Out of Exile
Notes on Bulgarian literature.
January 1, 2008
Jan 1, 2008
22 Min read time
Notes on Bulgarian literature.
Works of Georgi Gospodinov discussed in this essay:
Natural Novel, translated by Zornitsa Hristova, 2005
And Other Stories, translated by Magdalena Levy and Alexis Levitin, 2007
“Why are you going?” I asked although I shouldn’t have cared.
“Several of us are going--publishers and agents. Just to check out the literary scene. Find some young Bulgarian writer. Imagine, at the moment there isn’t a single Bulgarian on the market. Do you know any? The most important thing is that he should be young and good-looking!”
“Why? What are you, literary agents or pedophiles?” I burst out.
“Ha ha!” she laughed heartily.
Dubravka Ugresic, Thank You for Not Reading
In his rhapsodic 1840 lecture on Dante and Shakespeare, "The Hero as Poet," Thomas Carlyle wrote: "Yes, truly, it is a great thing for a Nation that it get an articulate voice; that it produce a man who will speak forth melodiously what the heart of it means!” The poet alone (“King Shakespeare”) rather than brute military or political authority, he insisted, had the metaphoric power to hold together the British Empire. Russia, whose czar ruled over great tracts of land, offered nothing but “dumb greatness.”
Carlyle proved wrong about Russia, but he was right about literature. Growing up in Bulgaria in the 1990s, soon after the Soviet government had loosened its hold and the West had offered its hand, I cheerfully fell under the influence of Russian and English writers. The only time Bulgarian literature held me in its grip was when it put me to sleep. I simply could not hear an “articulate voice,” much as I strained to; nobody managed to express “what the heart of it means.” While high school teachers tried to seduce me, day after day, with the beauties of our native tradition, I furtively held a volume of Keats under my desk. In a small Balkan country, where lack of interest in propagating one’s cultural heritage could be interpreted as a desecration of the national Priapus, that was a mortal sin.
Not that I didn’t feel guilty. Bulgarian novels teem with evil apostates, villains who betray their country by offering allegiance—in deed, dress, or discourse—to the hateful Turks and Greeks, and even to the French. Dobri Voynikov’s 1871 play The Phoney Civilization concludes with the murder of one such perpetrator, Margaridi, at which point the stage breaks out in song: “Foreignness is strange to us, / It is cut for someone else” (my translation). But why couldn’t foreignness be cut for me, a Bulgarian? Like George Orwell’s Dr. Veraswami and E. M. Forster’s Dr. Aziz, Indian physicians who vacillate between lustful appreciation of British customs and bashful fondness of their native ones, I understood the malady but could not heal myself: my blood did not belong to my heart.
What I desperately wanted to find was a writer who had more than one starting place and no place to return to.
Once at a safe remove, as a college student in the United States, I revisited the Bulgarian canonical works I had so readily disparaged, and some of them seemed even worse than I had remembered. Even strong pangs of nostalgia could not help me see my starting place for the first time, as T.S. Eliot might have put it. What I desperately wanted to find, and could not, was a writer who had more than one starting place and no place to return to.
* * *
The history of Bulgarian literature has not differed much from that of other postcolonial nations. After nearly five hundred years of oppressive and insular Ottoman rule that lasted until 1878, the country needed a new cultural framework for a stable, homogenous national identity. Most of the writing from that period—a self-described “renaissance” of great enthusiasm if not skill—was driven, unsurprisingly, by political agendas and practical concerns rather than by aesthetic ones. With little more than the melancholy poetry of folk songs and a few scattered monastic manuscripts, however, the only way Bulgarians could bridge the chasm between medieval culture and modernity was by emulating Western writers. Even Ivan Vazov, the so-called patriarch of Bulgarian literature, modelled his work after that of Victor Hugo. His Under the Yoke (1894), an engaging novel about the heroic (and ultimately tragic) April 1876 uprising against the Ottomans, is frequently inspired by the French novelist. What later critics, in their patriotic fervor, attempted to present as the inauguration of an authentic tradition was, in many of its parts, a carefully concealed stylistic and thematic appropriation and reinterpretation of foreign sources, a process that every tradition—including the English and Russian—has had to undergo, is constantly undergoing.
