Short Story Review – Urmas Vadi – Ground Beef Land (trans. Adam Cullen)

When I was much younger, perhaps as early as eight or nine from what I can remember, my father would make for breakfast a dish of ground beef (which in Australia we call mince beef), onions, diced carrots, some kind of soup mix base, and shell pasta.  Sometimes the pasta would be out and long strips of fried sliced cabbage would be in.  It was always served with buttered toast.  I loved it – it was filling.  I’m sure he loved it – it was cheap, and there were a lot of children.

I don’t much eat that dish any longer.  It’s a comfort food dish for me.  It reminds me of being young, and cared for, and to make it for myself alone, or my wife and I, seems to betray the purpose of the dish.  It is for children, from parents.

Urmas Vadi’s Ground Beef Land concerns itself with Margo, a man who lives with his mother and whose father is deceased, a man who loves, simply loved, ground beef.  He thinks about it and dreams about it, and every time he goes to the market he buys more.

The story opens with Margo wanting to try boeuf à la tartar, which is a rather wonderful dish – but it should not be made with ground beef, unless it is of the very highest quality, and unless you have made it yourself.  Eat it, enjoy it, but be safe.

Margo is not perhaps being safe.

He shaped the mass into a patty, set it on a plate, and made a hollow in the middle, which was where the raw egg should go. Margo wasn’t quite ready for that part yet—eggs were to be either fried or boiled—so he left it out, leaving the indent where it was in the middle of the ground beef, as if waiting for something to enter it. We all have hollows and holes in us: in our hearts; in our souls. It’s rare for us to know how and with what to fill them.

The grandness of a meal finely made!  He eats it, and then – is transport to ground beef land, where the King admonishes him to be a better person.

“I am the ruler of Ground Beef Land: everything you see in this country is made of ground beef, even you and I.” This came as a surprise to Margo. “Yes, yes, even you and I—we are all made of ground beef; I have made you all of ground beef. But that’s not what is important. What’s important is the path itself, though even that is made of ground beef.”

Margo is clever enough to wonder,

“Good King, is all of this just one big allegory?”

“It may be, it may not; what is true is that everything here is made of ground beef.

And soon the King is revealed to be, in fact, his deceased father, who tells him he needs to go back to all of the women he has ever left unsatisfied, and provide them with the orgasm they missed out on.  He must learn to find where the-G spot is.

There’s really two parts to this story.  The first is a seductive examination of the fine qualities of a meal prepared well, and in this Vadi’s language is conveyed with accuracy and subtlety, without falling into grandeur or making poetry out of food that frankly doesn’t deserve it.  Sprinkled throughout are minor references to Margo’s life and family, but this is really at its heart a story (at least in this part) about the appreciation of food.

Later it becomes a farce, as the King of ground beef unpacks Margo’s life and the choices he has made, and finds him wanting.  It’s funny, and should be laughed with, not at.  Vadi is obviously in on the joke, though Margo himself may not be.  He wonders at first if it’s all ‘just one big allegory’, and the King also makes mention that perhaps the ground beef that Margo had eaten was not particularly fresh, but really this is about a fairly ridiculous premise being used to attack and undermine the lazy choices of an unambitious man.

And it works.  The story is fun.  Fun isn’t necessarily a word often used when discussing literature, but why not?  It’s fun to read about a King made of ground beef yelling at a man for not providing women with orgasms.  It is.  The opening of the story it suitably well-written and works to lull the reader into the sense that perhaps this is a serious story, but it isn’t.  There are echoes of Grass’ The Flounder, though the story doesn’t have the density of that enormous work.

Fun, definitely, and short enough to polish off in ten minutes or so.  And it made me want to return to my own childhood by helping to recall memories of my father’s cooking, which is reason enough perhaps to feel fondly towardGround Beef Land.

Ground Beef Land is a shorty story by Estonian writer Urmas Vadi, and was translated by Adam Cullen.  You can read the story online at Words Without Borders.

Author Urmas Vadi
Title Ground Beef Land
Translator Adam Cullen
Nationality Estonian
Publisher Words Without Borders

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.


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