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from the March 2017 issue: From the Edges of Europe: New Bulgarian Literature

Make Bulgaria Great Again

Let’s make Bulgaria great again!

We hope that got your attention. Why Bulgaria? Why great? Why again?

Just think about it: What do you know about Bulgaria? Do you know anything about its history, where it is located, do you know any of its great figures, heroes, myths? Do you know anything interesting about Bulgaria? Do you personally know anyone who comes from Bulgaria?

It’s very hard to get someone’s attention when they’ve never given a moment’s thought to you, when you don’t exist in their everyday life, when they don’t depend on you for anything. It’s very hard to get them to look over, to peer in, to understand you, to see things the way you do. This is the biggest problem of our time.

If we want to have a future at all, if we want a better world, we must understand one another better, we need to get to know one another. We must enrich one another with knowledge about ourselves and our traditions, with our viewpoints, with our empathy, our souls, our understandings, with every one of the things that divides us. We need to turn the problem into a solution. And the word is the best way to do this.

Bulgaria is a small country on the edge of southeastern Europe. Bulgaria has an ancient history, stretching back more than thirteen hundred years. Bulgaria also has its own literature, but it is much younger. The modern Bulgarian state is barely 140 years old. That’s just about how old our modern literature is. But let’s talk about the contemporary, about the present—a stage that was set twenty-five years ago, after the fall of Communism. It’s this reality we would like the American and international reader to understand; we’d like them to draw meaning from and enrich themselves with another literature and viewpoint, which—just like every other literature and viewpoint—has important contributions to make.

Perhaps you’ve read a Bulgarian author or two. Perhaps you’ve read Georgi Gospodinov and his novel The Physics of Sorrow, which was nominated last year for the two largest translation prizes in the United States. Perhaps you’ve read Miroslav Penkov, who writes in English and teaches at the University of North Texas, and whose story collection East of the West became a true wonder of the publishing world, translated into twelve languages. In it he writes about Bulgaria. Perhaps you have read a book by Zachary Karabashliev, by Angel Igov, by Albena Stambolova, by Georgi Tenev, by Milen Ruskov, or by Virginia Zaharieva, each of them published in the US by Open Letter Books through the Elizbeth Kostova Foundation’s program to support creative writing. Perhaps you’ve read one of the Bulgarian classics written by Ivan Vazov or Yordan Radichkov. Or perhaps you’ve never heard of them . . .

Here we will attempt very briefly to give you an overview of Bulgarian literature over the past five years and to make a list of who, at least in our opinion, are perhaps the most important and interesting Bulgarian authors for the English-speaking and international reader. Some of them can already be read, others are waiting to be discovered. We hope you share them with friends and family, with the world. For a book to live, to evolve, it needs to step beyond the borders of its own country and come alive in other languages, in other cultures, and in other minds. 

Let's begin with perhaps the most popular writer in Bulgaria over the past two decades, Georgi Gospodinov. His Natural Novel and The Physics of Sorrow have been translated into English and published in the US. Both can be found easily, as can his stories. At the moment he is the most famous Bulgarian writer in the world, translated into more than twenty languages. He was nominated for the biggest Italian prizes for literature in translation (the Strega and the von Rezzori) and for the two largest American prizes for literature in translation; he’s won the Jan Michalski Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes for world literature. Theodor Ushev’s film Blind Vaysha, based on Gospodinov’s story, has been nominated for an Oscar. Georgi Gospodinov is an author who writes books about the human experience and our humanity, about our past and about those who made us the people we are.

Alek Popov, with his novels Mission: London, Black Box, and The Palaveevi Sisters. The first two have been translated into English, so they can be read. With his short story collections and his essays, Alek Popov has become one of the most popular Bulgarian writers both in the country and abroad. His sense of irony, talent for satire (and sometimes absurdity), his deep exploration of the psyche and problems of our time, and most importantly, the clash between our Bulgarian mentality and the world, foreign cultures, and the absurd situations which arise from this clash. These themes make him one of the most important writers for understanding the Bulgarian mentality, our worst traits, those we are not proud of, but about which we can still laugh and ridicule ourselves. He will help you greatly in understanding where Bulgarian literature is at the moment.

Theodora Dimova. Another of the great writers of the past twenty years. Her novels Mothers, Emine, and The Train from Emmaus were notable events in contemporary Bulgarian literature. Theodora’s style is dense, the things she writes about are heavy. She tries to peer into the human soul, to open it up, to page through it, to force the reader to experience this process alongside her. To look deep into the eyes of evil but also of goodness. To look into the eyes of the past to see how it changes us, so as to build our present and future “self.” Theodora Dimova’s novels are sincere and disturbing. Jarring—like all good literature.

