Book Review - Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta

Aglaja Veteranyi and her family, all circus performers, fled their native Romania in 1967. This unsettling, semi-autobiographical novel depicts the travels of a circus troupe through Europe and Africa. The child narrator is haunted by fears for her mother whose main act is to hang from her hair at dangerous heights. She is comforted by her half-sister who provides a distraction by inventing fantastical stories about a child cooking in the polenta.

Veteranyi offers a poignant account of life as a refugee, where everything is foreign and you are treated as a stranger wherever you go: “The trailer is home. I open the trailer door as little as possible so that home won’t evaporate…I know my country only by smell. It smells like my mother’s cooking”.

The sisters’ short time together also resembles a dark fairy tale. When they are abruptly sent to a Swiss children’s home the journey is described as lasting “several years”. Like Hansel and Gretel, the narrator “wanted to pay attention to the way there so I’d be able to come back. But the harder I tried, the more everything looked alike, as though someone had smoothed out the landscape.” Following her sister’s abrupt departure from the home, the narrator experiences an acute sense of abandonment that results in a breakdown. On being reunited with her mother she learns that her parents have separated.

Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta is a keenly observed portrait of a child exploited by her mother and, it is hinted, abused by her father. Following her mother’s near fatal accident, leaving her unable to scrape together an income, the daughter, still a minor, is pushed into show business and then prostitution. Her conflicted feelings are neatly encapsulated in the book’s title – polenta (mamaliga) means “mother’s home cooking” in Romanian.

There is a lyrical quality to Veteranyi’s writing emphasised by the narrative layout – some almost blank pages punctuated by one or two lines in capitals and condensed passages containing vivid imagery. As the narrative moves forward, the language becomes more sophisticated and knowing, giving a palpable sense of the narrator’s own growth into adolescence and womanhood.

Veteranyi eventually settled in Switzerland, enjoying a successful career as a writer and actor. Her debut novel, beautifully translated by Vincent Kling, is published as part of Dalkey Archive’s Swiss Literature series. Tragically, Veteranyi committed suicide in 2002, leaving behind this searing testament to pain and alienation; an experience, we can only presume, from which she never fully recovered.

Originally published in the Independent  on Monday 2 April