July 20, 2014 by Christopher Buxton
It’s a blustery March Saturday. I’m sitting reading by my upstairs window. The view is the same – rain is melting the edges of obstinate snow patches in the muddy yard. I return to Anna Comnena’s account of the Byzantian court. I hear a vehicle coming up the track. I look out and see a man in overalls and wellington boots get out of a green van. Ole Nefstad, the farmer with whom I lodge, strolls into sight. He greets the man and they walk together towards the barn. It’s none of my business. I return to Anna.
Minutes later I hear air splitting shrieks from the barn. Through its dark doorway I see the two men backing out, bent and straining. They’re pulling a large pig by its ears. Ted Hughes in his poem describes the cries as “the rending of metal”. He was spot on. Anna Comnena has dropped to the floor. I have a presentiment of what I am about to see. A voyeur, I shrink back in my chair but keep looking.
Dragged into the middle of the yard, the condemned creature is released, but it makes no attempt to escape. The barn door is still open, promising warmth food and jostling brothers. But the pig does not bolt. As the man retrieves a rifle from his van, the pig stays absolutely still, with lowered head. He presents an ideal target. Standing beside Ole Nefstad, the man aims the rifle and shoots. Time seems to stop for just the long second that it takes a body to realize it is dead and for the executioners to react. The pig stands for this long second then just collapses into the snow. Ole is on him. With an agility I have never seen before, he has drawn a sharp knife across the pig’s throat. The snow around the corpse turns red.
Ole runs to his tractor with the fork lift ready. A few minutes and the pig has gone as has the rifleman in his van. When Fru Nefstad returns from a prearranged coffee morning, all that is left from the scene is the blood on the snow and the churned up mud
July 19, 2014 by Christopher Buxton
The most significant trend in Bulgarian writing over the last three years has been a re-evaluation of recent history, however painful. Novels like The Heights by Milen Ruskov, The Paleevi sisters by Alec Popov and now One and the Same Night by Christo Karastoyanov are effectively challenging the mythology created by 45 years of Communist rule. In these novels “revolutionary heroes” and “fascist/Turkish villains” emerge as complex human beings with their fluctuating motivations, driven by personal and public contexts.
One and the Same Night is an account of the last three years in the lives of two young friends, murdered by Government agents on the same night in 1925. The more famous of the two was Geo Milev, poet, war hero, editor and translator. His body and his glass eye were found and identified much later in a mass grave. An autopsy showed that his already damaged skull had been smashed but that he’d also been strangled with wire. Somewhere else at the same time his friend and patron, the anarchist Georgi Sheytanov was shot and decapitated. Both men were victims of a government white terror campaign, following the Communist bomb outrage at the Saint Nedelya Cathedral. In Communist Bulgaria Geo Milev was accorded the status of an anti-fascist hero, although in his life he had vigorously opposed linkage of his name to any political cause or party. Geo Milev was a serious promoter of avant-garde expressionist poetry. Having lost an eye and part of his skull in WW1 he campaigned for the rights of neglected veterans. His poem September written following an unsuccessful uprising against the then military dictatorship that had overthrown a democratically elected government. This was the poem that got the celebrated poet into trouble. He was given a surprisingly short prison term for “encouraging class hatred”, but before he could serve his term he was abducted – probably on the orders of General Vulkov. The Communists subsequently turned him into a hero, wrongly claiming him as their own. The school I taught at was named after him.
Sheytanov was forgotten.
Sheytanov was an anti-Communist anarchist, with a huge price on his head. Although never directly involved in any terrorist outrage, he had a romantic inclination towards bombs and assassinations of monarchs and government leaders. More than Geo Milev, Sheytanov felt sure that he was operating in a civil war situation, where so called allies could be your greatest enemies. He financed the publication of Milev’s periodical.
Christo Karastoyanov writes their story in non-consecutive short sharp episodes – each episode is titled with the date on which it was written. This technique brilliantly distances readers from the dramatic events as they unfold, while keeping them close to the writer and his creative impulses. The juxtaposition of remote events with immediate present allows for parallels to be drawn – for example the story of Victor Jara. What remains is the universal story of fear leading to repression and brutality and the writers’ unwitting instinct to speak out.
The laconic distancing strategy stops the story from becoming maudlin and melodramatic. There are even comic moments as when Sheytanov tries to stowaway on a Russian cruise liner. Throughout this spare but vivid the reader is encouraged to confront issues that have never gone away – to what extent violent action taken either by the state or by terrorists can ever be justified.
July 19, 2014 by Christopher Buxton
The hottest summer in years – and I spend it in specialist shops buying padded anoraks, sweaters, thermal underwear and mountain boots. I’ve signed a contract with the Norwegian ministry of Education to work in a village school for at least a year– and I can’t find the place on any map. Never mind, I pack my St Edmund’s school trunk and heavy duty grip and make my way to Newcastle Docks to meet up with 6 fellow contractees, similarly luggaged up. We’re all bound for different parts of Norway but we have a week’s survival induction in Oslo via ferry to Bergen and spectacular train journey. So two days later, we haul our bags and trunks off the train at Oslo railway station, load up various taxis and arrive at our designated hotel.
The hotel occupies the third, fourth and fifth floors of a modern block. With much sweat and muscle strain we fill the lift with our luggage – there’s space for two of us and the rest take the stairs. The lift is doorless, so we watch the wall slide past as we keep the luggage pile from toppling over. At the third floor, I stay by the lift while my colleagues sort out our rooms. No problem so in a few minutes my colleague and I are back in the lift. He presses the fifth floor button, but the lift obeys a previous summons and descends to the ground floor where baffled folk have been waiting for the last ten minutes. They open the door to see the compartment filled with two sweating men holding on to tottering piles of luggage. They close the door and the lift lurches upwards. We reach the fifth floor to find that the outer door cannot be opened. We later understand the hotel has a problem with absconding guests. We press 3 to return to reception. Inevitably our journey takes past the ground floor where the same folk are becoming understandably restless. Back on the reception floor, my colleague gives way to the concierge who carries an impressive bunch of keys. We make our way to the fifth floor, again via the ground floor. At least the concierge’s considerable bulk offers some protection from the hot volley of complaints. The lift is now making alarming groaning noises as we ris to the fifth floor. The concierge finds the right key and inserts it, but before he is able to turn it, the lift shudders and begins to descend again, leaving his ring of keys to dangle precariously over the lift shaft. The concierge now performs dance of fury – quite impressive given his size and the lack of space. And I get my first lesson in Norwegian swearing.