This struggle to overcome cultural isolation and provincialism, to catch up with “Europe,” shaped the course of Bulgarian literature for most of its modern history. But it’s been a half-hearted effort, since the very idea of catching up implies at least provisional recognition that the national canon is inadequate—something very few Bulgarian authors were ever courageous enough to acknowledge. Hybridity—the space where self and other meet—is a basic fact of writing; unconscious suppression of that fact causes the greatest damage. And yet for reasons both geopolitical and psychological, Bulgarian writers and critics kept artificial literary borders within national ones. A self-imposed embargo throughout the post-Ottoman “renaissance” years ruined the literary trade of many, though the occasional homegrown talent (the revolutionary-turned-memoirist Zahari Stoyanov; the satirist Aleko Konstantinov) resisted easy classification. In the first half of the 20th century the prevalent parochialism shifted slightly when poets such as Pencho Slaveykov, Geo Milev, and Atanas Dalchev began to fashion a distinctive, highly experimental modernist poetics. The legacy of their short foray into cosmopolitanism, however, came to an untimely end in 1944 with the arrival of yet another colonizer, this time carrying a hammer and sickle in lieu of the old crescent and star.
The story from that point on is all too familiar. It involved strict government control of literary production, publication, and distribution; comprehensive censorship; and the imposition of socialist realism as the officially sanctioned genre. Instead of heeding Marx’s call for international solidarity, the new Communist government espoused an aggressive xenophobia for all spheres of life, literature included. Some of the most critically acclaimed historical novels of the period, including Dimitar Talev’s Zhelezniat Svetilnik [The Iron Oil Lamp] (1952) and Anton Donchev’s Vreme Razdelno [Time of Parting] (1964) exhibit such narrow-minded fear of otherness, such stereotypical models of identity, that their characters are little more than stick figures. Donchev’s novel, which explores the brutal Islamic conversions of Bulgarian Christians living in the Ottoman Empire, has a certain narrative sweep but remains locked within the limits of a chauvinistic agenda. Although widely translated at the time and boasting something of a reputation, it is a far cry from the complexity of historical fiction by such near-contemporary Balkan authors as Ivo Andric and Ismail Kadare or, more recently, by Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk.
The most troublesome aspect of Bulgarian literature between 1944 and 1989 had less to do with its ideological commitment, which was the dominant mode throughout Eastern Europe, than with the shortage of what was once called intellectual dissidence. Just as Bulgaria never had an equivalent of the Hungarian Revolution or the Prague Spring, so it produced no Kundera or Milosz or Brodsky or Kis. Sofia remained Moscow’s staunchest and most subservient ally, a form of political deference that seeped into the culture. If there was opposition, it was largely irrelevant. Even Georgi Markov, the prolific playwright, novelist, and journalist who severed his ties with the Communist Party and went on to become one of its most strident critics, is remembered for extra-literary reasons: in 1978, while in exile in London, he was assassinated by the KGB, James Bond–style, with the poisonous tip of an umbrella. And while two of the world’s preeminent literary theorists, Julia Kristeva and Tzvetan Todorov, were born and raised in Bulgaria, they made their names as French citizens writing in French.
Dissidence and exile aside, the finest Bulgarian author of the period was Yordan Radichkov. Beginning his career in the late ’50s with several collections of short stories in the socialist realist vein, Radichkov’s prose quickly moved in the opposite direction toward carnivalesque myth and fantasy. By the late 1960s he had developed a distinctive style that self-consciously blended fables, folklore, homely wisdom, and a kind of jolly existentialism that participated by default in political subversion. He was Borges without the books, an outdoor Borges for whom nature presented its own maddening labyrinth of fictions. Upon his death in 2004, Radichkov was commonly recognized as the foremost artist of his generation. And yet despite formidable talents, his method of composition was a little rough around the edges, a bit too didactic, his bountiful imagination unconcerned with the finer points of literary technique. Like so many others before him, he remained a half-willing prisoner of his own house.
