This interview appeared in KULTURA, the most important monthly Bulgarian magazine of culture (October 2019) in a Bulgarian translation. The interviewer is Dimiter Kenarov one of the very best Bulgarian poets, journalists and is author of the forthcoming biography of the murdered Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov to be published by GROVE PRESS in the US. He suggested we do a Nabokov style interview and supplied a few questions to which I wrote answers. Again his suggestion reflects the very sophisticated literary culture of Bulgaria. I doubt that very many American writers or journalists would know what a "Nabokov style" interview was.
1-- Your first trip to Bulgaria was in 1967. How did it come about? What was it like for a young American to visit communist Bulgaria and what were your first impressions? Did they change over time?
I got off the train at Sofia in September of 1967 and walked up what I now know is Hristo Botev Boulevard. It was getting dark and I had a map carefully transliterated into the Latin alphabet from the Bulgarian tourist office in London. I stop at a kiosk and asked the girl, tourist information? She replied, I speak English a little. I married this girl, Lilia and we left Bulgaria in the following spring on our way to Dublin by way of Venice, Paris and London.
I won’t go into the complexity of getting married in Bulgaria in 1967 or about being arrested for writing on a tablecloth.
But my life in Bulgaria was with that first walking on a street in Sofia.
2-- When did you first hear about Nikola Petkov?
Lilia and I lived in a bedsit on Grosvenor Square in Dublin, a good address but the wrong city. I taught English to foreign students and Lilia served lunch in the lunch room of this Dublin Tuition Centre. At night the lunch room became a late night supper club with a menu of which no prices were listed.
We got a call from Michael O’Riordain who was a bus driver and head of the Irish Communist Party. He explained that his son had been approached by Lilia’s mother in Sofia as she had something for her daughter who was living in Dublin. The boy was in Sofia for a world youth conference for peace organized by the Bulgarian communist party . We went to see O’Riordain and he apologized as we came into his house saying, “My son, the son of a revolutionary had lost the sausage your wife’s mother had sent to her daughter by way of his son. He was embarrassed and as compensation he said, I want to give you a book about that great Bulgarian revolutionary, George Dimitrov and it is the only book I have in my library about Bulgaria.
We thanked him and of course regretted the loss of the lokanka.
On the way home I read in the book DIMITROV WASTES NO BULLETS by Michael Padev. Yes, it was about Bulgaria but it was a careful expose of the trial and execution of a Bulgarian Nikola Petkov. So Lilia and I had a good laugh at how could this communist give us such a startling anti-communist book…?
I guess O’Riordain had not gotten beyond the title… which was a quote from the debate in the communist controlled parliament leading up to Petkov’s show trial and execution.
3-- What was it about Nikola Petkov that piqued your interest?
As you might know in the 1960s there were few books about Bulgaria and this book moved with us to America and moved with us between Wisconsin and Virginia and on to Manhattan.
I was in Bulgaria again in 1973, two times...once in the spring to visit Lilia’s mother and a second visit in December as Lilia was concerned about her mother in Sofia and then her sister and nephew who had fled Bulgaria for Yugoslavia and going on eventually to the refugee camp near Vienna.
But that is another long story... I could tell you of visiting my nephew and his mother in a gypsy village in Yugoslavia as they had escaped the Yugoslav bounty hungry police and the only people in Yugoslavia at that time who a person on the run could turn to were the gypsies…
I could recite all the peculiar aspects of life in Bulgaria, the shops where Bulgarians shopped with dollars…the lack of shoes of large sizes…the desire for American chewing gum, a girl named Harritena Beleva who I never forget who I met as we sat in a café on then Plastat Lenin inhabited by deaf-mutes but that book on Petkov was always patiently waiting…
Finally in the late 70s and in the early 1980s when I worked as foot messenger (for more than 20 years in fact) and having written and written what now looking back were holding actions, as it were, since they lacked the arrived spark of the inevitable, essential and necessary vision: the hanging of Nikola Petkov… and deeper down I had remembered a note which Hannah Green had affixed to her very great short novel The Dead of the House, three words: vision, record, memory.
And now years later I can think the book came from being Roman Catholic born, and of course concerned with one’s soul and I had read the exercise in Ignatius Loyola’s SPIRITUAL EXERCISES in which one is told to imagine being on your death bed and looking into the faces of those looking on and imagining what they are thinking about… and from somewhere I knew that these hangings in eastern Europe were not clean executions--- if something like that can be said to happen though maybe in England with their history of professional hangmen who write their memoirs--- I knew there in the East, a person was suspended from a rope and allowed to slowly strangle to death and I remember Hitler taking pleasure in looking at the films of the suspects in the failed attempt on his life in 1944 being hanged with piano wire and slowly strangling to death.
