Warum das Kind das Polenta kocht

English translation: Why the Child is Cooking the Polenta, translated by Vincent King, Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press , 2012.

Book review by UC Berkeley undergraduate Ying Ruan:

Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta is a semi-autobiographical novel written by Romanian writer Aglaja Veteranyi in 1999. The narrator is an unnamed girl, who travels with her circus-performing family to western Europe from Romania. As illegal migrants, the family members encounter difficulties which reveal the real living situations of foreign refugees in western European countries. The book explores the complexities of the relationship between language and identity, and the dilemma between staying and finding a way home.

Language plays a dominant yet complex role in determining one’s identity, nationality, and ethnicity. In the book, the protagonist’s father speaks a different native language from other family members. This language barrier alienates the father and makes him feel like a foreigner even in his own country. Similarly, the protagonist’s family is marginalized by the natives because they cannot speak the official language. Veteranyi’s own personal experience of being discriminated against, due to limited language, makes her similar to the narrator. Indeed, discrimination based on language ability has occurred throughout European history; for example,  as a large influx of Turkish foreign workers entered Germany in the 1960s, those who spoke German could easily access jobs with higher wages. In fact, one’s language skill has been considered the most crucial requirement to obtain citizenship. The book Russian Disco by Wladimir Kaminer offers a satirical approach to see how the language test helps one to become a qualified German while questioning what it means to be “German”. Does the ability to speak the language show one’s ability to become a citizen? Does a language make one who he is? Language can be an important factor, but certainly it is not the only qualification for citizenship or acquiring one’s identity. 

Besides language and identity, Veteranyi poses a thought-provoking question to the reader. What makes a land foreign and what makes it a home? For the narrator, a foreign country is the place where “all you need is money” (Veteranyi, 10) and people there are mostly wealthy; however, for non-citizens and the poor, happiness is too hard to achieve: “The black have to sit separately…poor people have to clean the train and the toilet…Talking to them is also prohibited.”(44) While in the foreign country, the narrator’s family is “like shattered glass” although they obtain a better living condition. “All I think about is how I want to go back.”(48) Fortunately the narrator eventually returns home, but Veteranyi could not because Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu’s austerity program of the 1980s had destroyed the country’s economy. Although Veteranyi was not Roma by ethnicity, for other people, she was still a “gypsy,” a member of a group that has been shunned and spurned since the beginning of the twentieth century. Recently there has been criticism about Roma immigration in Europe, in that many governments refer to Roma as impoverished refugees and express alarm at the potential costs Roma pose to social security systems. As a semi-Roma and refugee, Veteranyi could neither be fully accepted in foreign countries nor in her home. “Where is home?” There is no easy answer. No one can truly understand the anguish of losing home or worse still never having a home without experiencing the pain and struggle the narrator and Veteranyi experienced.

Ironically, Veteranyi adopts a humorous tone to reflect the tragedy and dilemma faced by the narrator. Such contrast reminds reader of the injustice undergone by migrants, as well as the historical and contemporary problems faced by foreign workers in European countries. Instead of providing a conclusion, the novel challenges the reader to think deeply: how do these immigrants deal with the discrimination in a foreign land while trying to find their way back home?

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