Indeed, Bulgaria probably ranks as the last terra incognita of “East European” literature. Even Radichkov’s work has no English translations, aside from a few “official” short stories and the play January. This is not simply the curse of the small, third-world nation entering the overstuffed American literary market. In his essay collection The Hidden Handshake: National Identity and Europe in the Post-Communist World the Slovenian poet and critic Ales Debeljak describes going to St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York City in the mid-1990s, only to find everyone else’s books on the shelves and “literally nothing” by his compatriots. Ever since, Debeljak has made it his mission to mend the gap, if only for a limited audience of academics and aficionados. The current poet laureate of the United States, Charles Simic, did something similar for Serbia, popularizing the likes of Vasko Popa and Novica Tadic. Bulgarian writers, on the other hand, remain virtually unknown—not only in the Anglophone world but in most of Europe as well, and even among the faculty of many Slavic-language departments.
By the time Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, the floodgates of commerce had been open for almost two decades. Capital—economic and cultural—rushed in from all sides. Amid McDonald’s and Nike outlets, bookshops everywhere were cashing in on the popularity of Danielle Steel and Paulo Coelho. No longer functioning within the centralized domain of state-owned publishing houses and distribution networks, no longer the useful political tool of the past, local literature lost its elevated status along with a sizable portion of its readership. While the market economy had not yet filled the ideological vacuum and turned literature into a mere commodity, Bulgarian writers briefly attained a degree of autonomy. That newfound independence resulted in the rapid diversification of voices and signatures, a move from obedient utilitarian art into the realms of subjective interiority and competing aesthetics. Much of the writing produced in the 1990s was minimalist and deeply intimate, preoccupied with versions of the self—or its absence—and distrustful of grand social gestures and allegories, a blunt reaction against the old dogmas. Poetry became the preferred genre in most cases; it privileged the lyric mode of personal confession or, conversely, plunged headlong into ironic performativity and intertextual games. The desire to “catch up” with “Europe” had been rekindled once again.
Desire, however, is never enough. Reading through key Bulgarian texts of the past eighteen years is akin to taking a lukewarm bath: it may be refreshing for a while, but one soon hurries to get out. A good deal of the writing is marked by the wish to disrupt the stilted rhythms of the previous epoch, to melt down its mediocre monumentality and challenge the monological positions of both art and the artist. Much effort has also been devoted to re-examining the native literary canon, adjusting or debunking its sanctified place. Likewise, the emergence of small publishers has ensured a discursive multiplicity once thought unimaginable. The poetry of Ani Ilkov, Georgi Rupchev, Silvia Choleva, Kristin Dimitrova, Yordan Eftimov, Toma Markov, and Nadezhda Radulova demands considerable attention. A number of prose writers, too, have managed to achieve more than partial success: Emil Andreev’s Lomski Razkazi [Lom Stories] (1996), building on the legacy of Radichkov; the synesthetic handling of feminist and religious ideas in Emilia Dvorianova’s novels; the satirical genre writing of Alek Popov, especially prominent in his Misiia London [Mission London] (2001); Hristo Kalchev’s documentary potboilers about the post-Communist mafia, and Palmi Ranchev’s superior riffs on the same topic; the gonzo journalism of Martin Karbovski; Teodora Dimova’s gritty psychological explorations in drama and prose; the exquisite short stories by the young but precocious Elena Aleksieva and Angel Igov. Those writers should not be underestimated, and some of them have yet to produce their best. Nevertheless, despite a few radiant sparks the difficulty of sustaining both writerly intensity and readerly interest has proved too large an obstacle all too often. The predicament of the past—the failure to engage imaginatively, rather than imitatively, with traditions and concerns that lie beyond regional borders or the borders of the self—has never found resolution.