4-- Your book, among many other things, includes a collage of newspaper clippings, official press releases, memoirs of Petkov's contemporaries, and personal interviews that you did. How did you set about your research?
I have always been attached to the first person narrator and was told by my friend the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra in a bar The Only Child on West 79th Street near Broadway in Manhattan, the simple line, “I” is the other…” Nicanor went on that night about the accident of our meeting and how we would meet at the oddest times then and much later but I heard that line, I am the other and he quickly told me he was not being original, “Who wants to be original…” there was a pause and he said one word, “Rimbaud.”
So of course the book begins, “I Nikola Petkov was hanged…”
5-- Did you feel you had access to enough sources? Could you talk about your writing process? What were the biggest challenges?
One aspect of having then a Bulgarian wife was that there were few Bulgarians in the US but gradually one somehow meets many of them and that lead to Petkov’s nephew confined to a nursing home in Brooklyn by a unhealing wound on the bottom of his foot that kept him bed-bound--- he talked of his uncle while I listened--- and to Cyril Black, a half Bulgarian who had set up the School of International Affairs at Princeton, replied to my letters… I was nobody but probably few knew of his connection to Bulgaria, so I was not just a stranger… maybe this has disappeared today when everyone relies on cell phones and Google and the internet… and there are books--- imagine that--- in libraries and fortunately not a lot of books back then on Bulgaria… sometimes obscurity has its advantages… Princeton University Library (probably because of Black being on the faculty) had a copy of Petkov’s trial as the communist regime was proud of this trial and published translations in all the major world languages transcripts of the trial…the book had never been checked out as I remember…and of course I had my wife, her mother and her nephew… as sources… what more did I need?
6-- What was it like, on a psychological level, to imagine the voice of the dying Nikola Petkov in an apartment in Manhattan?
I had the good fortune to have older parents and as a child we spent a lot of time going to funerals and my parents did not believe in baby sitters so we were taken along to these funerals which seemed always at Christmas time… I remember hearing my parents and the relatives talking about the deceased as she or he lay in his coffin—usually there were two days of this and then the funeral Mass… so death was not un-common but even then I wondered why would a person eat breakfast since I remember hearing an aunt saying her father had just dropped dead an hour or so after eating breakfast… My child mind never came to really understand this… and neither does my adult mind.
7-- Your book reworks the grey facts of history into something close to literary myth. Could you talk a little about the relationship in your fiction between facts and imagination? What does fiction give us that non-fiction fails at?
When it comes to words like myth, even fiction for that matter --- literature professors are always asking kids to trace myth and this or this or that and of course Joyce had great fun having on the critics… but you got to give these dogs a bone… and students chew the chewed over remains. I think I would rather stick to my apostolic namesake THOMAS who said he would believe when he could put his fist finger into the actual wound of the Risen Christ… of course when he does see the Risen Christ…I just accept the body and allow myself to be consumed by jealousy of someone like Hermann Broch who writes The Death of Virgil…and see if I can nudge myself into his company with my own sentences and of course it is probably delusional but I gave a reading at the 192 Bookshop in Manhattan and they gave ma shoulder bag with a sentence on it from Borges, “I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books.”
Maybe another time, if there is another time, I will tell what Borges and I talked about at Columbia in 1972---there has to be some loose strings... and I have never read from my novel in Bulgaria… a few sentences it is true… but maybe a Bulgarian will be reading it now in Bulgarian and I might one day be able to hear of that… with a biography we always skip ahead to the death scene as it were by an express train, as if that is the only reason for a biography… while with a novel we read or should read sentence, paragraph by sentence, by paragraph.
8-- You seem to work in the tradition of modernist, avant-garde literature exemplified by writers like James Joyce and Flann O'Brien. Could you talk a little about your literary influences? What do you think is ultimately the task of literature?
The first novel I actually read was LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL by Thomas Wolfe... in high school in Patchogue on Long Island we were forced to read crap by Thomas Hardy and George Eliot—but there were comic book versions of these books and fortunately back then there was no obsession with getting students to be writing essays..
Thomas Wolfe is not much read though I was happy to discover that one of the greatest German language writers Thomas Bernhard did a translation of a play by Wolfe and Peter Handke (almost his equal) says he loved LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL so maybe these two writers knew something far more important than the dumb professors who now enforce draconian politically correct required reading lists that avoid writers like Wolfe... but I will give you a list of writers I think should be read if one wants not to be illiterate: T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Hannah Green, James Joyce, Thomas Bernhard, Juan Carlos Onetti, Jose Lezama Lima, Flann O’Brien, Louis FerdinandCeline, Ernst Junger, Miquel de Unamuno, E.M. Cioran…Max Stirner…Faulkner…Kerouac…Turgenev… Uwe Johnson, Nelida Pinon, Blanchot… Julian Green, Edward Dahlberg, Jean Rhys, and get a copy of Ezra Pound’s ABC OF READING…there it all is…
9-- Why do you think it took such a long time for your book to be published in Bulgaria?