Zachary Karabashliev—an author who lived in San Diego for more than twenty years. An American citizen who appeals to his Bulgarian roots and—after a twenty-year break—his Bulgarian present. His novel 18% Gray, also published by Open Letter Books in the US, has become one of Bulgarians’ 100 Most Beloved Books, right alongside Bulgarian classics and the most famous names in world literature. He has two collections of short stories; you can read one story here now. Zachary Karabashliev is a writer who has succeeded in combining the viewpoint of a Bulgarian living outside Bulgaria while keeping alive what is Bulgarian within himself, with the immigrant who has embraced American culture, in a world where we are all immigrants, whether in our own countries or beyond their borders. A viewpoint of nostalgia, of the loss of certainty, of seeking possibilities, of making decisions, choices, the few things that keep us within the framework of ourselves, our loves, our break-ups, our pain, our loss of identity, our sense of timelessness, of helplessness, of rootlessness—one of the largest present, and indeed, future problems in the world. Much of the fanaticism, of the tragedies that are happening at the moment are due precisely to this sense of loss, the sense of growing distance, of the inability to survive. They give rise to this spiritual squalor—rich soil for all fanaticized power-hungry people and those who manipulate them today. Because of this, Zachary Karabashliev must be read, because we can find salvation and solutions in his work.  

Angel Igov, meanwhile, is one of the most dynamic young prose writers in Bulgaria today—as well as one of the most respected new-generation translators from English, with works by authors ranging from Coleridge and Wordsworth to Angela Carter, Martin Amis, and Ian McEwan under his belt. After publishing two collections of Paul Auster-esque stores, Angel surprised literary critics and readers with a debut novel written in a dreamlike, almost stream-of-conscious style. A Short Tale of Shame, which follows a trio of high school friends on a road trip through an imagined Balkans with a different history, won the Elizabeth Kostova Bulgarian Novel contest and was published in English by Open Letter Press. Last year, Angel surprised us again with his second novel, The Meek, which tells a story of working-class Sofia kids caught up in the Communist coup in Bulgaria in 1944 and the subsequent show trials of opponents of the regime—complete with a love triangle and the neighborhood locals in the role of a Greek chorus. Sound intriguing? Check out the opening excerpt in this issue.

Like many of the authors featured here, Kristin Dimitrova is better known among Bulgarian readers and critics as a poet; and rightfully so, as her six excellent chapbooks stand out with their gentle sense of humor and strong sense of irony. However, her two collections of short stories have perhaps been unfairly overshadowed by her fame as a poet. The title of her first short story collection, Love and Death Under the Crooked Pear Trees, plays on a common Bulgarian idiom, “under the crooked pear tree,” which could loosely be translated as bumblefuck, the middle of nowhere, and hints at her aim—to explore love, death, and other existential questions in the Bulgarian context, in ordinary Bulgarians’ lives, in Bulgaria itself, which Bulgarians themselves often unfortunately see as bumblefuck compared to the “real world” somewhere out there beyond the borders. In this sense, the story included here is perhaps not representative of her short stories as a whole; with its mytho-fantastical plotline it comes closer to Kristin’s one and only novel, Sabazios, which places the Thracian horseman and sky god in contemporary, mafia-ridden Bulgarian society. But by putting a bookstore at the center of the cosmic order, it hints at another topic Kristin examines in her second collection of short stories, The Way of the Ink—the power of writing and books, and their capacity to change the world.    

Yordanka Beleva is one of the most interesting new voices in Bulgarian prose—despite the fact that she began her literary career in the late 1990s as a poet, sweeping all the major national literary contests and publishing two chapbooks of poetry. Her recent collection of short stories, The Sea Level of Love, confirms that she can successfully jump genres, transferring the best of her poetic talents to storytelling—her stories are fragmented, spare and spacious, leaving much more unsaid than said. As the poet and literary critic Silvia Choleva puts it: “Each one of her stories contains a novel in itself.” Many of her stories focus on female characters, written powerfully with only a few strokes—women from Bulgaria’s socialist past, grandmothers and granddaughters, as well as modern women grappling with love, sex and identity, as in the story featured here. This is a Bulgarian writer we hope to hear much more from in years to come.

And finally, we'd like to end with poetry. Precisely because Bulgarian poetry is exceptional.

We have incredible poets that span a tradition that began under Communism with Konstantin Pavlov, Georgi Rupchev, Boris Hristov, Ivan Metodiev, Ivan Tsanev, and which continues to the present day.

Poet Boryana Neykova is the youngest Bulgarian writer featured in this issue—she burst onto the literary scene in 2014, winning one of the most prestigious competitions for young poets, Veselin Hanchev, with her poem “Dog.” This was followed by an equally strong debut chapbook, “Where There Was Briefly a Dog.” Her poetry is straightforward, sincere, with attention to detail. Some have compared her to Georgi Gospodinov, which is no surprise, since she “cut her poetic teeth” in his creative writing course at Sofia University, where she began writing poetry. 

Let’s make Bulgaria great again! That’s what we hear from the screen and from Bulgarian television, from Bulgarian politicians. But there’s one thing they don’t understand—Bulgaria, and America, are not great only in their eyes. They don’t see the deep meaning in true human values, out of which a nation, a culture, a literature are woven. For them, success is to be found in money, in business, in achievements, and subordination. But we would like to remind us all here of the words of Winston Churchill when they presented him with a plan for severe austerity and cutbacks during the time of constant bombings and the virtual blockade of Great Britain by Nazi forces. He accepted all cuts in the budget, except one: the cut to culture. When asked why, why that was that the one thing he insisted upon saving, aren’t there more important things, isn’t it more important for England to be defended, after all? To that, he said: “If not for culture, then what are we fighting for?” If we open our hearts and minds to the Other, to difference, and look through its eyes via books and literature, then the world will surely be a much better place.

Pleasant reading!

March 2017
From the Edges of Europe: New Bulgarian Literature
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