In defence of Bulgarian classics

December, 2010

  1. In defence of Bulgarian classics

    December 22, 2010 by Christopher Buxton

    “Respect the Past if you want to have a future.” Dimitar Berbatov.

    Four generations in Bulgaria:

    A: The oldest, now at the end of their lives, those who remember life before Communism, and who depending on their circumstances spent a significant period of their twenties surviving the terror or excitement of the Soviet experiment in its most brutal phase.

    B: The 50-60 year olds – Zhivkov’s children, brought up in a time of compromise – don’t rock the boat and life will be unchangingly OK. Sure there’ll be shortages and power cuts, mind numbing lip service to fraudulent 5 year plans, joyful workers’ demonstrations unremitting propaganda, but there’ll be good education, crap job security, basic health care, Opera and Theatre. These 50-60 year olds fell in love during communism, danced and drank perhaps a little too much, bought Lada cars, saw their children born. In 1990, the same folk saw their factories closed, learnt to be very afraid of crime, could not afford medicines, saw their children emigrate to the furthest corners of the world.

    C: The 40-50 year olds – those born in the cynical years of Zhivkov’s reign, who negotiated the transition from Communism to a form of Capitalism – some with significant help from far-sighted privileged parents; others through startling initiative – all through a grim struggle with corruption and bureaucracy.

    D: The young – with no clear memory of communism, but with a growing understanding gained from their disappointed parents that Bulgarian “Democracy” is deeply flawed, works to the benefit of criminals, so that many end up believing that their future lies elsewhere.

    There is a tendency in the higher echelons of Bulgarian culture to ignore or discredit all literature written before 1990. And so Generation D is being encouraged to believe that the years leading to Democracy are best left in a shameful fog, that pre 1990 writers are either too provincial or too compromised by their inevitable subservience to the Communist Party.

    So there is nobody in the Bulgarian State, willing to promote new translations of Bulgarian Classics – as once the Communists did with its often literal Sofia Press. In this they are backed by the new critics, ever enthusiastic for often impenetrable experimental writing, and quick to condemn writers of a previous generation.

    Let me identify myself as a member of Generation B. I lived three years in a panel block, fell in love, married and saw our daughter born and cared for by the Bulgarian Health Service. I cheerfully wiped my bottom with “The Workers Cause,” queued for meat and petrol, held my tongue but laughed at outrageous political jokes. I sat in small gardens under vines and fig trees (sadly they have all but disappeared), drank and sang Bulgarian Folk songs. In these neighbourhood family gatherings I leant the enduring strength of Bulgarian history and values.

    And I read Bulgarian books as soon as my language skills allowed. What follows, in no particular order, is an arbitrary list of Bulgarian writers who to paraphrase Wordsworth have signaled a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts:

    Dimitar Talev: The first writer I read. He opened a rich historical world. Following 1944, instead of being feted he was branded an enemy of the people and became a helpless bespectacled victim of the red terror. But he was allowed to survive the camps in order to follow approved Party line on Macedonia. Nevertheless his sagas helped me understand the extraordinary patterns of Bulgarian history.

    Georgi Karaslavov: is perhaps the most compromised of the writers. As president of the Writers’ Union, he wrote proletarian prose to order, but his early novels made a lasting impression with their evocation of brooding village life, mothers-in-law stirring pots of poison, peasant farmers jealously guarding every ear of corn.

    Gencho Stoev: a writer who captured the moral complexity of the Turkish Atrocities, managing to avoid nationalist and class stereotypes to penetrate the common paradoxes of the human condition. Anton Donchev whose work greatly contributed to national paranoia, admitted to Stoev that he had written a much better book.

    Ivailo Petrov: A Bulgarian William Faulkner, able to convey a multi-perspective history of the 20th Century destruction of village life. Six old men set out on a wolf hunt from a depopulated village. The absurd hunt becomes a vivid metaphor for the state of modern Bulgaria.

    Nikolai Haitov: now an icon to far right nationalists. But his stories of isolated villages in the Rhodopes have a raw power.

    These are writers who are seen to be compromised by the material support and privileges granted them by the Communist regime. However, as with the film makers and dramatists of the period, censored times can create enduring art.

    In uncensored times, good writers have greater difficulty in being read.

  2. Update of "awful, awful!"

    December 21, 2010 by Christopher Buxton

    Standart reports today that the official report on the baby in the freezer case is that the baby was indeed born dead. This news will be welcomed by local citizens who signed petitions supporting the doctors. It will restore some faith in the humanity of hard working Bulgarian doctors.

    Initial shock at the language by the doctors used in their state tapped conversations has been superseded by outrage that in the early stages of investigation, the Home Affairs Minister chose to read them out. Anyone with any experience of the hard pressed emergency services will know that their private conversations about tragic events are necessarily salty.

