For a book full of so much mystery, the creative mission of Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale is remarkable for its author's openness about choices regarding how to tell stories, how an author reveals information, and the dissecting and peeling away of the layers of artifice inherent in the reading and writing of fiction.
Broken into two parts, Part I begins with Mia, an average twelve-year-old in an average neighborhood attending an average school in South Korea in the 1990s. She is concerned with moving up to middle school, getting a new pullover, and trying out a new haircut that her mother surely wouldn’t like. It is also noted that Mia’s name means both “beautiful child” and “lost child,” dual markers that make the reader want to pay attention to her even though she carries on like as one might expect of a schoolgirl. However, Part I soon alternates from Mia’s story to that of the Child—described as more monstrous than human—a peer who is not even given a name. The Child is mostly ignored by her fellow students and completely ignored by the few adults that populate the novel. Every day, the Child comes to class with a new wound, be it covered bruises or a fingernail yanked clean off, leaving behind a wounded, bloody nub. Even with her stark abuses and injuries, The Child is meant to be erased, both by her thoughts and the author’s.
She wishes she could be erased. But every time she tries to erase herself, she only grows darker. Every day, she grows darker. Enough for her body to gobble up her shadow. At school, she exists like a shadow. Or she has become a shadow and is absent.
The Child is able to lurk and ooze, yet she is not the only alarming aspect of this fifth-grade classroom. The adults, both parents and teachers, are always on the periphery, if not completely absent. The homeroom teacher is entirely oblivious to a horrid game the boys play in the back of the classroom called the fainting game, which entails choking each other until losing consciousness. The children also buy baby chicks from a street vendor with the intent of dropping them to their deaths from the roof of a building. Horror and violence permeate their lives and the narrative. Even happy Mia who likes her colored pencils and chatting with her desk mate, often perks up to explain that a fountain pen would be an ideal murder weapon, or so she once read in a detective novel.
The Child has a story too, but as she is constantly erasing herself, her actions throughout each chapter become more vividly heightened. With an unknown identity, the reasons for her behavior are frightening and enigmatic. After school hours, she sneaks back into the classroom and writes extra lines in the other students’ journals: “I hate you;” “Park Yeongwu killed the chick;” “I want to kill, too.” To the Child, she is revealing the children’s secrets, because otherwise the explicit thoughts written down for the privy of their homeroom teacher are generally mundane. When the teacher reads these addenda, he is horrified and threatens to get the police involved if no one steps forward to claim responsibility. In a world where the adults do not notice children strangling each other on a daily basis, it becomes even more horrifying that a generally benign transgression is what the teacher focuses on and takes seriously.
The bluntness of the violence is shocking, but somehow a natural part of the world that the author has built. It propels the narrative forward without ever quite normalizing it. The book creeps into the realm of horror reminding the reader that fairy tales were not originally stories of fluffy princesses and riches, but tales of nefarious sharp-toothed monsters, and atrocious and brutal outcomes. Part I ends with a provocative, but somehow anticipated ending.
In Part II, Han plays with a more experimental narrative, and while it does not have the same grounded feeling as Part I, the examination of storytelling is at the forefront. Here the narrative voice moves to first person, a mostly unknown narrator probing the events leading up to the shocking end of Part I. It's this narrator who questions what it is to write, how a story is told, and how an author manipulates the reader through the artifice of fiction.
Don’t be deceived by these words. I can package a certain story as a dream and tell it that way. I can disguise my childhood, and as I disguise it I can make allusions, and as I reveal details about allusions, I can make them appear fictitious, and in this way, I can deceive you all.
Explicitly name-checked with admiration by the narrator of Part II is Maurice Blanchot’s Death Sentence, a short work about the inability to write a story until time has passed. Death Sentence acts as a sort of key for reading the more opaque second-half of the novel. Bits of Part I are re-written and magnified with the idea of reading and writing as a shared experience. It’s as if the author is asking the reader, what do you expect from a story?
Janet Hong's translation retains Han's idiosyncratic play, her sense of mystery in language and thought. This play is so important to the project of the novel, wherein Han rewrites and reiterates details, words, and phrases, and scenarios. She is at her best in the concrete details of the novel, like the repeated images of the Child’s nubby, painful fingers, and Mia’s beloved expensive colored pencils. Less successful are those passages where the author is emphasizing a connection between an abstractraction—for example, a character’s dream—and the folded pathways of written language. During these less successful moments of recursive language, Han's constructs can hinder the momentum of her story-telling, occasionally even slipping into sloppy lyricism: “Brick you don’t look at brick me. Brick words don’t remember brick words. Brick dawn, brick morning, brick evening, brick night.” In these moments it can be difficult to unpack the author's intent. But that’s fine. The Impossible Fairy Tale is gripping in its horror, making commonplace environments completely unsettling, and the examination of story-telling itself, a curious endeavor.
There is a long history of neglect of the work of women poets in Montenegro. The Montenegrin literary canon reflects patriarchal thought and culture, dominated by elites and not receptive to dissenting voices. The many all-male anthologies and collections of poetry confirm the lack of mapping, the undervaluation and neglect of women poets in Montenegro.
Some scholars and critics have challenged the reluctance of both the patriarchal society and literary structure to recognize women’s writing, and have initiated the reconsideration of this work in the literary context. In the last three decades women authors have moved beyond and expanded the traditional registers, bringing into Montenegrin literature a sensibility that it was lacking, a lyrical reflection on the individual and the intimate, exploring not only “great themes” but the unpretentious everyday. This postmodern treatment of different literary aspects has established a new literary paradigm, as demonstrated in the three poets presented here.
The poetic expression of Tanja Bakić is cultivated and spontaneous, and also dramatic, as the author intensively observes and analyzes emotion. Her poetry makes a deep plunge into the human soul and the spiritual aspects of existence, reminding us that the existential predisposition to freedom in good artists knows no compromise. Dragana Tripković's poetry is a magnificent blend of Mediterranean melancholy and urban perspective. Her poetry reveals the immaterial and ephemeral nature of language, a shifting record of the past. And the poetry of Jovana Uljarević is an act of self-interpretation, as her subtle and deeply considered language produces lucid, discerning work.
The effort to ensure that Montenegrin female poetic voices are better heard continues. We hope the selection here presents a small sample of the richness and variety to be found.
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.
In this text, read on the opening day of the Leipzig Book Fair on March 18, 2010, Bulgaria's best-known contemporary writer extols literature’s ability to bolster us in the midst of economic and moral crisis.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I plead my innocence from the very start. I have been invited here to talk as a writer about a crisis I have not caused. Not I, nor the whole of the writerly guild, nor the people at this fair, readers and publishers. In the classic case, writers and money are two institutions doomed to rather frosty relations. We greet each other, but we do not talk, to paraphrase Voltaire, when asked about his relations with another, much more powerful authority. Right away I must admit my inexperience with the important sphere that is finance. I have never gotten a loan from a bank, first, because I loathe such institutions, and second, because as you know, no bank would give a loan to a person with such a free and rather frivolous profession such as a writer. And so this is how a person remains innocent and virginal for less than the best of reasons.
Let us imagine that at this moment, some economic forum is running parallel to the Leipzig Book Fair. And that there the topic is: “Literature! What literature?” Six European financial experts have been invited to give lectures. The auditorium is packed with leading economists who are waiting to hear how literature influences the mutual funds market, nonperforming loans, how it influences the whole financial system, consumers’ needs and desires and so on. I know it is difficult to imagine, even ridiculous. Because we suspect, not without reason, that the big financial high rollers don’t read much poetry and prose. We haven’t seen bankers, financiers, private entrepreneurs, or brokers spending hours bent over a novel or a collection of poetry, getting into heated arguments over Chekhov, Joyce, or Thomas Mann. We haven’t seen it in any of the films we’ve watched. Yet I’ve always had the feeling that if financiers read books, we would have different crises.
We must admit here that we, people on the side of literature, writers, publishers, and enthusiastic readers, have to a certain extent accepted our own defeat. With a certain resignation, we have accepted our place in the corner. Politics and economics are what make the world go round. Art, and literature in particular, are those extra perks we can do without. In any case, a book has never been a more important, more desired, and more heavily advertised object than a cell phone or a play station. We have also gotten used to the fact that things important to mankind and the world are said in the evening on the news by serious people with serious professions, and in the economic and political sections of the newspaper. The last couple times I’ve seen famous newspapers featuring a famous author on the front page, it was to announce his or her death. Thanks to an ironic twist of fate, “the death of the author” is still an event, sometimes the only literary event.
Clearly, this utopian idea of an economic forum where they would debate literature for now remains only a figment of my imagination. (But I continue to stand by it.) Most likely such a forum would end very quickly and with the general consensus that literature is actually economically disadvantageous, not only for the writer, but also for the publisher and the reader as well, that is, all the way down the chain, for all of us who are here today. In literature there are no big investments, no hyper-demand or hyper-consumption, the banks are not so closely tied to this business. Literature has slow liquidity, it pays returns on even the smallest investments in it with difficulty. It isn’t connected to the energy market. And have you ever seen books traded on the stock market? After everything said here, their conference may as well shut down and literature may as well admit its irrelevance, especially in a time of crisis.
Unfortunately, we cannot respond to the crisis by shutting down the economy. But we can—and to some extent are obligated—to think about the crisis, to articulate it, to describe it from our ivory tower, to try to understand it, to stroke it, to tame it, to growl at it if need be . . . To make the crisis speak.
What are our grounds and prerogatives for talking about a financial crisis? Won’t they accuse us of trespassing into foreign territory?
The first thing I’ll say is that sooner or later everything, every territory, becomes the subject of literature. Second, to put it very succinctly, literature predates money. Our grounds for talking are in large part historical. The exchange of words came before the exchange of money. This is obvious, but we are often blind precisely to what is obvious. The point isn’t even that literature works with a tool like language, which is far more ancient than money. The important thing is that the very origin of money as a sign follows the deep logic of language. Long before the virtual nature of money, the virtuality of language existed. Just as a word contains the object within itself, without the latter being actually present, in the same way a banknote contains the potential objects it will be exchanged for. Imagine what would happen if we had to speak through the actual objects themselves? If I wanted to say “elephant,” I’d have to drag one here. So what if I want to say “fire” or “crisis”?
In short, the imaginary, which is at the foundation of economics and communication today, historically arises from the usages of language and literature. From the conventions which man grew accustomed to in long-distant eras. Literature and economics just might turn out to be more closely connected than we suspected. One of the questions that seems to be hovering in the space of today’s financial crisis is whether the virtual has not already reached its critical mass. It is possible that the signifiers have overtaken the signifieds, that we are exchanging signs with no “backing”? Let’s leave that to semiotics. Today’s financial crisis is to a large extent a crisis of virtuality. Virtuality, which has reached its furthest possible boundary, unsecured by sufficient reality. Just like loans unsecured by sufficient guarantees.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I come from a country that knows all too well the taste of crises. It has experienced them; what’s more, it has hardly been out of crisis in recent decades. These crises erupted after the fall of Communism in 1989, but they were conceived and cultivated precisely in the decades of the previous system. I was twenty-one in 1989 and I clearly remember both states of crisis—that from the time of socialism, poorly hidden under the tattered cloak of ideology, and that of the Transition after the fall of the Wall, when no one bothered trying to hide anything anymore. My short personal list of crises began in the 1980s. Let me clarify that they are tied to Bulgarian-style socialism and to my adolescence—that is, we already have two fundamental crises. And so, the list contains:
An energy crisis. We called it “electricity rationing.” You have power for three hours, then for three hours you don’t. Back then, some joked that seen from outer space, Bulgaria would look like a nightclub. We all stocked up on candles, we would sit in our cold rooms, and the candles would throw medieval shadows around our twentieth-century panel-block apartments.
A crisis of basic supplies. At different periods of time, the most critical supplies vanished. The big hit in the ’80s was the lack of cooking oil, maxi-pads, toilet paper, red pepper, to say nothing of oranges and bananas, which only appeared around New Year’s. If they let oranges onto the market, that meant New Year’s had come. We developed a conditioned reflex like Pavlov’s dog. Oranges—New Year’s. I could describe many more local micro-crises from the 1980s, including the entire information blackout (let’s call it a crisis of information) after the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The secret about the true scope of the damages, which was kept for several days by the government and the media, was literally deadly. The meltdown happened at the end of April, and on May 1 we were all marching around our town squares in the Chernobyl-tainted spring rain. I’m recalling these things so we have a basis for comparison between those crises and the one we find ourselves in now.
To put it most generally, those were crises of deficit, while this one, they say, is a crisis of hyperconsumerism. In fact, at least for Bulgaria, the crises of the 1980s transferred over into the following, supposedly already democratic decade as well. Communism is in some sense radioactive, it has a long half-life. Thus, in the early 1990s, while we stood exulted on the town squares, once again like déjà vu we experienced electricity rationing, as well as several alternating crises—lack of basic goods, runaway inflation, bank failures, and the melting away of all our savings in 1996. Between breakfast and lunch on a single day the dollar’s exchange rate would jump several times over. You could see completely empty stores, with empty cooler cases, with empty shelves, and a few saleswomen shuffling around awkwardly inside. Now that would make a good museum of socialism, the Museum of Absolute Emptiness.
This is, in brief, my Bulgarian experience with previous crises. The question is, if you’ve lived in a permanent crisis, like that of the past thirty years, how will you sense yet another crisis, the one we’re talking about now? To be able to sense a crisis, which is a healthy thing to be able to do, you must have lived in some other, crisis-free time as well. There is a whole generation, perhaps not only one, which has never lived outside this crisis situation. That generation has no other memory, no other senses, and no other experience. How does it take yet another crisis? How will it react in a situation where there is no crisis? Does it know how to live in normal times?