* * *
The outstanding work of Georgi Gospodinov and the recent American publication of two of his books partially belies these bleak assertions and shows that Bulgarian literature is finally coming out of self-imposed exile. Gospodinov is young, good-looking and, best of all, talented. Born in the momentous year of 1968, he is perhaps the best known literary practitioner of the new generation, an author of poetry, fiction, drama, and criticism, and a columnist for the progressive daily newspaper Dnevnik. He is also a professor at the New Bulgarian University and an editor at Literaturen Vestnik [Literary Newspaper], one of the few cultural weeklies to survive the onslaught of the liberalized market. Gospodinov had already made something of a name for himself with two highly acclaimed poetry collections in the early ’90s, but it was only with the appearance of his Estestven Roman[Natural Novel], in 1999, that he clinched the attention of both the public and the media. The book won a number of awards and was subsequently translated into ten languages, including an edition in English published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2005.
Natural Novel is neither natural nor a novel in the strict sense of the word. It defines itself as “a novel created from countless tiny particles, arch-substances, i.e. beginnings that fall into an unlimited number of combinations.” Another description is “the thread” of a story spun by “the trajectory of a fly.” An assortment of vignettes, a mishmash of stories, a textile of texts, it incorporates table talk, tabloid drama, urban legends, literary theory, a natural history of the toilet and scatological humor, botanical manuals, descriptions of childhood pleasures, a meditation on tobacco smoking, etymological inquiries, a long entomological discussion on the ordinary fly (Musca domestica), and even the biblical Book of Genesis rewritten from the point of view of a fly. As if the list of stories were not long enough, there is the narrator’s own travail: the divorce following his wife’s admission that he is not “the author of her pregnancy” and the bizarre “impossibility of relating this failure.” Conjuring images of the Holy Ghost and the immaculate conception is hardly inappropriate, since the novel is narrated by a trinity of its own: a mad gardener keeping a diary, a bum who has penned a manuscript about his divorce, and a recently divorced newspaper editor, whose name is like that of the bum: Georgi Gospodinov.
Of course Gospodinov may be just the next person doodling on the dog-eared palimpsest of postmodern fiction. As fresh and inventive as his novel may be within the context of Bulgarian literature, it ages prematurely on American soil. (The New World has become the Old, and vice versa.) For even if “authenticity” and “originality” can no longer appear without quotation marks, the injunction to “make it new” has not entirely lost its currency in aesthetic debates. And that leads to the question, Is Natural Novel a belated East European imitation of the pomo genre, or does it offer a productive misreading of it (to use Harold Bloom’s phrase)? There is no either/or answer, of course; the novel does both at the same time. It borrows some of its techniques—Paul Auster’s middle-brow metafictions rather than the more gratuitous approaches of John Barth or Italo Calvino—to convey a unique personal experience (is there any other?). The wife might have been impregnated by a shadowy father, but the author and character Gospodinov (or Joseph) refuses to accept the baby as his own.
Indeed, the most striking feature of the book, its multifaceted fly-vision, is not just an easy way to reiterate the things-fall-apart-the-center-cannot-hold thing, or as the mad gardener puts it, “Things have started slipping out of their names like peas from a dry pod.” The preoccupation with language slippage and ontology—the philosophical anxieties of authorship and the role of the speaking subject—are all prominent themes that must not be overlooked. But for Gospodinov, multiplicity also becomes a metaphor for paradisiacal wholeness, for the beginning (one chapter weaves together the beginnings of famous novels to remarkable effect), for the moment before Foucault’s great epistemological shift and Eliot’s dissociation of sensibility, when the various fields of experience were still jumbled together. It turns out that the compound eye of the fly is the eye of the child.