    The whole incident reveals sadly how quickly responsible commentators rush to premature judgments. The major responsibility for this does lie with Minister Stoyanov – who has seen his popularity ratings slide after allegations of dodgy property deals. As Minister he gained approval for a series of spectacular arrests, but none of these has led to successful prosecution. The overall effect is deepening cynicism.

    Martin Karbovski will no doubt apologize for his over-reaction. Today he is fulminating on the commercialisation of Christmas.

  3. Circus Bulgaria

    December 20, 2010 by Christopher Buxton

    Deyan Enev is the meteorologist of the Bulgarian soul’s darker side. His lightning rod stories capture moments of Bulgarian reality like no other writer.

    Circus Bulgaria, a collection of his short stories, is now available to English readers in an excellent translation by Kapka Kassabova and published by Portobello Books.

    In his story, Beyond Nine Mountains, Enev describes an emblematic encounter between an Englishman and the Sofia taxi driver who takes him from airport to hotel. Christopher Liner represents a western film company and is in Bulgaria to exploit a provincial story of sexual slavery, pigs and suicide. The Taxi Driver has no time to piss, let alone learn English. It turns out to be a clash between the constipated and the incontinent.

    Liner attempts to engage his taxi driver in conversation. His opening question, “Do you speak English?” is met with a cheerful sounding volley of bitter abuse in Bulgarian. Liner is unable to understand suggestions that he fuck himself up his own arse. But Liner is not to be put off – he can manage another language; he tries Russian. This at least leads Liner to reveal his own name. Liner sounds very like the Bulgarian word for shit. And so the driver laughs so hard that he almost loses control of the taxi.

    The taxi driver’s burning resentment is all too credible in the polarised small world of Nationalist consciousness. And what harm is there in venting sincere feelings at the expense of a stupid client who won’t understand a word you’re saying? The cream of the jest is the client’s name. And the turd does not question the bill of forty Euros.

    After all the Turd is English – representative of a people who are traditionally so up themselves they have no need for sexual advice from Bulgarian taxi drivers. Where Bulgarians rightly smoulder over the cruelties of their Imperial subjection, the English regard their Empire with a smug nostalgia. And the world is still their oyster, thanks to cheap flights and innumerable posh guidebooks on how to deal with stereotyped natives.

    And why shouldn’t Bulgarians rage against the unfairness of a World hierarchy which encourages ignorant privileged Westerners to “treat Bulgarians as though they were Aborigines?” This last phrase is a favourite in Nationalist Newspapers and TV stations seeking to portray Bulgaria as the victim of a five hundred year international conspiracy.

    Those foreign commentators who do speak Bulgarian will easily understand why their name might become shit in certain quarters. They seek to take part in debate at their peril. If they question the nationalist perception of the west as a heaving pile of writhing Gays, who take time off from their perversions only to murder their parents and children, they will be roundly condemned as anti-Bulgarian and would-be aborigine trainers. This is a reaction to the perceived threat posed by the west to the values of decent Orthodox Bulgaria. These visions are crafted specially for a significant section of the Bulgarian population who are puzzled by the rapid changes in society and in their nostalgia for simple polarities find comfort in the rants of angry men.

    In another of Enev’s stories, an old lion tamer is forced to part with his emaciated lion that had once been used as a living emblem for Bulgaria. The story’s title, Circus Bulgaria, conveys on so many levels, the feeling of desperate loss – particularly as the lion is to be sold to some Mafia oligarch. What can the lion tamer do but drown his sorrow at the passing of a golden age. Many of his aging compatriots know exactly how he feels.

  4. Is Protestantism anti Bulgarian

    December 17, 2010 by Christopher Buxton

    When patriotic spokesmen spy an attack on Bulgarian values, they “cannot remain silent”. Bulgarian “restraint” and “tolerance” for others is quickly abandoned in the speed with which fellow countrymen are labeled anti-Bulgarian.

    Thus an interview on Nova TV, in which Bulgarian pop star, Miro, describes how he became a protestant, gives writer Valentin Fortunov, the opportunity to fulminate. On his way back from the toilet, where he has been graphically sick, Fortunov sits down to pen a predictable response, published in his blog and in the patriotic newspaper, DESANT.

    Miro is the compromised tool of foreign forces out to subvert the true Bulgaria – an ideal state that exists mostly in the imagination of the writer and his readers. This true Bulgaria bears no relation of course to the real Bulgaria, compromised by its corrupt politicians, by its membership of NATO and the EU and by the “gypsification”of its culture.

    But any commentator would do well not to ignore the true Bulgaria. The ideal conservative patriarchal society lives on in the hearts of thousands of readers of Patriotic newspapers. And the true Bulgaria survived five hundred years of Turkish “enslavement”, because of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the church that Miro has rejected.