It seems to me that even worse than being able to sense a crisis is lacking that sense, the absence of senses for crisis. It’s like not having receptors for heat. In that case every stove or burner could kill you. What literature can help with is in developing our sensitivity toward crises. Otherwise they become permanent, and our insensitivity toward them, chronic.
According to data from Eurostat, around seventeen percent, or every sixth person in the EU, lives on or below the poverty line. There is an invisible European country with eighty million citizens. It isn’t on the map, but it is larger than France, Italy, Spain and Poland. A poverty-stricken country as large as Germany. Do we know enough about it?
Here is the place to admit that the crisis we are describing is not the only one, nor is it the largest in the history of the world. Yes, that truly is in some sense disappointing, I understand this very well. Economists have described nearly twenty similar large financial crises in the last 150 years alone. The first they point to was in 1857, which started in America with the mass bankruptcy of railroad companies. It quickly swam across the ocean, which made us realize that the economy had already crossed borders and become global. Another renowned crisis, that of 1873, lasted a whole six years and got the name the Long Depression. Then came the longest, the Great Depression, which has an exact starting date—October 24, 1929, Black Thursday. Then the first Oil Crisis of 1973, then the crash of the New York Stock Exchange in 1987, several subsequent crises coming ever more frequently in the 1980s and ’90s, the Mexican Crisis, the Asian Crisis, and so on.
Do we have a name for today’s crisis? Alas, no matter how much it grows, it will never be called a “Great Depression.” It lacks a certain grandeur. Which to some extent increases our own depression. Our crises and depression have not diminished, but the way we experience them seems to have shrunk. We have too many promises of salvation, too many virtual escape hatches. In a faceted world, smashed into splinters, there is no way for us to experience the melancholy and the tragic around us in the total, complete, and sublime way they deserve. Which does not make things easier for us, on the contrary. Because that which the ancient Greeks called catharsis becomes ever harder to reach as well. In the context of today’s crisis, you could say that. The impossibility of experiencing a tragedy, a crisis, a depression to its very depths makes you its constant hostage. The crisis becomes chronic. My secret, radical theory is that for several decades now we have been experiencing one and the same chronic crisis, with isolated periods of remission. Let us not forget that “crisis” is a medical concept, first used by Hippocrates and Galen, that is, long before it became economic.
But the question was: do we have a name for the current crisis? Yes, it turns out that more and more authors are using the name “Great Recession.” Well, so that means we finally scraped our way to some grandeur, to that cherished “Great.” (Incidentally, according to an article by Catherine Rampell in the New York Times from March 11, 2009, at least four economic crises have been adorned with this label since 1970.) But “recession” is a concept quite devoid of tragicism, it has lost its “heroic dimension.” According to the economic definition, a recession occurs when the Gross Domestic Product is negative for two quarters in a row. That is somehow too unambiguous and quantifiable. Outside of economics, the word “recession” is tied to the erosion of sandy coastlines, with the receding of gums from the teeth, and so on. Against this backdrop, “depression” shines with its whole palate of meanings. Here there really is myth, there is legend. Literature and psychoanalysis have done their job. Here there is true depth in every sense of the word. In geology, a depression is a hollow, a trough, the ocean floor. By the way, the largest depression in the world is the Mariana Trench. So there’s another Great Depression for you. We could compare it to that from 1929, as well as with our own melancholies and depressions. A depression as deep as the Mariana Trench. Sounds like a poem.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Please allow me, now that we have given what’s due to the historical, etymological, geographical, and even geological dimensions of the crisis (and depression), to peek into its personal, private depths. Here, unlike economics, I am a true specialist, just like all of us, I would think, who are on the book’s side.
Actually, one of the upsides of this crisis is that it gives us grounds to talk about things that expand beyond it. We call it a financial crisis, because that is the most easily visible tip of the iceberg. Everyone is sensitive when it’s a question of money. But the use of the singular here is deceptive. There are far more crises than just one, and they are visible ones at that. The short catalog includes the ecological crisis, and I especially insist on noting the mysterious disappearance of bees in recent years; also the crisis of the depletion of energy resources and so on and so on. Things that have been talked about so much that we have stopped noticing them. Besides these, however, I am also talking about another personal and global crisis that is more difficult to see and which does not end with the collapse of banks. What is that crisis? Here is one possible answer.
I will call it the crisis of easy explanations of the world. Or the crisis of the shortened horizon. Of a lack of transcendence.
It is well-known that the financial crisis started with so-called easy credit, which was given out quickly and easily, without sufficient collateral and guarantees. We know that the word “credit” comes from the Latin verb credo (to believe, to trust). Thus, the etymology hints to us that before the credit crisis there was a crisis in credo. Today we have credit freeze, you can translate that as a freezing of trust, of belief.
By analogy, we find ourselves facing a system of quick, easy, and superficial explanations and values. The market and the media in large part stimulate these processes. The market wants you to buy instantly, to not think too long. The authentic person is the consuming person, the shopping person, the person greedy for the world. (Greed is good, as Gekko’s famous motto put it.) Don’t hesitate, the market says, greed is your second nature. Make a wish, grab some money, and get it all now. Live today. On the other hand there is culture, with all of its hesitations. And with its absolutely market-unfriendly idea of how we will live tomorrow. Two different worlds, at odds with each other. It’s clear which side has the upper hand. I would argue that the point of literature is to stand up for the losing side. The values of being a winner and being invulnerable are natural to the system of capitalism. But for people on our losing side, it’s worth standing behind vulnerability as a value, behind hesitation and uncertainty. I believe in the person who hesitates.
What is the connection with the media? In one place Milan Kundera calls them “the reductionists of meaning.” Wittingly or unwittingly they transmit, and often also take part in, the creation of easy explanations of the world. Of course, the media is also suffering from the crisis. The shrinking of the media market, falling circulations, the loss of advertisers is a fact. But the strategy for their salvation, at least in Bulgaria, includes an even stronger reduction of meaning. The first things that disappear from a newspaper are the analyses, investigative journalism, political journalism, and pages about books and literature. I find this quite shortsighted in the long run. Precisely in a time of crisis, shouldn’t we have a greater spectrum of possible scenarios for what has happened, beyond the immediately visible facts?
To those easy explanations of the world (easy credit), I would also add the expert economic explanation. This crisis is a complete defeat for overweening Homo Economicus, as some analysts have written. A defeat of the idea that the world can be explained solely through economic relations, cash flows, markets, interest, and loans. Even economic depressions cannot be explained solely using economic parameters.
We are not made of economics and politics alone. We are also made of melancholy and hesitation, those delicate and inexplicable things.
Every crisis has a visible and an invisible side. One we can measure, the other we cannot. How can we measure melancholy? The point is for us to be sensitive to both sides. And not to try to cure one with medicine made for the other. Because there is no way to cure melancholy with an antibiotic. Nor your personal depression with a financial injection.
This is just my personal intuition, but I would say we are on the cusp of a new crisis analogous with the crisis of depleted oil reserves and other energy sources. I will call it The Depletion of the Reserves of Meaning. Yes, to a large extent this will be a global, international crisis. Perhaps in different countries it will have more specific and more serious consequences. Especially places whose own reserves of meaning have never been particularly deep. And which have been used up more quickly. A crisis of the shortened horizon, a crisis of motivation, of an uncertain tomorrow, staggering between depression and aggression, a blowing up of society’s already fragile truces.
This is why I foresee a wonderful future for literature, as a means for producing meaning. Something like a source of alternative energy. What does literature do, put most simply? It tells stories and with that, puts off the end (Scheherazade). It expands the world and our own limited time and body. Our lives would be insultingly short without it. What else? It gives us tools for interpretation. It teaches us how to think about ourselves and the world, how to retell the world, how to read it. Literature is a slow medium, unlike the classic and new media, but the meaning it offers has an important quality: longevity. What is slow lasts a long time. I like that story about the Bedouins who, during their long treks, would stop frequently to give their souls a chance to catch up with them. The soul marches at a different speed. I would argue that literature knows more about that speed.
And one more thing in favor of literature. In the end, everything becomes its subject. The crisis, too. As Mallarmé put it, in what became Borges’s favorite quotation: “The world exists to end up in a book.”
Ladies and gentlemen,
This whole time I have been trying to talk about the meaning, importance, and resistance of literature with an eye to one crisis, behind which we can catch a glimpse of other invisible crises.
To be honest, let me say at the very end something that may seem to refute my own arguments. Let us recall that the Great Depression of 1929 came at the end of one of the greatest literary decades, which saw the appearance of books by Joyce, Proust, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot . . . It sounds a bit discouraging. But still the hope remains that precisely this great literature brought meaning and consolation for the personal sorrows and depressions of those who lived through 1929. Which is no small thing.
In the very end, I would put my trust and personal credit in the abovementioned T.S. Eliot, who said: “For us, there is only trying. The rest is not our business.”
Incidentally, he himself, as we well know, worked for seven years in a famous London bank.
© Georgi Gospodinov. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Angela Rodel. All rights reserved.
In these two poems by Jovanka Uljarević, words conceal and convey, bind and liberate.
The Body of Your Unrest
we spread out through cities
avoiding the fields
rarely dropping by museums
are you counting the buried places
how many are there yet to see
even their names I no longer know
screaming across the mountains
we stop by library shelves
to drink up
a gallon of high quality mustiness
in how many of them will we grow old
is there anything
that deserves your affection
do not stop me now
I have a book more valuable than the Bible
lead me to new cities
I will warm up yesterday’s solitude for you
I have learned everything
I only sometimes cut myself with silence
to find you a reason to complain
bite the spider’s web that connects us
I do not hide my words for safekeeping
chase away the interpreters of my passions
bribe the guides given to us
let the crumbs remain as curtains
of the day in which we will bathe together
wear new suits
lie in a coffin
and cover it
Vestibule of Death
this morning the ships set sail from the port
in my defense nobody will stand
in a short time I’ll be left to
the chroniclers of my nakedness
a herald will knock on your door
with news about what is yet to come
offering you enough time to be late
the waves were dying on me
vanishing in groups, steeped in their flight
my whisper reveals secrets
to conquerors from all over the world
I am spread out like the coast
beds beneath me creak
I do not choose the fetal position
lest I fall asleep
with tangled senses they will lead me
in front of buyers of misgivings
lest I ooze longing
and seduce sidewalks of awkwardness
my words no longer bind me
my words will free me
before the dark and a new crime
© Jovanka Uljarević. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Peter Stonelake. All rights reserved.
In this poem, Dragana Tripković careens through time and space, the lasting and the ephemeral.
It is not too late to write about time
It is not too late to write right now about time.
I must leave the signpost, because the South wind starts to blow
in the middle of December.
Moments like these can make a man love the wrong thing
or the wrong person.
The big station clock hasn’t worked for twenty-five years
Its black, Roman lines
menace with stiff
just like death.
It looks choosy, even though it doesn’t care
about the crowd at the railway station
talks to anybody else.
Don’t look at the clock.
Between my rational intention and your irrational time,
there is nothing else but the timetable.
A hunched old lady will read it for you
with the sadness of Polish poets.
The landscape is marvelous!
It seems like the big ideas of childhood friends.
Golden palaces which we made up,
neon swimming pools, colorful families,
children made of precious gems…
I won’t list them,
It can all be seen through moving windows.
Everyone has already said it all about time,
hardly anything new can happen, except a few more
that would mostly talk about the same thing
There is no more important Past, nor less important Present
on the screen,
while one can move on with the same names.
Memories are the heaviest burden in that pigsty.
But eternity gives rise to obligation.
In front of you, the Gypsy’s bear is dancing
led by the rhythmic noise made by its owner.
The terrible image from your childhood cost a handful of pennies.
and sometime the Horror dances for free
I don’t know when you’re going to turn up.
I cannot promise you much but a gray street
and passionate darkness in the Ides of March.
Spring always brings a pile of survived decay,
undreamt winter loves
that shudder to melt into summer, white wine,
So take your time.
Our towns don’t have squares with grand names.
Those are not revolutionary, bloody pavements,
but concrete whores whose names change
just as does the lust of rulers.
It is actually best to fly over them.
A few things missed and negated,
just to be consistent
with God’s unseen miracles, will lead you
Don’t, for anything, turn to the right or the left
it is said,
Death is ignorant,
If you are patient,
you could outwit it in a game of chess,
A child was tugging at his mother’s hand,
he said softly: “There’s a man over there.”
“Don’t be afraid, son,” his mother whispered,
and her warm breath encouraged him.
Through the centuries with vanilla ice cream!
See how quickly the world is spent,
but nevertheless, go and conquer her
(death is not always female),
because the only history that exists
is that between a man and a woman.
Some musicians sing about other losers,
and about money.
The group of actors doesn’t hurry anywhere.
They will offer you a young actress,
because you are a knight and look good on the stage.
With dignity, get into your character,
save Helen or Dulcinea,
and enjoy the glory.
In the end you will still have to die,
but that is not happening now . . .
Even when you do die, even in the next few hours,
we won’t be sure about that,
so don’t worry . . . You’re on time.
© Dragana Tripković. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Peter Stonelake. All rights reserved.
Tanja Bakić seeks the textures of the intangible, the familiar, and the strange within the porous border between subject and object.
An open wound
Under the hot earth
Calls me out.
I look at the sky
With another’s eyes.
A star like
Stares at me.
I leave behind
What I once used
And keep my pain.
Velvet I am now.
Your luminous body
Mine as a shadow.
A tear falls
Onto a bone.
In the water,
Under the water,
Naked I swim.
The winter of my pain
Touches with its fingers my body of dreams.
A voice within the voice
Whispers to an ear within the ear.
