, and Latin mythology, with its peripheries populated by small gods and those miracles that made it possible to reinvent the world in the medieval era.


And, speaking of this extensive material, I was mainly amused by the symbolic connections, as bizarre as they are impervious to time. For example, Avicenna recommended in her medical treatise that lawyers wear a chameleon's tongue during the trial. This will increase their talent and lead them to victory. And you cannot ignore such a prescription, not without covering its entire epic journey, from catching the lizard to sacrificing it and then to the barbaric operation of cutting its tongue, salting it, and drying it in the sun, for it to be turned into a talisman, which a lawyer will confidently wear around his neck. It is not the recipe itself that matters here, but the advice it hides within, related to mobility and rhetoric. That is the recipe book model I used for The Book of Perilous Dishes.”


How do you think Pâtca came to existence in your mind taking this research into account?


“As the cook was gradually coming into focus, I started reminiscing about my childhood’s kitchen, a time when I myself was Pâtca, and it seemed only natural that the narrator honoured an age when the kitchen is seen as a magical and mysterious place. Around that same age, I had to take my fortune into my own hands.”


Doina, talking more about the relationship between fiction and history, what do you think fictional narrative can give to history?


“History is not just made up of information. Fiction can individualize parts that have entered the general consciousness, raise questions, help dismantle myths. I experienced communism and found that historians did not record the true substance of that regime, namely the resistance we developed to information. I remember how during the days of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the event was announced on the radio and we were asked to stay indoors. Of course, neither I nor my friends thought it was true. When you are forced to be part of an official lie and its epidemic spread, you start developing specific functions and characteristics, you turn into another species. I wrote about this in my novel, The Phantom in the Mill, and I like to think that this book brought up this issue: Communism not only gave us scepticism but forced us to create an alternative reality, which is now illustrated only in fiction books.”


Finally, Doina how do you see the relation in the book between ghosts, magic, and history?


“The whole novel is built on the idea that there is a universal force (Sator) that can be manipulated. The course of history is determined by visionary people. Sometimes they call themselves sorcerers, other times scientists – it doesn't really matter. They are those people capable to influence the masses, to contaminate most of their peers with their desires and purpose. And in most cases, the spark of movement is ignited by ghosts of the past. My novel follows the same principle.”


In The Book of Perilous Dishes history is not just inspiration but is also in language, where the translation doesn’t miss details. The use of language gives the perspective of another time because here the combination of languages is also an image of it. For reading a work that combines history and fantasy in a unique way, this novel is stunning.


To purchase the book, visit Neem Tree Press’s website, here.


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