    We are reminded that Miro has “flirted with homosexuality”. We are reminded that Nova TV is owned by Swedes, that Sweden is a Protestant country, and that the Swedish protestant church allows gay marriages. Thus Nova TV is part of an unending conspiracy to undermine and destroy the true Bulgaria. And Miro in being a protestant is anti-Bulgarian in his implicit rejection of his national church. He has the impertinence to tell us that “God is not found in a building.”

    In his conclusion, Fortunov calls on Bulgarians to forsake their famous “tolerance” and unite to save the true Bulgaria from its enemies. A comment by an expat appended to his blog entry rightly questions this Bulgarian tolerance – for gypsies, Turks, Gays etc. The same commentator questions the average Bulgarian’s loyalty to the Orthodox church. This expat is clearly anti-Bulgarian.

    Fortunov raises interesting issues. Protestantism is the religion of capitalism. It is no coincidence that the Industrial and Mercantile revolutions occurred in countries not dominated by hierarchical church structures. Protestantism is a religion of equal individuals, unhampered by buildings and men in cassocks. (At the same time in its fundamentalist forms it is no less anti-Gay than the Catholic or Bulgarian churches.)

    But if we follow capitalist logic, it is unsurprising that in some protestant countries sexual discrimination has been swept away. The pink pound talks. Fortunov might consider that Nova TV is first and foremost a capitalist institution – its only purpose is to make money in a modern Bulgaria where pop stars have financial value.

    “Bulgarian tolerance” I suppose is to blame for allowing the sexually ambiguous Madonna to perform in Sofia – either that or some Protestant desire to make money.

    So what is the alternative? If we follow the road of intolerance, Bulgaria should undergo a Patriarch led Iranian style revolution? All foreign businesses and particularly foreign media institutions can be booted out. Bulgaria would leave the EU and NATO. Gays can be castrated along with Gypsies and Turks.

    Miro is a very slight celebrity from which to launch a whole fleet of polemic. Perhaps Fortunov should remind his nostalgic readers that Bulgaria’s only Protestant ruler was Georgi Dimitrov. And of course he never acted as an agent for a foreign power, did he?

  5. Arrogance

    December 6, 2010 by Christopher Buxton

    I was recently castigated by a former student for becoming yet another foreigner to “treat Bulgarians as though they were aborigines”.

    I learn from the comments appended to an article on the early release of Michael Shields, that “the English have always treated Bulgarians as if they were aborigines.” You may remember that Michael Shields was the English football fan, who was imprisoned in Bulgaria for the grievous maiming of a Bulgarian citizen, but then was transferred to serve the remainder of his sentence in a British Gaol.

    In the right wing “patriotic” press, American Ambassador James Warlick, who has the temerity to comment on Bulgarian internal affairs, is routinely described as “regarding Bulgarians as aborigines.”

    I have been searching for some history of this most surprising of comparisons. I would like to know whether any foreign commentator has ever compared Bulgarians with Aborigines.

    Apart from the fact that both peoples have suffered from Imperial repression and a degree of cultural isolation, there are no points of similarity beyond common humanity.

    What may be true is that those Bulgarians who perceive the world as an ethnic league table would identify aborigines as occupying the lowest position. Patriotic Bulgarians would also hold as an article of faith that history or even malign world conspiracy has handed Bulgarians the outrageously unjust fate to be placed on a lower position than that enjoyed by other “advanced” nations.

    Anyone from one of these supposedly “advanced” nations, who lives in Bulgaria will, like me, be tempted to comment on the joys and challenges of everyday life. Bulgaria’s entry into NATO and the EU makes it inevitable that Bulgaria will become the object of report and even advice.

    The problem is that any critical comments will be construed as patronising and arrogant.

    In England, the failure of the World Cup Bid has led to a storm of self-righteous fury. Accusations of corruption in the British popular press, feature FIFA Third World representatives, Russian kleptocrats and oil rich Sheiks. How dare the world ignore the whiter than white combination of Prince William, David Beckham and David Cameron?

    Ha! Ha! Ha!

    I would imagine that in the rest of the world, people are quite pleased by this very public punishment of perceived English arrogance – even while admitting the fallibility of FIFA as an institution.

    Arrogance involves the assumption by the individual of some superiority. Arrogance is perceived by others – seldom by the individual. And I admit that as an English citizen I have to try to monitor myself when daring to comment on another country even though I live in that country and am affected by social and legal issues.

    Seizing on some comments I had made about attitudes to homosexuals and gypsies, my former student last year launched a diatribe against the horrors perpetrated by the English over the centuries. I could have written this part of his article for him. I could be accused of arrogance if I stated I could have written it better.

    There is a kind of arrogance which is based not on a feeling of social superiority, but on a tortured sense of persecution. This sense of persecution, however justified, will foster entrenched opinions and stereotypes. Thin skinned sensitivity and perhaps a commercial need to pander to a like-minded audience may lie behind the oft-repeated accusation that Bulgarians are being treated as if they were aborigines.

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