Water drinks me while I drink the water itself.
The secret of her tear
Hides in her wish
To embrace the light.
The light sullies her,
Wrenches the tear
From its roots,
Taints it with the world.
© Tanja Bakić. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Jim Phelps. All rights reserved.
In the following excerpt from her novel Adriana, Theodora Dimova weaves a tale of another poète maudit.
Adriana was venomous, irritable, depraved, evil, decadently damned, I’m like a line of Baudelaire, she was thinking, and it was over for me long ago, the decision was made long ago, and I have no way backward or forward, and I have no way, her beauty was blossoming over the mire of vices, her skin was becoming more milky white, her bones growing thicker, blacker and shinier, the more nights she passed in perversion, the more young and innocent she looked, the sin and excesses were only feeding her beauty, only in her eyes could you sense the stifled beast, but she hid them, hid her eyes from people, so as not to frighten them, to be able to be with them, to not be alone in her corruption, to be with people, with people after all and not with animals like in her paintings, the hidden beast crouched in her eyes alone, the eyes of a lynx, a wildcat, eyes that frightened people, she was among the fallen, the depraved, the whorish, the sinful, the egotistical, the Herodites who lustfully wrap themselves around their debauched idols, she was decay itself, she was rotted away and disgusted, she reviled herself and there was no salvation, there was no salvation. I purposely don't want to go into the particulars, I purposely don't want to spell out the details, she told Yura. They are ugly things and you shouldn't know the particulars, the details, because the bottom and the fall always drag you downward, always suck you in, they are a gaping maw that destroys a person, no matter what he is, even in his final hour the fall and the bottom are ready to suck him in, to them every human hour is precious, be it first or last, and in your final moment you can be depraved, profligate, sinful, you can be dying in defilement and that will be the spirit of the bottom and the fall, which are stalking you everywhere, they are always stalking, Yura, remember that, it's why I never show you any of those paintings, because their monstrousness can infect our souls and that's why I don't tell you the particulars and the details about the bottom and the fall, because they could latch onto you and make you sick some day, my child. Once and for all I had cast my lot with the evil and the damned. Once and for all I had decided that the bottom and the fall were irreversible and insurmountable. Actually, she had always wanted to kill herself, Theodore, that was her illness, she didn't want to live, suicide had enchanted her even as a child, it hypnotized her, she had a hazy sense that she had to be able to squander life itself, since she was so rich, since she was a squanderer, then she would squander to the extreme, she would squander her very life, she would never allow herself to be a half-squanderer, a half-waster, with her scope and power she couldn't allow herself to live with half-truths, with half-gestures, if something existed, then it had to exist in its extremity, in its totality, in its finality, and since she was so inconceivably rich she had to be rich with her life and her fate, too, she had to waste them, scatter them among mere mortals, not saving her years, her health, or her life for herself, she couldn't care for her life like the half-poor, like the half-rich, who trembled over it, she must be able to be ready at any moment to lose her life. Thus suicide stalked her everywhere. As if it were close to her and with each passing day drew nearer, luring her, tempting her, eating away a part of her, she was sure of her destiny, of her fatal predestination, that's why she so greedily scooped up pleasures, why she gorged herself on her debauchery and her lust, on her perversions, on her insatiable hunger for self-destruction, self-extinction, self-effacement. She was very depraved, Theodore, which showed in her pictures as well, because I forgot to tell you, maybe on purpose, maybe not, that the pictures had fornication, people fornicating with animals, but I can't even talk about it or say it anymore, it's impossible for me to say it and describe it, Theodore, the ecstasy of those people in her paintings as they fornicated, in fact it can't really be called ecstasy at all, but a paroxysm or who knows what, Theodore, you know the words better than I do, I was so depraved, Adriana was saying, that people didn't even dare talk about me from shame, because they would've had to say such things, they didn't dare share them, they even blushed when they heard certain details about them, those details repulsed even their furiously inflamed imaginations, they were ashamed to tell those stories and for precisely this reason they never reached my parents' ears, well maybe they reached my father's ears, but most likely he waved them off as phantasmagorical or absolutely implausible stories, as stupidity or jealousy, despite the fact those who most bitterly envied him at that time would never dare tell him those stories, out of pity for such a father, while even his most wolfish enemies couldn't fully describe his corrupted daughter's outrageous orgies—the strangest thing, Yura, is that it never gave me any satisfaction, fleeting at best, I was simply enchanted by my fall, enchanted by the bottom, there's a fair bit of charm in the fall and the bottom at first, as in anything new, but after that it becomes no less boring than everything else and quickly gets tiresome, I don't feel like describing the details, not because they're shameful or perverted, I assume you can sense that the shame over these excesses has long since left me, I don't feel like describing them, because they are essentially boring, the shamefully boring details of a fall, a self-destuction, because a fall, Yura, a self-destruction should also be brilliant and spectacular or a least artistic and infectious, it should at least fill up your whole soul with sinfulness, it should at least guarantee you hit the bottom so that afterward you can fall on your knees and cry, but that was a luxury that depravity and perversion cannot guarantee, Yura, and my imagination was already rotting, it kept rotting away and decomposing and I couldn't manage to think up different, ever newer perversions because of the laziness that immobilized me, because of the disgust I felt for myself, after all, the whiskey bottle and the cigarettes were a far more acceptable state and in that alcoholic stupor I wanted to kill myself more than ever, it was as if I was taunting suicide to come even closer, so that it would be over with, I told myself this is it, after this squalor I can't go on living, I have no place in this world, I have no right to pollute it with my presence, I have no right to the dawn and so I kept staying in my room and drawing the curtains and lying there and drinking Luminal and falling into a narcotic sleep, and waking up and drinking Luminal again, because otherwise I would've had to drink whiskey, I didn't want to be conscious, I wanted my consciousness to disappear in a fog, so I wouldn't feel the annoyance, disgust, boredom, the feeling that you don't have anything to do, that every single moment you don't know what to do with yourself and with the world and that there's nowhere to go and there's nowhere to hide except for in the whiskey and sleep and that sleep was like death, Yura, such an intolerance toward living that the only escape was death. As if my days were measured out on some kind of scale full of red liquid that kept on decreasing. I was seeing it—how my blood was flowing away and when it was gone I would have to swallow a handful of Lunimal and it would be that. It would be over. It would be a complicated ending. It was exactly that feeling. That feeling that suicide is stalking you everywhere. That you've fallen into its clutches and there's no getting away. That it's the only possible thing, the only good thing, that it's a question of a very short time, a question of a few weeks, until the end of summer. Because summer with its magnificence was absolutely impossible for that suicide, as strange as it may sound, Yura, the summer and its azures would never accept a suicide, as absurd as that logic must seem to you. It wouldn't give it the proper respect, the proper disgust. My suicide and all its blackness would sink into the blues and azures of the summer, the greens would also swallow it up, not a trace would remain of the suicide and its blackness. So I just had to wait until the end of summer, to wait until the end of that magnificence and that blue, the end of the immensity and warmth of the sea unfurling during the summer, the end of those bottomless blue skies and stars by night. It was decided. The decision was made. The end of the summer. That sense of predestination, the certainty that you would do it. Even now, a century later, Adriana burst out laughing with her abrupt laugh, which shot out like a bat, her bat-laughter, she always laughed like that when the question of her age came up, of my ancient age, as she put it, don't think it's pleasant, Yura, to be ninety-three years old, but it's not up to you, just like it's not up to you to be so beautiful, to have that auburn hair and brown eyes, you have nothing whatsoever to do with it, Yura, it's up to God, not you, if you get what I'm saying, but you have to reach my age to understand that fate doesn't tolerate categorical human decisions, not only does it foil them but it laughs out loud in the most unpardonable way, it snickers, it mocks them. One morning I not only got up relatively early, not only did I manage to get up and eat breakfast in a relatively good mood, but I also managed to end up on the city beach with Chervenko trailing two steps behind me, of course, I ended up on the beach among the hordes, the multitude, the rabble—I was starting to draw a picture for which I needed nude bodies and corporality, the faces were of no importance, they didn't even need to be visible, the bodies interested me, the physical flaccidness, the physical ugliness and deformity, I think—and here again the abrupt bat-laughter—I think, that I was hungering to meet a model just like I am at the moment, I wanted to meet myself at ninety-three, despite the fact that back then I didn't know yet—such ancient creatures never go to the beach, so as not to insult the sea with their presence, or they only go to empty, completely deserted, and wild beaches. If I had seen myself then, I would have immediately liked myself, drawn myself, back then I was searching for a physical form exactly like I am now, Yura, almost deformed, on radiant August Day, in the magnificence of August and sun, in the cutting, cruel lustre of August, in the brilliance-soaked morning, I ended up not somewhere else, but on the beach, the city beach, among the hordes, the multitude, the rabble, to search for myself at ninety-three without any way of finding myself, I would've been intoxicated with happiness if I had found a model like myself as I am now, I wouldn't have believed my eyes, if I had imagined myself at ninety-three, the crookedness of these bones of mine would've seemed inconceivable, the twistedness of every one of my fingers would have enchanted me, this skin hanging like a wet sheet over bent bones would have seemed devastating to me, the countless wrinkles on my so-called face would have been the biggest provocation, if I had met myself then, I would've paid that model well, too well, I would've rented her and bought her up until the end of her life, I would've painted her and studied her enraptured, because I would've been sure that she was God's joke on man—to allow a creature to exist in that form, at that age, but no, I didn't meet myself then on the beach on that August morning soaked in brilliance, sun and blue, I didn't meet myself, although I was feverishly searching the city beach, among the hordes, the multitude, I was walking along the beach and shamelessly looking at the bodies, searching for my ninety-three-year-old body, to astonish me with its shrunkenness and implausibility, with its perfect monstrousness, I was searching for myself like an ancient hunter who must snare his prey so as not to die of starvation, I was searching for myself to have material proof of God's irony toward the world.
© Theodora Dimova. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Angela Rodel. All rights reserved.
In this short story, Zachary Karabashliev chronicles one widower’s struggle to begin anew in another country.
June 11, 2010
My name is Christo Christov Christov and I’m here visiting my daughter. My daughter and son-in-law, that is. Radoslava. That’s her name, not his. They live in America, in the state of California. They got me a visa this spring and brought me here. Anyway.
I’ve started keeping a diary in this notebook—my daughter gave it to me. I’ve been thinking about keeping a diary for a long time, but I never had anything to write in one. Not that I had a diary and was sitting there wondering what to write in it, I didn’t have one, but I’m just saying that even if I had had one, it wouldn’t have changed anything. Whatever I had to say, I always shared it with Elena so I didn’t need to write it down. But Elena’s gone now. That’s why my daughter brought me over to America, because my companion in life, Elena, passed away. It’s been really tough on me, so I’m writing in this notebook now, but it’s really tough on me. I’m not going to talk about my wife herе.
June 13, 2010
I’m going to try not to write about Elena here, because when I think about her I get really sad, and if someday somebody finds this notebook and reads about what a woman Elena was, he’ll get really sad, too. For Elena. Not for me. As for me—what about me?—my daughter brought me here, supposedly to distract me or some such thing. Not that I would’ve turned her down if she’d invited me, but still, it’s one thing to get invited, and quite another just to have them arrange for your visa in a week and next thing you know you’re in America. But anyway . . . it’s not like I’m complaining or anything.
My son-in-law isn’t a bad guy, he just doesn’t understand a damn thing. What I mean is that he doesn’t understand a damn thing in Bulgarian. Not that I understand American, but still, I’m not married to Radoslava. I mean, if Elena hadn’t understood Bulgarian, I would’ve tried to learn a thing or two in whatever language she spoke. After all, she’s my wife, right? But anyway. What I’m trying to say is—my son-in-law doesn’t understand Bulgarian. Last night he came home, he’d gone to the grocery store and gotten this and that, and so I’m helping him put it away, right, and I see he’d bought some tomatoes, hydroponic, of course, not homegrown like back in Bulgaria—now that’s what I call a tomato, when you slice one open, dew spills out… but anyway. So, I show it to my son-in-law, I tell him domat, I tell him. He says “tomato.” I tell him domat again. And he says “to-ma-to.” And then my daughter chimes in: “It’s a tomato, Dad. With a T. To-ma-to.” And I say to myself, Christo, old man, you just learned yourself your first American word. But I was too ashamed to say it out loud. Domat, with a “t.” Anyway.
I haven’t written in a few days, because my daughter was getting me a soshul. Soshul, soshul . . . I had no idea what this soshul was. She says, we’ve got to get you a soshul. And frankly, I thought they’d be giving me some vaccine or a pacemaker or something. But it turns out it’s a number. A soshul is something like the ID number we’ve got back in Bulgaria, but different. So they gave me a soshul. And the last four numbers of my soshul turned out to be 5447. Very nice. The first car Elena and I bought back in 1975 was a Russian Zhiguli, and the license plate number was BV 5447. A very nice number. A very nice car. Ivory. We were on the waiting list for a Lada, but we decided not to hold out for two more years and took the Zhiguli instead. It’s just like Lada, only an older model. But made by the same Soviet manufacturer. And we didn’t regret it. Elena and the kids and I made lots of memories with that car. We put lots of miles on it, I took them everywhere you can imagine.
My daughter took me to their church today. It’s sort of like a church and sort of like a gymnasium. Everybody’s all dressed up nice, they say “Hello,” polite folks, no doubt about it. We sit down. The guy up there in front is talking and they’re listening. Then they read their Bibles, get up, sit down, sing, hold hands. In short—good people, no doubt about it. After the service they take me to meet the priest. He isn’t like one of our priests with the tall black hats and shaggy beards, but a young guy in a suit, clean shaved. He looks me straight in the eye and smiles at me, talking to my daughter and nodding. And just as we’re leaving, right, he asks my daughter something, holds out his hand and says in Bulgarian—dovizhdane. With an accent, of course, but it’s still “good-bye,” plain as day. And I shake his hand and of course I know one of his words already, “tomato,” but I’m too ashamed to say it out loud, and I didn’t say it. So as not to make a fool of Radoslava and her husband, if for no other reason.