Childhood, even more than the disillusionments of divorce, is the theme of Natural Novel. Remembering his youthful search for God in ordinary light bulbs or his having sampled the purported medicinal effects of urine, the narrator yearns for that point in time (both ontogenic and phylogenic) when fact and fiction were not mutually exclusive and one could still play the role of “naturalist-naivist.” It is not surprising that the work of the 18th-century Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, audaciously mixing science and literature, crops up on numerous occasions. Muted nostalgia for that lost innocence of natural things, rather than all-out postmodern irony and scepticism, is this novel’s predominant mode, an attitude comparable in some respects to that of the contemporary Croatian-born writer Dubravka Ugresic.
Reflecting the author’s own life, Natural Novel bestrides two historical realities – the period of oppressive Communist rule and the years of democracy and economic recession that followed. The latter was a time of great promise, of unlimited access to the varieties of knowledge celebrated in the book; it was also a time when “the mediocrity of everyday life” took over, and “more and more well-dressed people overcame their shame and reached into the garbage cans.” Never an apologist for the old regime, always critical of its demagoguery and fabricated naturalness, Gospodinov nonetheless refuses to employ the cliché dichotomy, routine in self-aggrandizing dissident literature, of the evil empire versus the land of freedom. If the past is the site of tyranny, it is also home to the narrator’s earliest memories. To return to it is to revisit the mythical array of one’s primary experiences in the world, so colorfully opposed to the singularity of totalitarian discourse in which they occurred. Childhood, to stretch the metaphor further, creates a private oppositional space beyond the reach of politics or nationality. In this rendering, the child can be the only true dissident. Like Nabokov, Gospodinov can be called a pedophile in the etymological sense: a lover of children and childhood.
When I’m back in my childhood I mostly find myself in a cherry tree. I’m not doing anything special, nothing but sitting on a branch, eating cherries and spitting out the pits. Buddha sat under a tree for seven years. What kind of tree was it? Never mind. I’m sitting in the cherry tree for seven years (the first seven years) watching white turn green and greet turn red. Seven times. Seven slow years of white, green and red [the Bulgarian tricolour]. The cherry, the cherry will be the tree of the Bulgarian Buddha. Yet Bulgaria is not the point here. Children have no fatherland. Their fatherhood is childhood.
The bole of a cherry tree was hollowed out to create a makeshift cannon muzzle during the bloody April 1876 Koprivshtitza uprising against the Ottomans—hence its association with insubordination (albeit failed) in Bulgarian culture. The image of a child perched in the national cherry tree is thus one of the novel’s most memorable. It well represents Gospodinov’s own unruly project: wishing not to be confined to geographical and temporal borders or a single view of history, he merrily hops from one branch to the next. Freely borrowing from other literary traditions, skillfully shaping them to his own taste, Gospodinov is probably the most un-Bulgarian of Bulgarian writers. To read him one does not have to be Bulgarian, or to know the name of the Bulgarian president, or to have read this essay. His Estestven Roman has all the necessary visas to travel comfortably between counties and translations without losing the identity of its vision. And it is pleasurable to read. Sentimental and hilarious by turns, the novel resists simple interpretation or classification. To quote from the book: “I wish somebody had said: This novel is good, because everything is uncertain in it.” Well, here it is: this novel is good, because everything is uncertain in it.
