How dare you!
Who do you think you are?
You’re not an expert.
You’re not a professor.
You’re not even Bulgarian.
THE OCCASION. Open Letter Books has now published three Bulgarian works of fiction: A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov, 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev and Thrown into Nature by Milen Ruskov. Dalkey Archive Press some years ago published Natural Novel by Georgi Gospodinov and Northwestern University Press published a collection of his stories, And Other Stories.
I WOULD suggest that the only connection these books has with Bulgaria occurs on the title page: “Translated from the Bulgarian.” If I had the energy or inclination I could tease out the models primarily in American or English literature for these books but what is fundamentally missing from these novels and stories is any acknowledgement of the actual human experience in a county called Bulgaria.
AND THEN I would go on to generalize and state that the reason for this is that Bulgaria is a psychologically damaged country that has not come to grips in any meaningful way with the devastation: moral, political, and historical, which was the result of both importation and imposition of the communist system starting on 9 September 1944.
AS FAR as anyone knows only Georgi Markov has attempted to describe the devastating consequences for the Bulgarian people of the communism and for this he was murdered by that regime for writing from his own experience within the ruling elites.
IMRE KERTESZ writing (in DOSSIER K) from within the awfulness of communist Hungary: “that cheap conformity that undermined every moral and intellectual stand, that petit-bourgeois police state that called itself socialist but which regarded that docile and corrupt, simpering and authoritarian, mind-numbing, semi-feudal, semi Asiatic, militaristic Horthyite society, governed from the handsomely built dictator’s waistcoat pocket as its true model.” Do I need to remind anyone of Markov writing of how the communist bosses complained about how pathetic the palaces of the Tsars were and where they now had to live… and how accurately Kertesz is when applied to the so-called royal family of Bulgaria! And of course Kertesz also reminds us that the communist regimes pioneered Holocaust denial but it had not been so named…
AN OBJECTION is often raised: how can you compare Bulgaria to… don’t you know… but I would reply it is well known that there was no samizdat or underground literature in Bulgaria during the communism. It was often repeated: we Bulgarians were too smart to do that. And then the conversation goes on to talk about the obscurity of Bulgaria, the isolation, the history…
HOWEVER, here is a simple sentence ripped out of context describing Valeri Petrov to whose name is always added: he did much loved translations of Shakespear into Bulgarian--- I guess we are supposed to think of Pasternak while forgetting that Pasternak also wrote Doctor Zhivago--- but the sentence: Petrov is a lifelong believing communist who came from a very left family.
For days I have been thinking about that sentence and I was trying to imagine a young German or Austrian describing some controversial but worthy figure as: a lifelong believing Nazi who came from a very right family or say a young Italian to make it a bit more palatable: …a lifelong believing fascist who came from a very right family. AND I well know that Petrov refused to sign the letter condemning Solzhenitsyn but it seems he has never realized the abyss that is the center of communist ideology with the necessity of murder in the service of ideology.
AND SO NOW we come to my point::: only when writers begin to write books--- do I have to rehearse the names of those who did: Uwe Johnson, Gunter Grass, Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachmann, Heinrich Boll--- which do take up the simple question: mom, dad, grandpa, ma.. what did you do from 9 September 1944 until yesterday?
And that writer will be very rare indeed as he or she will have to deal with the privileges they received as a result of what dad, mom, grandpa/ma…did. And they will have to find a form adequate to the purpose of revelation and not evasion.
OF COURSE this might be a long time coming as courage is not easily acquired or valued. After the so-called changes the psychoanalyst George Kamen returned to Bulgaria and one of his projects was to talk with both former prisoners and guards of the communist concentration camps in Bulgaria. He discovered that both groups of people were embarrassed by his questions and both denied at first that they had even been in the camps… and of course George also noted that there was no real genuine attempt to make a full and complete accounting for the crimes and thievery of the communist regime.
BULGARIA had not—looking back--- that good fortune to be really forced to account as did Germany… well, West Germany mostly. Austria continued in its oral oblivion as it escaped this reckoning by being the first victim of fascism…
THE SAD academics in the universities escaped any confrontation in Bulgaria with the recent past by falling into the forgetful incomprehensible arms of French critical theory and I most enjoyed the bizarre avoidance, the bizarre refusal to mature in Maria Todorova’s BONES OF CONTENTION in which she asserts she is going to describe a normal historical debate as an example of just how normal Bulgaria was back then though mentioning without irony the necessary presence of communist party representatives in each of the academic departments of the university but of course in her world of the high nomenklatura such party figures were always at the dinner table…
BUT WHAT HAVE YOU done is surely being muttered: THE CORPSE DREAM OF N. PETKOV is my answer…published and well-reviewed in the US and it even appeared in Bulgarian translation in ZVREMIK back in 1991… and I can only understand that it has not appeared as a book because its very content, the manner of presentation is a direct challenge to the failure of Bulgarian writers to imaginatively deal with the felt reality of their country and its long blighted history. I continued my description of Bulgaria in the middle section of GOING TO PATCHOGUE in pages set in Bulgaria 1984 and FORGET THE FUTURE I have described Bulgaria in the summer of 1990, in EMPTY AMERICAN LETTERS I describe the useless death of an American academic who failed to write her thesis about Bulgarian women in the Nineteenth Century and about this pivots is both a description of even more recent times in Bulgaria and of the near past of 1967 in Sofia and in the far past at the Battle of Varna in 1444…
My life changed when I got off the train in Sofia in 1967. I am waiting for that Bulgarian novel that I can put on the shelf next to EXTINCTION or CORRECTION by Thomas Bernhard, PARALLEL LIVES by Peter Nadas, PARADISO by Jose Lezama Lima, CHRIST VERSUS ARIZONA by Camilo Jose Cela, BRECHT AT NIGHT by Mati Unt, THE LAND OF GREEN PLUMS by Herta Muller…
ZIFT by Vladislav Todorov comes close to being a first step toward a refusal to forget but he is of late distracted by movie making… understandable of course but…
TIME OF PARTING by Anton Donchev was the only Bulgarian novel to be widely published abroad in English translation… people are a little embarrassed by this but its uniqueness is in its depiction of humiliation… the taking away of Bulgarian young men for service in the Janissaries… but to be scrupulous I did find in Oxford in 1990 a copy of Blaga Dimitrova’s JOURNEY TO ONESELF which was published by Cassell in 1969… and even signed to English visitor in 1970, in Sofia… a novel as an act of repentance for the narrator being born into the wrong sort of family (Royalist) and subjecting herself to hard physical labor in the countryside…
NO POETS are mentioned as I was thinking in homage to Flann O’Brien that both during the communism and whatever you want to call what came after: the Standing Army of Bulgarian Poets is ever at the ready though one does know that to date none has come along to move over those statues in the garden where we find Montale, Eliot, Mandelstam, Rilke and I would throw in Gottfried Benn and Yeats and… you get the picture…
Four books written outside Bulgaria do provide a more complex version of Bulgarian reality and I have been grateful for them: VOICE FROM THE GULAG and THE FRAGILITY OF GOODNESS by Tzvetan Todorov, THE PORCUPINE by Julian Barnes and THE ‘THAW” in BULGARIAN LITERATURE and WITH THE PRECISION OF BATS by Atanas Slavov… In no way do they undermine the truth of my brief essay (nit pickers to your job) which I well know is a provocation but one that can only be answered by the appearance of actual evidence.