I’m keeping a diary because I don’t have anyone to sit down and shoot the breeze with. My daughter is at work all day. My son-in-law comes home and turns on the TV. My granddaughter is glued to the computer. Doing her homework. She sure studies a lot, my granddaughter. Talk about a good kid! Her name is Elena, she’s named after her grandmother. I’ll write about her, too, some other time. But she sure studies a lot. I tell Radoslava, she’s just like your mother, Elena—she was always reading something, learning something, studying something.
My daughter, Radoslava, works in a chemical laboratory. At the university.
My son-in-law and I drove to the store today. So we did our shopping and everything, then we loaded up the trunk and just as we were leaving the parking lot something suddenly started rattling in back—rattle-rattle-rattle. My son-in-law stopped, we got out, looked it over, his back bumper had gotten caught on something and was just dangling there. It’s supposedly a new car and all . . . but anyway. My son-in-law starts pacing around, he calls someone on his cell phone, wondering what to do, scratching his head. So I tell him, wait, I say, don’t worry, we’ll fix this in a jiffy. And I go looking around the edges of the parking lot, searching for some baling wire to strap the bumper on—I mean, you could see where it had come loose, it’s not like it’s rocket science or anything . . . So I’m looking here and there for wire, but there isn’t a piece of wire in sight. Dang! I make the rounds of the whole parking lot, I even walk along the nearby highway, too—but there’s no wire to be found. So I start thinking to myself—how is it that in this big whoppin’ America there’s not a single little piece of baling wire? But I keep going, right, I don’t give up, I keep looking. However, at one point I notice that my son-in-law is walking along after me with this worried look. So I tell him—I’m looking for tel. He doesn’t get it. Tel, I’m looking for tel, I say again. And he says: What? That’s another word I already know in English. So I say tel. And I go like this with my hands, as if stretching out a snake: te-e-e-e-l. He still doesn’t get it. I look at him, he takes out his cell phone and makes another call, but I go about my business: I step over the guardrail and start digging through the nearby scrub—you can always find some wire along guardrails. Back home, baling wire’s one thing you’ll never be without. You might want for everything else, but there’s more wire than you can shake a stick at. You can find all kinds of baling wire where I’m from. And I’ve never asked myself where all this wire came from. But it’s always there when you need it. Here there’s no baling wire, not even along the guardrails.
So, my family comes from Aegean Thrace, what’s now Northern Greece, we’re Thracians. Back in 1914 they moved north near the Bulgarian town of Pazardzhik, and from there to Dobrudzha, in northeastern Bulgaria. But I’ll write about that some other time. But I can’t help thinking . . . that whole business yesterday has left me unsettled—what kind of country is this, with no wire anywhere?
Today the daughter said Dad . . . she said . . .
So . . . I’m thinking I should write more happy stuff here. There’s no use talking about sad stuff, plus I don’t hold on to the bad things. Well, I guess that isn’t exactly true—I remember the bad things, too, but why should I talk about them?
Today they took me downtown. Skyscrapers, cars, noise . . . What made an impression on me was the fact that there are no stray dogs roaming the streets. Of course, there’s plenty of homeless people. They’re sprawled on the sidewalks, twisted up in filthy blankets, on top of flattened cardboard boxes—a sorry scene. There are many street people, but no street dogs. But anyway.
August 28, afternoon
Back in the day, me and Dragan, this accordion player . . . Back in the day, there was this accordion player, Dragan. But criminy, how he can play! Or how he could play, rather. Dragan has passed on, he died before his time. He . . . now why the heck did I think of Dragan just now? The weather is really muggy today.
I walked my granddaughter to school, which is eighteen minutes away, first you go up and then turn right at the intersection with the stoplight, you head down two more blocks and you’re there. Like I was saying, I dropped my granddaughter off and on the way back, I kept on going down the street—there are some really peculiar trees here. They’re something like sequoias—they’ve got this really strange bark, grayish, brownish, but smooth like dolphin skin. I’ve only seen a dolphin one time, on the Black Sea, the waves had spit it up right on the shore—maybe it was sick, injured, or old or something—it could hardly move, but it was still alive. But I remember its skin—smooth, soft, grayish. And the bark of those trees reminds me of that dolphin’s skin. And I also thought about Elena. But anyway.
So I’m walking along, and little by little I reach the upper street. And I see an old lady and an old man—maybe Japanese, maybe Chinese, I don’t know what they are, I can’t tell, but definitely from the Asian race, and they’re coming down the sidewalk toward me, right, and it makes an impression on me—polite people, no doubt about it, they greet me just like that with a nod. And I nod back at them. Not that it’s any big deal, but it makes me feel good that they greet other people. But I’m really missing Elena again. I’m done writing for today.
So I gather there’s a canyon beyond the school. Last night it somehow came up and my daughter was saying: “The canyon this, the canyon that.” And of course, I got all interested and started asking her about that canyon, and she snapped at me and started warning me off it—it was too far away, I had no business there and so on. That I’d better not go there and get lost and not be able to find my way home . . . This sort of rubbed me the wrong way, but anyway.
I dropped off my granddaughter at school and started heading back home. But I didn’t feel like going home—what’s there to do sitting around the house all day? So I started going down that same road, taking my own sweet time. I came across that Japanese couple again, they nodded at me again, I nodded back at them. They were walking slowly, side by side, taking a stroll. What else do those folks have to do but stroll around? They went on their way, I went on mine. And so I headed down the street, walking just like that, with my hands clasped behind my back. Years ago I used to wonder why old people walked like that, slightly stooped over with their hands behind their backs, but look at me now—I catch myself walking with my hands clasped behind my back. And so I’m just strolling along, but I keep my eyes peeled for baling wire. I tell myself—I’ve got to find some wire, there’s got to be baling wire somewhere in this country. A nice, orderly country, or so they say, everything spick-n-span, but you can’t find a single piece of wire on the street. So I’m looking. Wire, wire, wire, any baling wire here, any baling wire there? Nope, no wire. But I’ve gotten it into my head. And when I’ve gotten something into my head, there’s no letting it go, back in the day, Elena would say, Christo, when you get something into your head . . . enough about Elena . . . anyway. So I make it to the canyon. I look at it from up above. So they call this a canyon, huh? If you ask me, it’s just a big ravine. Full of shrubs, low-growing trees, I can even see some kind of beech tree down there, but not like ours, it’s shorter and the leaves are stiff and small. In short—a ravine. OK, so it’s a ravine all right, but of a different sort. Because back home, the country folk throw trash into the ravines. The city folk do, too. To us, a ravine is an eyesore, an ugly business. I remember, back in the day, when they built the new apartment buildings in our town—we called them “the new buildings,” and that’s what we still call them, never mind that thirty years have passed since then—so, like I was saying, they built the new buildings on the other side of the ravine. And the people from the new buildings threw their trash into the ravine. Just like the people from the old buildings. But anyway.
My son-in-law is going on a business trip tomorrow. I gathered that much.
I dropped off my granddaughter at school and again followed my usual route, taking my own sweet time, I saw the Chinese folks again, we nodded at each other again and smiled. Looks like we’re about the same age, but there’s two of them, so they’ve got an easier time of it. The neighborhood here has been greened up real nice, I’ve noticed that they water it all night, because if they don’t, everything will burn up.
So then I see a little bird on the neighbors’ fence—it looks a bit like the titmouse we’ve got back in Bulgaria, but different. Gray, with a very smooth, dark, rounded little head and a sharp black beak, but with a white belly and a long tail. I stop about five or six feet away and look at it. And it looks back at me. And at one point it goes: chirp. But its whole body shudders when it says “chirp.” And again: “chirp.” Back where I’m from, birds aren’t quite this friendly somehow. “Chirp, chirp chirp,” watching me from the corner of its eye. “Chirp.” I take a good, hard look around and when I’m sure there’s nobody in sight, I say “chirp” right back to it. It says: “chirp.” I say: “Chirp.” It says: “Chirp, chirp.” Me: “Chirp, chirp.” Then it flutters a little ways off and again goes “chirp.” I followed, “chirp.” It goes “chirp”, flies a little ways off, and I follow after it “chirp.” And with a “chirp, chirp” here and a “chirp, chirp” there, I’ve reached the canyon before I realize it. The bird goes “chirp” one last time and disappears into the canyon.
So I just stand there and stand there waiting for the bird to come back, I keep saying “chirp” few more times, but the bird doesn’t answer.
Then I walk along the guardrail until I find a little path and before I know it, voila! I am on my way down into the ravine. I take my own sweet time heading down that steep path, I’m being careful, right, so I don’t trip and fall . . . And, what do I see? Another America. Some dry brush that looks like our hawthorn back home, but it’s not; a little further down a juniper bush, again all dried up, but I know juniper when I see it. Some tall reeds, and when I say tall I’m talking three times taller than me, the wind is rustling through them—sh-sh-sh-sh-sh. The birds are twittering, the flies are buzzing, the air is different, it smells like dust clouds, like a country road. People have left it like that, just like it has been since time immemorial. So I walk down that path, further and further down, I’m breathing harder and harder, it’s like I don’t know where I am anymore—in the country, in the city, in America, or back home.
Just a hundred yards up: highways, houses, sidewalks, cars. Here: wilderness. At one point I reach some willows—they’re willows all right, but again not exactly like ours, they have smaller leaves. Under the willows there’s a little creek, gurgling between the rocks. I wade right into it bold as brass—and keep going down the path. But then it swings back up. I keep following along it, following along until I reach some old train tracks. The scent of the rails hit me, the scent of trains, of Kaspichan. Elena’s sister lived in the town of Kaspichan by the train station and we’d always take the train there to celebrate New Year’s, that’s what made me think of it. I thought I’d heard a train whistle around here a few times, I’d asked my daughter where the train tracks were, but she said I don’t know or care. They’re just freight trains, she said, nobody here takes the train. Why not? I asked her. Why don’t you take the train? Because people here have cars. Yeah, cars with their bumpers hanging off of them, I said, but just to myself, of course, I didn’t say anything like that to her. Anyway. I find the train tracks. I notice that the gravel isn’t like ours, it’s made of gray and reddish pebbles. But bigger than ours. I continue on down the dusty path, it curves up slightly to the north and keeps on going, always parallel to the train tracks.
And then I see one length of chain-link fence and I say to myself—your luck has finally turned around, Christo, old man! I run over there and guess what I see next to one of the stakes in the fence? Baling wire. Rusted, about two or two and a half yards long—exactly as much as I need, with a little extra just in case. This find really makes my day. I take that wire, wind it into a ring and hightail it out of there. And all is well and good until the path forks at one point. Which path should I take, I wonder, which path—OK, how about the one leading to the right and downward? I come across another stand of willows, and then another creek, this time bigger than the one before. I walk a little further along the river and just as I look around, trying to figure out how to splash my way through it, what do I see? A tomato plant. Not too large, not too small, but hale and hearty. A tomato plant. With one tomato on it. A tomato! A real tomato. I can’t begin to describe how happy that makes me. I look around for more—I think maybe I have wandered into somebody’s garden, but no. I haven’t. It’s just that one plant, who knows how it’s ended up here in this wilderness and has taken root, hunkered down and even borne fruit. I sit down to rest and to feast my eyes on the little savage. How did it manage to find a spot in the ravine that is both near to the water yet off the beaten track, and on a southwestern slope to boot? Nature. I tell myself: I ought to dig up this rapscallion here and replant it in my daughter’s back yard among the flowers—she’ll never know the difference—but I wonder if it would take? And then, when my son-in-law gets back from his business trip—tomato.
I guess I hadn’t realized how time had passed and how the day was fading behind the ridge. Maybe I’d worn myself out, maybe the sun had gotten to me, I don’t know, maybe there’d been a solar flare, but here, since I don’t understand what they’re saying on TV, because they don’t speak Bulgarian, I have no idea when there are solar flares or not. Back home the TV would always tell us when there were solar flares, so we wouldn’t wonder why our blood pressure was too high or too low. Anyway.
The next thing I remember I’m standing by a highway. My daughter and son-in-law’s house is just up the hill on the other side of it—I can see the traffic light where I turn right and seven minutes later I’m on their street. But I have to cross this highway. Four or five lanes in one direction, and just as many in the other. And the cars are whizzing past—fyoom, fyoom, fyoom, fyoom, lots of cars, lots of noise. I’m waiting, waiting for the right moment. I tell myself, Christo, old man, you got to fix this mess, you’ve got to get home before your daughter comes back. But that must be what all the cars are thinking, too—of getting home to their daughters. Fyoom, fyoom, fyoom. I take a deep breath, jump over the guardrail and make a run for it. Christ almighty, I don’t rightly know how I make it to the center island. Fyoom, fyoom, fyoom. And the big semis are bellowing—raar, raar, raar, as if trying to blow me clean away. But I’ve already heroically made it to the highway’s center island, so I step over the guardrail and wait—I’ll make it over to the other side, too, I tell myself. I again lose track of how long I’m standing there. Next thing I know I’m hearing sirens and there are two police cars, their lights flashing, meow-meow, they are saying something on their megaphones, one squad car has stopped on one side of the guardrail, the other on the other. The police officers get out, a whole four of them, one is really husky, a black fellow, along with a younger man, another middle-aged but tough policeman with a mean stare, and a woman—has the meanest stare of all. Dang. And they come over to me all careful like, talking to me. The tough one points at my hand and hollers something, he’s barking at me—but I have no idea what he’s saying.
