#RivetingReviews: Ruth Martin reviews NEUNPROZENTIGER HAUSHALTSESSIG by Tanja Maljartschuk

It’s rare for anything to be accurately described as Kafkaesque, but Tanja Maljartschuk’s short story collection neunprozentiger haushaltsessig (‘nine-percent household vinegar’) might just be the exception. Its twenty-six enigmatic, haunting, playful and sometimes surreal stories certainly owe a debt to Kafka in more ways than one. Maljartschuk mostly writes in Ukrainian, though she has produced some stories and creative non-fiction in German and worked as an investigative journalist in Kyiv before moving to Vienna in 2011. One of her three novels, A Biography of a Chance Miracle, is also available in English from Cadmus Press, translated by Zenia Tompkins. neunprozentiger haushaltsessig came out in 2009 in Claudia Dathe’s German translation. It is really three collections of stories, each with their own inner coherence, their own set of themes and recurring characters. 

In the first section, ‘Voices’, we glimpse a young woman, really no more than a girl, from several points of view: her parents, from whom she runs away; her boyfriend, whose obsession with her sees him eventually transformed into a mole at the base of her throat; and the vet who happens to be passing when she is hit by a car and killed. These stories are interspersed with others, which give us access to the minds of several first-person narrators, alone in their apartments, thinking about the joys of smoking, or reflecting on their one burning desire: to grow a tail. Throughout the book, every sighting of the recurring figures sparks a little thrill of recognition; they return at different ages and from different angles, like variations on a musical theme. And always in Maljartschuk’s deceptively simple style, which is peppered with vivid images and has an undercurrent of dark humour. 

The remote village of Samagurka provides the links between stories in the second section, where a cast of peculiar, parochial characters seems cut off from the rest of the world. People who leave the village, like the ugly and uneducated Wanjka, who absconds from her life of drudgery while her husband is asleep, are assumed to have died – returning, to general amazement, with tales of tall buildings and horseless carriages.

The final section, ‘The Streets of the Murajow Battery’, also centres on a place: the apartment building in which the narrator grows up, where her friends and neighbours populate a set of increasingly unsettling tales. We meet Hryzian, the neighbours’ little boy whom the narrator babysits, and Marta, the girl who gets her into terrible trouble by encouraging her to steal. 

Water rises inexorably through these stories: the narrator consistently fails to learn to swim; a mighty flood may or may not come to engulf the neighbourhood; and the little girl imagines herself caught in an angler’s net, drowned, and offered back to her parents for fish soup. These sinister, watery images also swirl around the final story, ‘PS’, which ends with a direct quote from Kafka – in case we were in any doubt about Tanja Maljartschuk’s literary heritage.

Reviewed by Ruth Martin

neunprozentiger haushaltsessig

(‘nine-percent household vinegar’)

by Tanja Maljartschuk

Translated from Ukrainian by Claudia Dathe

Published by Residenz Verlag (2009)

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Ruth Martin studied English literature before gaining a PhD in German. She has translated authors ranging from Joseph Roth and Hannah Arendt to Nino Haratischwili and Shida Bazyar. Ruth has taught translation at the University of Kent and the Bristol Translates summer school, and is a former co-chair of the UK’s Translators Association.

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