When my book was published in 1987 in the USA the socialist/communist regime was looking forward to celebrating 50 years of 9 IX… in 1992 my book did appear in Svremenik but to find a copy of that--- in 2010 the Sofia city library couldn’t find their copy--- but it was one of the first signs of a change though in the early years of the changes people wanted to catch up with the avalanche of crap literature the communists had denied them--- they wanted to eat to their fill the shit the mass-market ate in in the West…but such runs its way and now finally maybe there is a change… people, young people want to know—the best of the young---others just want to get on with the forgetfulness and I wonder: what is wrong with that… yet, I am pleased by the few young who do want to know—but that is always the case…Julian Rios said better to say “long seller” than “best seller”...in the US and I am sure soon enough in Bulgaria the charity shops and second hand shops won’t stock yesterday’s best sellers as a best seller is always being replaced by another best seller… all that happens is they replace the supposed author with another name and the suckers fall for it every time.
10-- I've noticed you're following closely Bulgarian literature and have read most of what's available in English translation. Who are the Bulgarian writers that you find most interesting and why? In your view, what are the failings of Bulgarian writing?
Georgi Gospodinov and Victor Paskov… they trust and trusted what they actually saw… Paskov I think drank himself to death and that probably meant he was very much alone…I have no gift for languages… but the books that get translated seem too often to be imitations of what is fashionable in the grotesque world of the small presses which could be better described as coterie presses—I’ll publish you if you publish me…
I would rather read a novel by a Bulgarian writer who carefully catalogued all the variety of destroyed sidewalks in Sofia… I love walking about the streets off of Botev maybe because that is the first street I walked on in Sofia but then I discovered that Romain Gary lived on that street with Lesley Branch when he was the French consul in Sofia after WW2... why hasn’t a Bulgarian written about that… I hope some Bulgarian writer will write about the little houses that used to be Nadeshda that got torn down to build another complex… or who has celebrated limonada, that unique Bulgarian soft drink that came in a clear bottle with no label… or the walking back from the local bakery eating the warm heart of a loaf of bread before he or she gets it home.
But I must not forget Zachary Karabashliev whose novel 18% GRAY is very very good and is one of the very rare books about life in the United States which actually gets an America I recognize... I would like him to Michel Butor's MOBILE another unique novel centered on the United States and absolutely essential for understanding the United States of America.
11-- Do you think Bulgaria has failed to work through its communist past? What are your impressions of Bulgaria today?
Of course four weeks and two more weeks make me an authority on such… I am shocked at the huge gap in every art museum I visited in Varna and Sofia: where did all those paintings from say 1944 to about 1980 go to… you have paintings pointing to those years and then you get the reaction to those years but... no paintings…
The Germans suffer from the same problem: where are their paintings from1933 to 1944… we all know why... but still the absence tells me something serious has been avoided and possibly it has something to do with the fact that the changes in Bulgaria did not come about from below… but… that is all beyond this conversation though I could point to the unpublished psychological reports of Dr. George Kamen who did write an unpublished report, “The Rulers, The Victims And The Silence” ( A Possible Outline Towards a Psychoanalytic Understanding of Post- Totalitarianism). I doubt there is little interest in such in the Bulgaria of today.
12-- Short newsy texts and social media are filling up most of our reading time and our attention span is close to zero? Is there a future for books and particularly for the more challenging, experimental tradition that requires deeper engagement with the text? Is the Republic of Letters dead?
I would need a large fee to answer such a question…that’s a question for six figured salaried academics to answer in their professional capacity as masturbators of the significant commentary while on the EU financed gravy train... but of course long ago the American academic world entered into a paralyzed sterility which is the condition of 99% of literature departments in the USA and I guess their Bulgarian counterparts are rushing to catch up… books have always been a small part of a nation’s imaginative world… and today real books are read but never within the academic world… real books are passed one to one between individuals… and it was such individuals who remembered Hermann Melville long after he had disappeared into the customs shed, it is individuals who know that James Thomson BV wrote the two greatest poems in 19th Century England, Insomnia and The City of Dreadful Night. It is individuals who pass along Gathering Evidence by Thomas Bernhard, it’s individuals who pass along Juan Carlos Onetti’s A Brief Life and I am telling you to read Parallel Lives by Peter Nadas and Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson and I do so on the basis of my book The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov. Take it or leave it.