I lift my hand with the baling wire and tell him tel. He starts barking at me again. Tel, I say. What else can I do, since I don’t know the word for tel in English? So I turn to the black fellow, who seems more kindhearted, and say tel. There is a CB buzzing on his shoulder, jabbering something at him. He leans his head down toward it, listening, but keeps his eyes fixed on me.
They send the young officer to close off the lane closest to the guardrail, the lights on the squad cars are still flashing, I notice how the cars around us immediately ease up on the gas, the traffic around us suddenly slows down.
The policewoman steps toward me; she is saying something, too, but it’s no use, I can’t understand. I point toward the hill—I want to say that I’m visiting Radoslava, and my granddaughter goes to school and studies so hard, and my son-in-law is on a business trip, and they brought me over here and gave me a soshul, and all because my companion in life Elena . . . but anyway. I want to explain that I found this baling wire down in the ravine, I didn’t steal it, just say the word and I’ll give it back if need be. I hold the wire out to the policewoman, thinking to myself: Geez, all this hullabaloo over a stupid piece of baling wire.
And then I hear: “Dad, Dad!” I look: on the other side of the highway, Radoslava, my daughter Radoslava is waving at me with both hands just like that—waving—next to her car, which is stopped by the embankment. “Dad!” she yells. My little daughter. And I raise my arms and wave back at her. The policewoman looks at my daughter, looks at me, looks at my daughter again, then at me, looks at the wire in my one hand, then nods at my other hand, pointing and gesturing, as if to say: what’s that you’ve got there?
Then I lift the root with the red domat high in the air, I lift it triumphantly and yell, so even my daughter across the highway can hear me. “Tomato.” I yell.
© Zachary Karabashliev. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Angela Rodel. All rights reserved.
Angel Igov's short story, set in 1944, fictionalizes the events following the Communists' rise to power in one Bulgarian town.
In the thick February fog, heavy with the scent of coal, a young man was standing on the bridge by the Yuchbunar baths, tearing pages out of the notebook in his hand and tossing them into the river. When the final page had been carried off by the current, he seemed to hesitate for a moment. Then with sudden determination he tore off the cover as well and tossed it into the dark water, which in places glittered with thin slivers of ice. Without looking down he turned around and quickly set off toward downtown. At that time of the night, there were no other passersby: the streets were snowy and deserted. Here and there, the listless barking of dogs came from the yards in the side streets. The bright breath of the electric streetlights on Pirotska was unable to pierce the fog, but hung around the lamp posts like ragged halos. The man’s footsteps crunched on the trampled snow, which was black from soot and cinders. He didn’t meet anyone, and even if he had, his neighbors from Yuchbunar likely would not have recognized him at first.
That was you.
We knew you, Emil Strezov, for months and years we followed your every move; and even though we didn’t see you then on that bridge, even in our sleep we knew that you were there. Carried away in their rapid movement, our eyeballs still noticed everything, even behind our closed eyelids: the gray tatters of the fog, the lonely man’s footsteps that sprang up in the snow. We saw, we heard. We remembered how you moved to the neighborhood, how you came from that nearby town, so insignificant that its name isn’t even worth mentioning, we saw with our own eyes how from a down-and-out high school student you became an underappreciated poet, and then the generous autumn of ’44 suddenly thrust into your hands the power to shape human fates. We joked that one day, our children, when they entered that university of yours that you never finished, would come across one of your poems in those thick anthologies, they would read it and say: well, it’s not bad. And we would tell them: Emil Strezov, you say? He lived across the street back in the day. If you only knew how I knocked him flat once. And what did he do? The kids would ask. What do you mean, what? He wasn’t a hooligan like us. What was he like? He was . . . He was the little old ladies’ darling. He was Uncle Petar’s polite tenant, he was always rushing around, with books tucked under his arm until that autumn, with a pistol tucked in his belt later on, but he always found time to say hello and chat a bit about the great events that had taken place and the even greater ones that were to come. But if any of us had passed you on that night, he surely would have noticed that there was something strange in your gait, in your gaze, in the wrinkles unexpectedly carved into your forehead, which made you look grown-up and furious; that one of us would even have screwed up his face in turn, wondering whether he hadn’t mistaken someone else for you and whether that rushed young man was the same person who, his face ablaze in a smile, had so fiercely made the rounds of the Sofia streets in early September.
Emil Strezov had moved into the neighborhood long ago and even the true locals had taken him as one of their own. When he arrived, he was an utterly forgettable kid—he turned up from somewhere one dusty summer morning on the doorstep of Uncle Petar the shoemaker, who disapprovingly looked over his shabby shoes, patted him on the back and took him into his home. Rumors rushing through the streets had it that he took him in so his son, his only son, the stutterer could have a friend. He had arrived by train, the rushing rumors had it, by train from somewhere up north. His father had died, the rushing rumors had it, his mother was sick, too, he would live here and help out in the shop. We didn’t pay much attention, but suddenly autumn rolled around and we saw you with the stutterer in the yard of the high school—two freshmen in their uniforms. You were the same age and you always went around together, you walked down the recently paved main street, your clothes grew tight on you before our eyes, you were ever hungrier for life and supposedly ever more street-smart but in fact you were likely ever more startled by the colorful whirlwind of the city, especially in those mysterious confines beyond the borders of the neighborhood, where the rich and the beautiful roamed.
We all lived in the street. Even you, when you weren’t studying or working. That’s how it was in Yuchbunar. And then the final fall rolled around and in any case everything already looked insignificant in light of what was happening in the street. We would all stay outside all day long, confused faces would swim in the soft light of the sunset, we would say “Hello” as if in a dream, you would pass by with that red armband and a pistol on your belt, as black and shiny as expensive chocolate, but even though you were wearing a red armband and carrying a gun, just like us, you, too, could not yet grasp your own role in everything going on around us, you knew you were a part of it, but you weren’t sure how exactly, as if one side of your brain was constantly getting ahead of the other. It was a wild and hot September, the fruit in the orchards on the outskirts of the city would burst and the pent-up juice would rend the haze with a splash; and you would make the rounds of the ruins, fondly looking at the buildings crushed by the air raids, opulence turned into a useless heap of rocks, remnants of mysterious origin flung about pell-mell—most likely pianos, living room furnishings, sideboards—you would look at all that and sense infinite possibility gathered in your fist. Of course, Kosta was there by your side. The two of you would cross the center of the city, greedily drinking in the destruction with your eyes. What had once been the main shopping street, with its carefully arranged shop windows, was razed to the ground; only here and there jagged columns, tilted roof beams, windowless walls were gaping hungrily. Kosta would grab your arm and stutter with excitement. Here, he would say, on top of these ruins, on top of these c-c-collapsed buildings we will build the future of C-C-Communism. On the next corner you would stop to savor the sight of the ruins of some law office. You would hug your friend and say the same words, only without stuttering.
Kosta stuttered with a “K-sound” at the beginning of words and during that September his harmless defect once again became a source of unceasing embarrassment, because it detracted from the whole proud romanticism of his declaration that he was a communist. The sudden change, the moment the people took power, suddenly laid waste to his dogged attempts to avoid all words beginning with that damnable letter. Otherwise he had learned to use synonyms. So as to pick and choose them, he spoke slowly and carefully, and as long as he was not mistaken in his choice of words, he sounded like a wise old man. He was gradually perfecting this. But we all remember the first time he did it. How long must he have been thinking it over? It was a long time ago, back in high school, during one recess. A group of us were just waiting for you to come out into the yard, you were always the last ones out, suck-ups that you were, you spent so long gathering up your notebooks and quizzing the teacher about Goethe and Mendeleev, while we were already flying down the stairs and, if it was the beginning of the month, elbowing each other in front of the lemonade stand. Someone yelled: there they are! And we immediately swooped down on you, a gang of obnoxious punks in predatory peaked caps, a flock of cantankerous crows, we surrounded you, running in a circle, twisting around like monkeys and yelling: Kosta, say cock, c-c-come on, K-k-kosta, say c-c-cock. When these attacks first began, the stutterer would turn bright red and refuse to utter the offending word, and this often earned him kicks and slaps, and you earned them, too, right alongside him, but this time while we were bleating out K-k-kosta, say c-c-cock, he solemnly raised his hand, waited for the racket to die down, and with icy calm said: dick. We froze, so startled by the failure of our torment, that we didn’t even lunge forward to pummel him, what’s more since the long shadow of the groundskeeper was towering from the entrance. We never tried the same joke again, nor did we think up any other.
However, there was not a sufficiently precise and dignified synonym for the word c-c-communist.
Emil Strezov should have been thankful that the neighborhood gangs tormented Kosta like that, because otherwise the two of them would hardly have grown so close, never mind that they were like two peas in a pod: black-haired, swarthy, ostensibly of average height, but as they walked hunched over, they looked short and timid. From the rushing rumors on the corner, the neighborhood quickly grasped the details of that unexpected arrival. In brief, Emil Strezov had come from a grubby little town further down the Iskar Gorge with a frightened gaze and a single, solitary set of homespun clothes, poorly sewn for his figure which was in any case scrawny, such that his high school uniform came to him like manna from heaven. In the last war Uncle Petar had fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Emil’s father, who had recently passed away, and besides that he only had one child of his own and that’s why he agreed to take the kid in, to help him find his footing in the big city. In any other house, Emil Strezov likely would have slept as best he could in the shop, and in his few spare hours he would have sat alone and morose, without even a drawer in which to hide the poems he wrote late at night. (Poems! From the very beginning we were sure that you wrote poems; and what a field day we would have had if we had gotten our hands on them then!) But since Kosta stuttered, had no friends and was terribly shy even when at home with his own family, Emil Strezov’s poetic works found in his person a devoted audience. He would listen to him carefully and praise his poetry with clumsily disguised delight, while the author, his lodger-friend, practically a brother, would let his gaze wander outside through the window. And in the first moments this gaze, veiled by simple rhymes, would run up against the inner courtyard and the family’s cobbler’s workshop, but then the buildings of the high school, the cinema, and the chocolate factory with its wine-red façade would come into view. He had a good view of them, since all the surrounding houses were low: the houses of blue-collar workers and refugees from the wars, built in a single night on vacant lots. Among them the shoemaker’s two-story home stood out like an anchor of security and calm. Kosta’s father, Uncle Petar, was a true local, he had been born in this house, which in turn had been built by his father, who was also a shoemaker, in those forgotten years when the neighborhood was still cutting a path through the melon patches and swamps. And by the neighborhood’s standards he was not poor, and for some of us he was downright rich—they said that there was milk on his table every morning, and on market days his wife would come home with a large hunk of meat. The shoemaker made good money. Because no matter how poor Yuchbunar might be, we nevertheless needed shoes, and shoes got torn and mended, torn and mended until some evening they completely fell apart, but even then the sound pieces of leather were put to good use in making a new pair. Uncle Petar also kept models of fancy shoes in his workshop, and wouldn’t you know, several times a season he would get orders to make a pair of those. Oh how we went to town when we got the money! We would buy ourselves Uncle Petar’s fancy shoes, we would buy ourselves new caps, we would buy ourselves bow ties and suspenders, and go strutting down Pirotska Street, the whole gang would get together and go to the movies, stretched tight as strings we would pass by the girls’ high school—first on the left-hand and then on the right-hand sidewalk—and we would take the girls to the cake shops; and after that, some of Uncle Petar’s shoes, having already fulfilled their function, would find themselves beyond the bridge in Konyovitsa, resold to the local con men there.
And then all hell broke loose. Uncle Petar’s shoes went stamping down the pavement of Pirotska like cavalrymen’s boots. The news spread around the whole neighborhood that the people had seized power. But still, when we say that the news spread, doesn’t this spreading and going around always have to have some kind of form, flesh, method? Later it became very fashionable to collect memories. You, comrade, do you remember in the morning of September 9, where you were when you heard the good news? Well now, on the morning of September 9, I was sitting at home, the kids ran in shouting: The people have taken power! That’s what they said over the radio-diffusion set. It was a Saturday, that’s why I was at home. But could Emil Strezov of all people really have overslept, dreaming his sweet dreams, until the sun started beating down on him and woke him up, while at that time such important decisive events were taking place in the city? He, who always got up early, overslept right on the most important day! Was that how it was? Emil Strezov, it’s too early to guess what you’ll write someday in your memoir, when you’ll be going around bent over with a fine dusting of dandruff on the shoulders of your lined suit coat, but we’re not promising that we’ll read it. We don’t make any promises about that bound volume with hard covers, because even now we suspect that inside you’ll be fibbing a bit, because you, with all your virtues, have got that weakness, you’re not good at lying, so why should we read it? If the time comes when you can speak the truth out loud, that will only be because nobody will care about it anymore, everyone will have forgotten everything and Yuchbunar won’t even exist anymore. But if one day somebody sits down to tell about that business truthfully, then his story will have to be contradictory and fragmented, he’ll have to speak in many voices, which say different things and sound different: no two voices are the same, right, but no two moments are the same, either, especially in days like those when it often seemed to us that life began all over again every morning, and that we’ve got to learn to walk from scratch again, how to eat and how to talk. And, to maintain its honesty, that story will have to twist and turn, to wind down the dusty streets and to jump along the rooftops, just as we did, it’ll even have to turn against itself sometimes. And even if the story is endowed with a hundred sets of eyes—a sprightly, monstrous spider straight out of ancient nightmares—again many things will remain mysteries, because, in the end, can you ever know what things were truly like. We saw some things with our own two eyes, others we heard about from the rushing rumors on the corners, while yet others we guessed at, presumed, made up—whatever you want to call it. One way or another, you wake up one morning and the world is different, because during the night someone has changed it right under your nose. And what do you know, you want to take part in it: of course you can, you’re just the boy we need, we’ll find you a role. Later you’ll have time to forget. But there, in the core of the past, there will always be some beginning: a sudden jump out of bed, and some voice indignantly smacking you across the ear: the people took power, and you’re still asleep!