After a short rest on the windowpane, Gospodinov’s fly resumed flight in his 2001 short story collection I Drugi Istorii, recently published in the United States under the title And Other Stories as part of Northwestern University Press’s Writings from an Unbound Europe series. At less than a hundred pages, this volume stands in stark contrast to sprawling style of so much contemporary postmodern fiction. The lapidary prose combined with the silence of white spaces gives And Other Stories the faint air of poetry, of Japanese haikus. Averse to pyrotechnics, the book can be likened to a match lighting the mind’s cigarette, followed by a deep puff and the fizz of burning tobacco. There is relaxation here, a savouring that lingers. Words are not watered-down substances; each has a particular taste. In “The Taste of Names,” for example, a copywriter for the confectionary company Rosa Bella (“pronounced with prolonged vowels, with a slightly southeastern accent”) makes up delicious slogans only to realize the inadequacy of the corresponding realities. The problem is not that language cannot capture experience, but rather that experience is too bland to live up to the lusciousness of language. In some respects Gospodinov is a medieval writer who believes in the perfect forms of names from which everything else simply derives. Yet he knows better. In “The Man of Many Names” the protagonist is a homeless man by the name of Gaustine; it is “rumoured that he had gone mad from too much reading in his youth.” Gaustine, or “Downtown Gosho,” takes on the identities of various historical and fairy tale characters, from Socrates to Santa Claus, and plays the fool to amuse the pedestrians. He is the man of many names, who “would explain good-naturedly how a certain Cratylus had argued that names are right by their nature, but this Cratylus didn’t know that nature is never one and the same, and therefore with an accord of those many natures, one thing can acquire many names.” One day he goes to the local garage-cum-bar, where the customers have organized “a symposium,” and is asked to tell a story of his own. Realizing he doesn’t have a single personal experience to share, Gaustine bursts into tears. Some time later, he is found murdered, drowned in the Tundja River. “Or maybe,” the narrator informs us, “he had just tried to make a move ahead of time and is now fishing with Heraclites at some other Tundja in heaven.”
Storytelling is the alpha and omega in And Other Stories. Harkening back to Boccaccio’s Decameron, every character is eager to tell his or her story: even the pig voice in “The Christmas Soul of a Pig”—Gospodinov’s tribute to Radichkov—feels compelled to relate the event of its slaughter: “God, I really do have impressive entrails. What a brisket, what a spleen, and those thin looped intestines...I never knew I was such a beauty inside.” In another piece (“Peonies and Forget-Me-Nots”) two strangers fall in love and try to counter the impossibility of staying together by recollecting the details of the fifty-year marriage they will never have. A homeless man (Gospodinov is obsessed with homeless people) in “The Late Gift” finds himself in front of an electronics shop on New Year’s Eve and, seeing his image in one of the TV screens, believes he is participating in a live broadcast. In his desire to entertain the imaginary audience, he begins to tell stand-up jokes and talks at length about his ex-wife and childhood memories. Intensely poignant and funny, the story illustrates Gospodinov’s conviction in storytelling ritual, the way personal anecdotes struggle to become antidotes to generalized versions of history, even if they will never be heard beyond the book. (It is not accidental that the Bulgarian word istoria means both “history” and “story.”) Whether stolen from someone else or lived through, the contingency of individual narratives provides a corrective to Bulgarian and Balkan nationalist agendas, defying their essentialist claims. Like the superb short fiction by the contemporary Serbian writer David Albahari, And Other Stories foregrounds the fetishism of everyday language and thus implicitly gestures in the direction of politics. “No story can be harmless anymore,” one of the stories declares at its end.
Some of the stories here are not harmful enough. “One Last Tale of the Nineties” and “First Steps” are hastily executed sketches, reading like hack work for the much stronger Natural Novel. (Magdalena Levy’s and Alexis Levitin’s translation of And Other Stories, on the other hand, sounds much better than the sometimes awkward ESL phrasing in Zornitsa Hristova’s translation of Natural Novel.) Gospodinov’s philosophy of composition involves moving parts of his texts from one book to the next, his poetry and prose “cross-pollinating,” but such writing strategies often feel like regurgitation of old material. That said, the collections creative grain far outweighs its bits of bran. Together with Natural Novel, And Other Stories bears the mark of a writer’s native imagination and cosmopolitan panache. To read them in translation is to realize that they have successfully contributed to at least two cultures—an achievement that inspires, I admit, a measure of patriotic pride. Georgi Gospodinov has refused to forsake Bulgaria like so many of his compatriots have, or to embrace it blindly like so many others. Neither the hero nor the prophet envisioned by Carlyle, he is simply a good writer. And that is much better. In the words of Fredric Jameson, burgling Brecht: “Woe to the country that needs geniuses, prophets, Great Writers, or demiurges.”
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January 01, 2008
22 Min read time