In the next few days we started seeing you often, together or apart. With red armbands, you would make the rounds of the neighborhood, strutting, supposedly keeping law and order, but not seeing any further than your nose, or at the very least you didn’t see us. Tsenev had taken you under his wing. He showed up with you once or twice, you made a couple rounds of the neighborhood, you showed him the police chief’s house (locked up and empty, but we, too, knew that), you showed him the chocolate factory (the owner hadn’t come back at all after the air raids), you showed him the church and the school, as if he wouldn’t have been able to find them on his own. But he looked satisfied, insofar as could be gleaned from his expression. (OK fine, but who was this Tsenev really? What detachment was he from, what was he supposed to be at the moment, and who had given him power? You could tell that he was not some truly important figure, but at the same time it was clear that he wasn’t small-fry either, and that, we must admit, confused us—it confused you, too, but you wouldn’t admit it.) In any case, no matter how much we listened to the radio—and it was always blaring about how the people had taken power, how the Fatherland Front government had been formed, calling for a warm welcome to our brothers the Red Army and always underscoring the obvious fact that everything had changed—in those first days change meant that three young people like us had started going around the streets, our streets, in red armbands.
But very soon everyone realized that the neighborhood itself had changed. Not simply because of the red flags flying on public buildings and the slogans which appeared soon afterward and which important girls carefully wrote in paint on old bedsheets. The very rhythm of the day had suddenly shifted. Above the low houses fear and fervor ebbed and flowed, one followed the other before again giving way, thus the neighborhood now fell hushed with supercharged fear, now exploded, spewing out the people hiding in their homes; within the span of a few hours those same heads would be hiding behind the yellowed curtains of the shabby windows, and then suddenly they would find themselves on the street, fusing into the gushing streams of people nearby, just before coming together in an agitated sea and heading off who knows where, the mood would again change, the people would scatter and the dusty streets would again lie empty. Even the usual everyday bustle had somehow become different. In the morning the milkman would deliver the milk cans always with the same cart, but it was as if some anxious glow quivered around it, while the glass bottles, into which the thick milk was poured, broke more often than other times. The milkman cursed just as before, but now when passing by the policemen he added the regents into his well-wishing, and at one point he wrote on his cart in red paint: “Long live the people’s power.”
And you were given a pistol.
Tsenev handed it to you at the station, winked at you and patted you on the back and seemed to be getting ready to give a lecture on the tasks facing the newly formed people’s militia, but that suddenly struck him as boring, he waved his hand dismissively and sent you to patrol the streets. And so you set off along the yellow streets, past the uninviting fences and the suspiciously bristling hovels. The neighborhood was in a quiet phase, squatting sullenly and seeming not to be following what you were doing, but countless pale faces with small but darting little eyes were watching you. You didn’t see anything irregular on your rounds, you didn’t see anything interesting at all. The hidden watchers kept silent and didn’t give themselves away, it was as if no one even noticed you right up until you went to go home.
Miko was squatting in front of the neighboring house, nine-year-old Miko, digging with a stick in the dirt. He saw you come strutting up the street in your tunic and red armband—you didn’t have a peaked cap yet, in those first day the militia men didn’t have caps and could be recognized only by their red armbands, but to make up for that a holster with a pistol was hanging from your belt. Miko saw you and opened his mouth, his eyes lit up with delight, he got up, threw away his stick and saluted you with his right hand, which had only two fingers. And why, why did Miko have only two fingers? Because one day he found a pen in the dust of that very same street, one of those the British planes dropped, the pen was gleaming in the dust and Miko picked it up, and the moment he opened it, it exploded in his hands. You saw him, you saw everything from your window, you had heard of English pen-bombs, the rumor was going around the neighborhood: the Americans dropped gigantic bombs and destroyed whole houses, whole neighborhoods, the English also dropped those sorts of bombs, oh yes, but beside that they also dropped pens, toys, trinkets, they glittered in the dust and when the kids picked them up they exploded and blew off their fingers. You saw him, but you were so startled, you were so scared that you couldn’t shout at him to warn him, you couldn’t yell: Hey, Miko, don’t, don’t open that pen! And the English pen-bomb tore off three of Miko’s fingers, never mind that he was Jewish and the English said they were protecting the Jews from Hitler.
So now Miko had only his pinkie and ring finger on his right hand, but he saluted with them and looked at you as if you were a character from a film and he had seen you on the screen of the neighborhood cinema. That’s why you also saluted him, but he didn’t dare speak to you, he just watched you pass by in your tunic and red armband, the pistol hanging from your belt, and pushed open the green gate to the little yard with its rusty hinges, and went home, new and important.
The pistol was put to work the very next week when the incident with Stefan the Sinister occurred.
Stefan the Sinister was an invalid from the previous war, with an almost completely paralyzed left leg and a government pension, and the neighborhood hated him, because he regularly served as a court expert—hence his nickname "the Sinister." In his capacity as a court expert, Stefan would go around this and other such neighborhoods in the company of a repossession agent and a policeman, visiting the home of overdue debtors. There the repossession agent would prepare an inventory of the property, Stefan would certify the truth of the inventory with his signature, while the policeman would scowl and suck on his mustache. The debtors would wring their hands and wail—the men usually disappeared and left their wives to deal with these unwanted guests, perhaps that way they would have at least a bit of mercy. The repossession agent would talk about the law, expressing the hope that the family would nevertheless manage to cover their debts so it wouldn’t come to confiscation, uttering a few stock phrases that did not mean anything substantial, and with a practiced gesture would again place his soft beige cap on his head, which the neighborhood noticed from afar and which presaged disaster. Stefan wouldn’t say anything. He would sign under the inventory listing his neighbors’ pathetic property, drag his paralyzed leg outside, climb into the carriage with great effort and the threesome would continue on visiting addresses. If Stefan had been poor, if he had needed the money they paid him for this baleful work, people likely would have forgiven him and the aureole around his scowling, puffy face wouldn’t have been so sinister. But that was the rub—Stefan wasn’t poor at all: besides his invalid’s pension, he lived alone in a two-story house with a balcony across from the school and rented out the whole first floor to a bookstore, where the school children bought their notebooks. Some said that he went around to houses with the repossession agent out of malice, that he enjoyed seeing his neighbors’ poverty. Others who had known him for a long time claimed that Stefan simply had a particular attitude toward law and order and considered these sinister visits his duty. He was always grumpy, but it was as if deep down he was not a bad person. Once he even lent you two leva at the store.
After the people took power, the repossession agent’s soft beige hat disappeared; the policeman vaporized as well. Only Stefan was left. It looked as if the carriage would never again appear, while the sinister figure of the invalid suddenly took on the clear contours of a class enemy. First of all, the house across from the school woke up one morning to a broken window on the upper floor. Nothing came of it and the next day a second broken window on the upper floor could be seen. On the third day a whole crowd of women and kids gathered out front: cursing, booing and hissing and hollering at the owner to come outside. The boys pegged the upper floor with slingshots; the bookseller downstairs wisely closed up and let down the shutters. Come out, the women cried, come out, you lousy scoundrel, you blood-sucking Fascist! Someone told you that trouble was brewing—could it have been us?—and you quickly headed that way with your red armband and pistol. No one knew why and how the crowd had gathered, who had led the women there, what they meant to do with Stefan the Sinister or where their husbands were. Enemy of the people! A voice shrieked and the others took it up. A kid climbed on the fence of the school and screamed from there: death to Fascism! You hesitantly rubbed the red band on your arm. You weren’t sure what was expected of the people’s militia: to help the people deal with the class enemy or to restore order. And besides that, Stefan really had lent you two leva at the store.
At one point he appeared on the balcony and the chanting suddenly broke off, because he was holding a rifle. No one knew Stefan the Sinister owned a weapon, he had surely tucked it away from the war. He propped himself up on his good leg and readied the rifle to shoot. The kid who had been yelling “Death to Fascism” quickly scampered off the fence and ran toward the school, but no one else seemed to react. Stefan the Sinister did not shoot, nor did he say anything, he kept silent, just as he kept silent during those inventories, and kept the rifle aimed at the women. Everyone stood as if paralyzed. The pistol ended up in your hand of its own accord, you lifted it up, and your voice sounded hollow and lonesome in the dusty morning: step back, or I’ll shoot! Stefan slowly turned and your eyes met. His were empty, dark and almost weary. He waved the rifle slightly as if wanting to say Get the hell out of here, boy, then he pointed it at you and hesitated, you were close and could clearly see his finger trembling on the trigger then suddenly it tightened . . . The shot tore through the yellow air, but your skull didn’t explode, nor were you hit in the chest: you felt a sudden burning in your striped arm and beneath the red armband a second band was spreading: blood, your blood. The bullet, as you later would realize, had ricocheted off the iron fence of the school and had grazed your arm. But then you were injured, the enemy had shot at you and instead of returning fire with fire, you dropped the pistol and clutched your arm, and the women started screaming. He killed the boy, the same voice rose up that before had been yelling “Enemy of the people.” Stefan the Sinister didn’t budge from his place.
Then Tsenev showed up on the street. He wasn’t running, he wasn’t yelling, his small figure was striding with large solid steps toward you and, even though the yellow skin on his face was stretched taut, he didn’t show any sign of agitation, he made his way through the women, reached you, tossed a glance at your wound, then absolutely businesslike, with a practiced gesture, he raised his gun toward the balcony and fired. Stefan staggered, dropped the rifle, fell onto the metal railing, which over the years had grown so warped and rusty it couldn’t hold his weight, the railing crunched, tearing away from the crumbling cement, and Stefan’s sinister body fell flat on its face on the pavement. Tsenev put away his gun and said calmly: one Fascist fewer.
The women started to scatter.
© Angel Igov. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Angela Rodel. All rights reserved.
Twin teenage sisters from a middle-class background are on the run from the authorities. They have joined a Partisan group based in the Balkan Mountains. The Partisans are a mixed bunch of young and old communists and peasant party members, all dedicated fighters against the Bulgarian monarchist regime and their German allies. Many have adopted colorful nicknames. Nail—short for Final Nail in the Coffin of Capitalism—or Digger—short for Gravedigger of Capitalism. Others have adopted the names of revolutionary heroes—Botev and Lenin. There is a renegade monk called Tikhon. There is only one other female—white-haired Extra Nina, whose grasp of Communist ideology has made her the commander’s trusted right-hand political officer. Commander Medved is a former refugee from the 1922 Bulgarian White Terror, returned by a Russian submarine eighteen years later to command local resistance against the Bulgarian government. He speaks Bulgarian with a heavy Russian accent.
After a long period of inactivity punctuated by police attacks, the group finds that one of their number, Botev, can no longer see.
Just five minutes later Botev regained his sight—just as unexpectedly as he’d lost it. He was terrified, as if he’d been hauled out of a deep well full of scorpions and snakes.
No one in the squadron had any specialized medical training. Some time ago Extra Nina had attended a midwifery course. Deaf Tanko (Vitan Churov from a village named Churov Spring) had passed an orderly’s course in veterinary medicine and so had been entrusted with the first-aid bag. They called him “Deaf” because he couldn’t hear anything in his right ear. He’d successfully cleaned up Lozan’s wound and bound it, but in this situation he just shrugged. Examination of Botev’s eyes proved fruitless—neither Deaf Tanko nor Extra Nina could find anything unusual or worrying.
“Did you eat something off the ground? Did you drink something? Did you fall on your head?” they pressed him with questions, like real doctors. “Has this happened before? Is there any blindness in your family?”
“Nnn, nnn, nnuh!” he mooed.
Just to be sure, they searched for the key to this mystery in his rucksack. Apart from assorted male junk and a considerable number of cigarettes, what fell out of the bottom was a white rag with polka dots and a lace border. Actually it hadn’t been white for a long time, it had achieved a yellowish tinge—Extra Nina lifted it with two fingers and inspected it in incomprehension. Then she turned to the partisans grouped around her. “What is this . . . comrades?”
The men shrugged with apparent disinterest.
“My knickers!” Gabriella shouted.
“Your knickers?! Why did you give them to him?”
“Nonsense! How could you think such a thing?” she cried. “One morning they’d just vanished into thin air. I thought that some magpie had stolen them . . . ”
“Magpie!” Medved snorted.
Gabriella threw the knickers into the fire with a mixture of disgust and regret. It wasn’t clear what the exact connection was between the knickers and Botev’s sudden blindness, but everyone felt there was something—something not quite right.
“Vere did you get zo many zigarettes?” the commander asked in his severest tone.
Botev hung his head.
“Admit it! Admit it!” Tikhon called out spitefully. “You’ve been trading in stolen knickers, haven’t you!”
“He wanted two cigarettes for that satanic rag, Tovarisht Kombrig! Ten minutes for two cigarettes. Capitalist! God punished him!”
“Tikhon!” shouted Nina.
“I meant to say Nature,” the former monk immediately corrected himself. “The law of nature punished him.”
“I didn’t ask for cigarettes. They offered them to me,” whined Botev, who had at last come out of his stupor. “I didn’t want to appear uncomradely. I’d even have handed them over without any cigarettes. Isn’t that right? Go on tell them, Maxim!”
“I, sort of . . . ” the young man stuttered in confusion.
“And vy vere zeze tings zo nezizary for you?” the commander demanded sharply.
“They weren’t necessary!”
“Why? So they could rub themselves off, that’s why, ha-ha-ha!” Tikhon explained. “Come on let’s stop playing dumb. Admit it!”
“You can talk, you mean to say you don’t rub one off?” shouted Svilen.
“I rub off,” Tikhon stroked his beard, “But not so much. Up to five times they go to rub off, Tovarisht Kombrig! Night and day. I knew something bad would happen . . . In our village we had someone blind. They called him the Goblin. Not only blind but dumb, too. Grandma would warn me that if I rubbed off I’d end up like him. If I just see your hands under the blanket. But who listens . . . how many stinging nettle strokes have these hands suffered, eh?”
He flexed his four stubby fingers and shook his head sadly.
“Me too, they beat my hands with stinging nettles,” Kochan moaned.
“It doesn’t just make you blind,” added Digger. “In our village we had this Manol, a whole fifteen years he lay there paralyzed. Mum said: rub yourself off if you want to be like Uncle Manol, rub one off, but I’m not going to clean your shitty bottom afterward . . . ”
“Well they told me that you get fits from it,” said Lozan. “an illness, epilepsy if you’ve heard of it . . . ”
“If a child rubs himself off at home on St. Ignat’s Day,” whispered old Metodii, drawing on centuries-old folk wisdom, “the year will bear no fruit. Billy goat’s seed will be watered down and not catch on. Hens will lay less and cows won’t bear calves.”
A painful silence fell. In everyone’s memories there lurked some whiskery granny dressed in black, with stinging nettles in one hand and a birch switch in the other. And now this hunchback belligerence lifted itself out of forgotten corners, stepped out bold and ready to fight, only as ancient grannies knew how, when they have to chase off the demons we have inside. With waxy faces and glaring white eyes, they spouted forth terrifying warnings and heavy prophesies of impending doom, family curses, and painful death.
The knickers burned with a low flickering flame.
“How long has this outrageous behavior been going on?” asked Extra Nina.
Botev pointed at the girls: “From the moment these two showed up . . . ”
“What?” Gabriella and Monika stared in shock.
“You’re a lying bastard!” Bushy shouted. “I’ve seen you rubbing one off even before that! Back at Trichavo when you were on sentry duty . . . You infected the others!”
“Well, you don’t mean to say you’ve caught scabies?” interrupted Gabriella. “What is all this rubbing off about? We haven’t brought scabies into the unit, we’ve never been ill with scabies. We’ve had measles, which is awfully itchy, too, but that was a long time ago.”
At last, everyone giggled uncontrollably. Even something like a smile drifted across Medved’s face. But who knows why Extra Nina blushed and the girls exchanged puzzled looks.
“Can someone explain the meaning and the significance you place on this verb: to rub off?!” Monika’s eyes flashed with fury.
An embarrassed Extra Nina drew them to one side. She really wasn’t an expert on the subject, in spite of the midwifery course, and that’s why her explanation sounded quite strange. A few minutes passed before the twins understood exactly what the fuss was about.
“Oh, that was all!” Monika exclaimed.
“We’ve read a lot about masturbation,” Gabriella announced, “In one of my mother’s magazines there was an article by somebody called Shtekel, an Austrian academic. He maintains that masturbation is a completely normal human activity.”
“Yes, completely normal,” her sister confirmed, turned toward the men, and cried: “There’s nothing to be ashamed of, comrades. You don’t go blind because of this, you don’t go deaf, you don’t get fits. For centuries, masturbation has been demonized by reactionary forces so as to suppress the broad mass of the people. Today, science completely rejects these filthy lies and even thinks that they have brought irreparable harm to the human psyche. Long live free masturbation! Down with the tyranny of superstition!”
No one dared take up the new slogan, however attractive it sounded. The men lowered their eyes as if they feared some kind of trap. Or joke. The grannies didn’t give up so easily . . . Medved realized that their eyes had now turned toward him. It was only a matter of time and he already guessed what the question would be.
“How do they address the issue of masturbation in the Soviet Union, Tovarisht Kombrig?” Screw asked timidly.
Medved pulled at the ends of his tunic, coughed, and spoke: “Issue of mazdurbation does not appear on daily agenda in Soviet Union. Soviet people have more prezzing tasks to purzue. They cannot allow zelves to fritter energies on zuch frippery. I advise you too to zave your zdrength. Ve cannot rely on regular supplies. Every calorie is ezential for our zdruggle’s goals.”
Extra Nina waited for his words to sink into the minds of the fighters. Then she shouted: “If the people of the Soviet Union can, then so can we!”
“Why do you have to stick your oar in?” Lenin muttered.
“Comrades!” Screw leaped up, his voice trembling with emotion. “As secretary of the Youth Organization in the name of all our conscientious members, I swear a solemn oath that we will stop this practice!”
“We swear, we swear . . . ” chorused some uncertain voices.
Medved scratched his head in some disbelief. Botev was slinking by the fire with his eyes cast down. Walking past him the commander stopped and fixed him with that heavy unblinking gaze that everyone avoided. “It is not nice to zdeal comrade.”
“I haven’t stolen. I just borrowed them,” the unfortunate man wept. “I was going to return them the first chance I got.”
“Today you reach out for knickers, tomorrow a comrade’s bread. Just zo you know, nyext time ve’ll shoot you.”
In the evening the temperature fell fast. The partisans pulled on every pullover, sweater, jerkin and woolen over-breeches that came to hand, snuggled under covers, and huddled up close to one another. The fire gradually died out. Only the paraffin lamp in the General Command’s tent continued to flicker. In front of the tent flap Stoicho stood sentry with a bayonet stuck into the ground. Medved had called the squadron’s officials together. From time to time the clicking sound of a typewriter flew through the air. It was clear to everyone that vitally important questions were being discussed, leading to strategic decisions which perhaps quite soon would change their fate.
The two girls brought the tips of their noses together to warm them up.
“Do you know,” whispered Gabriella, “whatever that Shtekel rabbits on about, this still doesn’t seem at all comradely to me . . . ”
Monika stayed silent a few seconds and then whispered in her turn: “I wonder, though, whether we’ve provoked them in some way to behave like this?”
“How would I know . . . Perhaps we’ve secretly wanted them to like us? We’ve shown some feminine coquetry or other weakness, which has aroused particular desires, inappropriate for the struggle?”
She paused for a moment.
“We allowed them to see us naked!”
“It wasn’t on purpose!”
“No, it wasn’t.”
There followed another few minutes of silence. A soft warmth stole between their noses.
“When we die heroically in battle, they’ll understand we weren’t that sort . . . ” growled Gabriella. “But it’ll be too late.”
And with that thought both girls began to weep simultaneously.
Not a stone’s throw away from them the peasants snored, rolled into one another like a row of pumpkins. Botev was shivering on his own under a rug, shunned by everyone as if he carried the plague. Bushy had his own bag, lined with sheepskin, into which he wound himself tight as if it were a cocoon. Tikhon had latched onto Digger and Uncle Metodii because he was cold. For comradeship’s sake they took him in, and in gratitude he farted for them under the canvas. On Uncle Metodii, who had been swimming in another reality for some time, the stink made absolutely no impression. But Digger couldn’t even think to cover his head. His ears were frozen under his thin cap. Apart from this, he was upset that Lenin had been invited to the meeting and not him. His ears took in the muffled voices of the youngsters, lying behind the bushes.
“And so what’s the upshot of all this now?” Lozan called out. “It’s that they’ve lied to us like village idiots.”
“And it’s not just you,” Nail added grimly: “your father and your grandfather . . . back to the ninth generation they’ve been lied to and maybe more.”
“It’s not as if it’s the only lie that’s been spread about!” sighed Dicho.
“You’ve always got to ask whose interests this serves,” Screw pointed out.
“The exploitive classes!” a group whisper flew up.
“They’ve got the most beautiful wives, they’ve got mistresses, not just one apiece, they allow themselves all kinds of pleasures . . . ” Screw continued pitilessly. “And what about the people? Two bare hands. And that disgusts them!”
“Yes, masturbation is a proletarian activity,” agreed Nail.
“But this business with the knickers, there’s something not quite comradely . . . ” said Lozan. “We’re just insulting our comrade women. What will they think of us? A band of mutants!”
“They said we could.”
“Well, maybe we can but it’s not comradely,” Dicho broke in. “In the Soviet Union they don’t behave like this. They’re brave girls and they deserve respect. We have to find a way to make up for this awful impression.”
“We’ll make up for it,” Svilen spoke quietly.
“When we die.”
“Come on, rub one off and go to sleep, mates!” Digger couldn’t stand any more.
“Never!” the answer flew back. “We’ve given our word.”
© Alek Popov. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Christopher Buxton. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Kristina Dimitrova, a mysterious customer reveals to a bookstore clerk the hidden gravity of the trade.
It was still wet from the rain and some of the paving stones gave way, soaking me with spurts of water. Many of the sidewalks in the city center do that; the meandering streets I have to walk down every morning and evening are like a minefield. The people who live nearby claim to know the neighborhood, but in fact they pass through it without paying any attention to what’s around them. It’s as transparent to them as a vial of bromine. An elderly client recently told me that she lived in a flat on the other side of the street, in the yellow building with no balconies. First of all, the building is not yellow but pale green and second, at the level of the third floor, there actually is a balcony that connects her building to the neighboring one. I know all about it, even though it is covered in ivy. She seemed not to be aware of it, though. I don’t blame her. Sometimes things just change without us noticing.
Unlocking the low door of the bookshop where I work, I found a stack of books on the doorstep, tied with twine. I have a good idea who the person leaving them is and I don’t like what he’s doing at all. We have fair dealings with all of our clients. But the one doing this is either testing me or trying to win my favor and I can’t tell what bothers me more.
Unlike other stores where a person has to climb up a few stairs to get in, with the bookstore, which is below street-level, the clients have to go down ten stone steps to enter the vast premises criss-crossed by wooden shelves reaching all the way up to its arched columns. More often than not, those who come in are not clients at all, but mere readers, or when it’s pouring rain outside, they are simply drenched people without umbrellas. In my mind, I prefer to call them “seekers”: first, they have managed to find the low door hidden in a labyrinth of narrow streets, and second, they descend into the gloom of shelves like speleologists with no ropes, not concerned about when or how they will get out. The cave of books around them is seemingly the same, yet constantly refreshed. Every night before closing up, I put newly purchased titles in the places of those that have been sold out. That way, no shelf is ever left empty, it just looks different the next day.
Sometimes, in the remote corners of the bookstore, I see marks scribbled with pencil or carved into the wood. I have to rub them off or fill them in with a special paste the color of the wood. Visitors assume all risk upon entering the premises, that’s how the instructions of the bookstore owner go. In fact, I’ve never seen him. He sends me his instructions by mail, in white envelopes. Once I wrote to him suggesting we put in brighter light bulbs because people find it hard to read the letters in the dimness of the store. He replied with the same words. I received a piece of paper folded into a square saying: “Visitors assume all risk upon entering the premises.”
I had certain ideas circling in my mind about how to revive the business a little—we could, for example, advertise the bookstore in the newspapers or leave brochures at dentists’ offices or similar things. But now I avoid asking him anything. When I have a question, I just imagine receiving a piece of paper folded into a square with the same message and that's the end of it.
Some “seekers” plunge straight down the stairs thinking they’re going into a tavern, only to bolt back out the door, panicked at having landed in a tomb. Others, for their part, can’t go a day without diving into this ocean of books. Actually, if they haven’t come by for a day or two, I know they must be sick, but if they still don't appear on the third day, I hope for their sake that they’ve left the city and in the meantime I try not to check the obituaries.
One of the regulars isn’t much to my liking, though. He’s slightly stooped, wears a striped brown coat and always gives me probing looks with his head tilted to the side. He likes clearing his throat even when he doesn’t have a word to say. That throat-clearing helps me establish how far he has gotten in examining the books. But he rarely buys anything. Once he brought along a neat bundle of books for selling—they were just like the ones I occasionally find in front of the door. It felt as if he wanted to make his presence known, as if he were trying to point out the relation between certain events.
A few days ago I heard him rearranging some books in the farthest corner of the bookstore. He was groaning as if climbing up the shelves, occasionally clearing his throat. I went around my walnut desk and rushed over to see what was going on. I found him with a ladder in one hand and three hardcover volumes in the other. He gave me a disapproving look, raising his chin and turning it to the side.
“Do you want them wrapped?” I asked him.
“They were in the anthropology section, but I would’ve put them in the theosophical one.”
I took a look at the authors—Jiddu Krishnamurti, Rudolf Steiner, Annie Besant.
“Yes, I would have, too,” I mumbled and pictured myself receiving a dismissal notice the next day.
He smoothed their back covers, cleared room on the shelf for them, and with a deft movement placed them between the other books. At that very instant, a thunder roared outside. Strangely enough, every time an unexpected rearrangement of a larger number of books is made, something outside changes. It’s usually the weather. When I fill in the vacant spaces with new books, the changes happen so smoothly that they are scarcely out of the ordinary. The yellow house becomes pale green. The attic windows of the gray house at the corner disappear. An entrance I’ve never seen before appears. More major changes, though, bring about unforeseen consequences. Once a rather clumsy lady lost her balance on the ladder and, in her attempt to grab hold of something, pulled an entire shelf of books down. Then a snowstorm raged outside and I was barely able to make it home because the street out front no longer led to the usual avenue—instead, it reached a river with a granite bridge over it. At both banks of the river flickered decorative lanterns casting a circle of light over the snowflakes. A couple of love birds emerged from the nearby coffee shop and I had to unwillingly interrupt them to ask for directions. They showed me the way without batting an eye and resumed their kisses.
Another clearing of the throat came.
He didn‘t utter a word, just kept staring at me with a probing look. He was resting the right side of his face on his palm, fingers drumming on his gray-streaked cheek. The sleeve of the coat ended in a greasy cuff. A bitter smile crossed his face like a swift moon passing over a dry planet. I was already positive he was testing me so he could send me another one of his little white notes. My hands began to tremble with desperation, but I decided not to give in, so I said: “Visitors assume all risks upon entering the premises, right?”
I may have said it in a slightly curt voice because an echo I had never heard before reverberated through the room. In bookstores, though, people usually speak in a low voice as if they might interrupt the thoughts of the books around them.
“Oh, is that right?” he exclaimed, tucking hands in the pockets of his coat and heading for the door. The instant I said the words, I regretted them. If he fired me the following day, I would have nowhere to go. I have no idea where they need people with the skill for sorting books by author and title on ten-story shelves. I hurried after him hoping that while I was trying to catch up with him, I would come up with a way to smooth things out.
He quickened his pace, practically running up the stairs. He nearly bumped into a soaking young man at the door. The two men stood there for a brief while, but I wouldn’t say that they were facing each other, as the young one was much taller and my regular visitor hadn’t even climbed the last step. In the end, the young man backed off to make way for the other and finally made it into the bookstore. Streaks of water were trickling from his dark hair down the long overcoat that was wrapped around him like a curtain. The body underneath looked so skinny it could well fit into a sock. Obviously the rain had brought him here because this was his first visit.
“Good evening,” he said. That really was the best evening I have been wished lately. His voice was deep and clear and it seemed he was speaking quietly because if he yelled, the windows would shatter to pieces. His forehead was gleaming like the inner part of a shell. “Can I look around?” he asked.
I waved at the maze of shelves inside and, much as I wanted to accompany him around the store, I sat down behind my desk, because I know just how much people hate you breathing down their necks while they are going through the books. They even forget to read the titles because they have unwillingly started reading with their backs and are watching me standing behind them. I breathed on my glasses and went on to clean them so that I wouldn’t follow him around in my mind. Suddenly I realized that a rhythmic rustling was coming from the inside of the bookstore.
He was rearranging books! I’m not sure what exactly prompted me: was it the rain that suddenly stopped and then lashed down again with a vengeance or was it the wind that hurled the raindrops at the door’s little window after this break in the weather? I ran to stop him. For a while I couldn’t find him because I couldn’t figure out which direction the sound was coming from. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a fairytale character who coughs between the shelves or leaves a trail of breadcrumbs so as to be able to find his way back.
I found him in the fiction section. He didn’t seem to need the ladder much.
“What are you doing?”
He looked at me with his big dark eyes and said: “I’m saving myself.” I stopped his hand short a second before he placed Doctor Faustus next to Steppenwolf.
“Let me do it,” he said, “Please, let me put the book there.”
“You don’t understand. I can’t let you do it! Everything here must stay right where it is. Sometimes the new combination turns out to be just fine, but sometimes the books can‘t stand each other and terrible things happen outside.”
I knew that it would sound incoherent to a stranger, but the authority I usually managed to invoke had no influence on him at all. Desperate and running the risk of being considered insane, for the first time I had spoken my mind. He took The Devil in Love and placed it next to In Search of Lost Time. A slight, almost imperceptible tremor ran beneath the flagstone flooring.
“Look, every new book, every rearrangement causes changes in the world, changes that people usually don’t notice, yet they do happen.”
“So you’ve noticed it, too?”
Before he said that, I thought I was the one springing surprises, but, in fact, it was the other way around.
“Yes, it is true, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” he said. His eyelashes were still wet and looked like some rather soft teeth of a saw. When you feel sorry for someone, you usually bend over them, but this time I was standing with my back arched backward in front of his long face and still I felt sorry for him. I had probably thought that I knew a secret only I could bear, but, in fact, I was facing another person who had to live with it, too. I no longer cared whether Mr. Crooked Beard was going to fire me.
The visitor took The Twelve Caesars and put it next to Light in August. One of the arches gave a warning creak and we were showered with chunks of crumbling plaster. He pulled back the book quickly and placed it next to Twelfth Night. The ceiling went silent but I couldn’t tell if something had changed outside.
“How do you know about the changes?”
“I brought them about. People make use of them constantly, but they have stopped noticing them. You, on the other hand, have seen them, haven’t you?”
I thought about it for a while. I had worked in the bookstore for ten years. But I couldn’t say I noticed them right from the start. After a while, though, I came to see the connection between some events, I began to observe everything carefully and to remember every detail. It was then that the changes came to light.
“For some time now.”
He flicked back a tiny lock of hair that was still dripping down his face and leaned over me.
“Ancient languages still remember them. In Aramaic they have one word for both ‘word’ and ‘action.’"
“So ‘In the beginning was the Word . . . ’”
“Yes, yes, it’s like saying ‘In the beginning was the Action.’ The goddess Seshat whose name means ‘to write’ was worshiped in Ancient Egypt as the patron goddess of building and architecture because ‘the world was built on her designs.’ That is to say, built on the names she gave to things so that those things were contained within their respective words and were thus under her control. The Japanese to this day believe that speech has a soul equivalent to the words it is composed of. Of course, that’s no longer a valid explanation. It’s . . . just a memory of some old explanation.”
He spoke quietly, calmly, with a certain despair that was discernible only on the fringes of his personality—in the corners of his eyes, on his fingertips, in the wet creases of his huge overcoat.
“I have never believed in mythology,” I said. “I have never seen anything that proves its existence in reality. There are no heroes around me. My mother died prematurely. I remember how we buried her in the ground and she did not turn into a bay leaf tree. I may have achieved little in this life, but I have done it all on my own.”
When I mentioned my achievements, I realized they wouldn’t last forever either, so I added: “Although now I know who the mysterious owner of the bookstore is and I won’t be surprised if he fires me tomorrow.”
“I doubt that,” he murmured and removed my glasses very, very carefully.
Everything blurred like a drop of ink dissolved in water, yet my eyes remained fixed on his pale patch of a face. I heard more books being rearranged but now I could see. I remembered having been on a cruise ship with my parents. I thought it might actually turn out that I had a happy childhood after all. The young man in front of me was still holding my glasses in his hand. I could see everything down to the smallest letter. How could have I thought for so many years that my vision was impaired? But, of course, it could’ve been a result of the books changing their places.
“Sir, did you . . . ”
“Uriel, my name is Uriel,” he laughed. “Such formality is unnecessary.”
“What kind of name is that? I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before.”
Maybe he was right and I just couldn’t remember. In any case, he was rearranging the books, something I didn’t allow anyone to do at all, much less right in front of me. I didn’t have it in me to stop him and what I said came out somewhat too late.
“Why are you rearranging the books, Uriel?”
He bent down slowly and sat on the floor beside the shelves. I sat down across from him. Uriel took my hands in his as if that was supposed to be some sort of an explanation. I could see he was pondering how to begin.
“I have been around for a long time. I had a mission. Do you remember my name now?”
I did remember then. I had come across it a long time ago in a longhand translation of the Apocrypha that a professor had left at the bookstore hoping it would spark someone’s interest.
“‘Uriel, the divine fire, carries a scroll and a book.’”
“Michael carries a sword, Raphael, the Healer, carries a walking stick and a gourd, Gabriel carries the Annunciation lily, Samael, Zadkiel, Jophiel . . . Uriel is one of the archangels.”
“Don’t believe everything you read. There aren’t always words for all that exists. I mean precise words. Some things look like an attempt to remember what has been before you were born. Like myths for example.”
I couldn’t say if we were getting closer or further away from a truth. His fingertips were dry and burning.
“Why are you rearranging books, Uriel?”
He bowed his head.
“Because,” he said as if talking to his crossed ankles, “I will be able to go back only when specific words and phrases come together in a particular combination. Then a gateway will open and I will walk out. But I don’t know the words. They just have to come together. Approximately every two thousand and thirty years I have the right to make these changes myself.”
“In 47 BC the Library of Alexandria burned down yet again,” I said jokingly.
“Yes, unfortunately, that is exactly what happened.”
I’ve heard that lunatics can be rather convincing in what they say and do. If that were the case, the person sitting opposite me must’ve been truly insane because I took his word with no explanation whatsoever. Or maybe it was that he had already earned my trust, because he knew the secret, too: the changes. That, however, would mean that we were equally insane.
“So tonight is the night, is that right?”
“Yes,” he said and stood up. “Please help me.”
He took a row of books from one shelf and moved it to the shelf below.
“Mr. Crooked Beard is sure to kill me tomorrow.”
“I doubt that. He knows nothing. He’s just circling and snooping around because he feels that something is up. But his eyes are not vigilant enough to see.”
Uriel went back to rearranging the books, this time a lot more feverishly. You could hear creaks, the rolling thunder outside, the rumble of concrete being dragged against stone, and then an unpleasant silence. I realized I had forgotten to ask him about something. I took him by the hand.
“Uriel, when you came down here on your ‘mission,’ did you know that things were going to turn out this way? I mean, did you know that you were going to remain captive . . . among us until . . . something up there works out as it is supposed to?”
He stopped briefly and smiled again.
“Of course I did. But visitors assume all risks upon entering the premises.”
He started hurling down thick volumes by the handful. I joined him. The books kept piling up on the floor in all sorts of combinations, one of which could’ve been the one we were seeking. The books I had been arranging for years fell wildly from the shelves, open covers flying down upon a growing mountain of colorful shamelessness. At a certain moment it burst into flames.
“There,” he said, gazing wide-eyed at the fire. “Now all the words will burn and once again I will have no way back. Maybe I will never go back.”
I gave him a hug. He was so thin that my hands easily clasped behind his back. He bent over me and pressed his face to my hair. The fire was already growing too large for the room to contain but that wasn‘t the important thing. Who knew what had happened in the meantime with the world outside. I drew a leather-bound volume nearer with my foot and stepped on top of it to get closer to Uriel‘s face. That was all I wanted. I thought he was crying without actually shedding any tears. I was certain something inside of him was weeping silently.
Maybe other sheets had snuck between the leather-bound tome and my feet, pages that had been torn loose in all that turmoil. Maybe the leather volume had landed on them. Or perhaps the fire had whirled the sheets around and two smoldering pieces of paper happened to come together as they swirled in the fierce wind over the flames. The latter seems less likely. I don’t know. But suddenly Uriel vanished in my arms. He dissolved into thin air and I was left hugging an empty overcoat.
* * *
Later they said I’d been found in front of the bookstore wrapped in a dark overcoat. It was an early January morning and I had been walking in the snow barefoot. They also claimed the bookstore was no bookstore at all but an old printing-house for advertisement materials whose ownership was currently under dispute. They explained all this in great detail. I had been discovered by some workers headed to their morning shift at the nearby electronics factory.
Of course, people will say just about anything as long as it saves them from seeing the truth.
© Kristin Dimitrova. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Annie Dancheva. All rights reserved.
In this poem, Boryana Neykova's traveler weighs what to take and what to leave behind.
Soon I will be leaving this town too
the suitcase must not be too heavy
things and people take up space
but one wall from a dirty room
with a poster on it
one strawberry stain
аnd two or three whole evenings
if I take them with me
they will not weigh too much or get in the way
nor will the scanner catch them
© Boryana Neykova. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Irina Ivanova. All rights reserved.
In this short piece, Yordanka Beleva takes a clinical approach to canine companionship.
Women live longer than men. Women who are dog owners live longer than women who are not. Women dog-owners have love. Love is a dog. The National Club of Women Dog Owners. The previous sentences are excerpts from some questionnaires of mine, from the part concerning motivation, and the first question is “Why did you get a dog?”
I copy, underline responses of interest, and rewrite parts of the questionnaires. I’ve recently started studying psychology and this is my first assignment: “The Man Behind the Dog.”
Liliana, thirty-nine, housewife
At my age I still have no one and nothing. I often become spiteful for no reason. I hate kids, cats, and everything else that makes people go soft at the sight of it. Sometimes the thought that I receive less attention than the ugliest house cat makes me cry. But to be by yourself when you are crying is better even than being the most beautiful house cat. For an aging woman like me, when a woman starts comparing herself to cats, it’s time to get a dog. I got a dog to be my ally against the cats. That’s right, I didn’t get it only for the obvious reason of avoiding loneliness. I got an ugly dog to be with me, in my ugliness. It’s loyal to me for the way I treat it and I’m loyal to it, because it’s not pretty. It also understands me—it chases children, cats, and everything that makes people go soft at the sight of it. I know that one day I will get used to it and that I will see it as the most beautiful dog in the world.
Maybe this is true for me, too—someone just has to get used to my looks. One time, as we chased cats together, I was thinking about all the jokes about brunettes made up by blondes. The same is true about me and cats—I chase them, but actually I would like very much to be someone’s beloved house cat they were always petting.
Darina, twenty-three, businesswoman
The dog was given to me as a present. All my dogs were given to me as presents. I don’t mind the superstition that says you are destined to break up if you are given a dog as a present and that’s fine by me, because these dogs were packed in cars—when I get a car as a present, there is always a dog attached to it. After a present like this, I can face the inevitable and the break-ups more easily.
First, I had a small dog, but my first car was small, too. I don’t know the breed of the dog, nor do I know the brand of the car; they were both small and minor. My second dog was bigger and more expensive and so was my car. I want to be a member of your elite club, because all my female friends are members of it. I have the biggest dog in Sofia, which perfectly matches my SUV—the most expensive one in Bulgaria. Surely it’s no problem for me to make donations as long as I can be manager of some initiatives or serve as honorable president of the club, after all I have the biggest dog in Sofia and size always matters. A real woman should always have a big car, a big dog, and a successful businessman by her side. My current boyfriend and dog are both outstanding in size, they get along perfectly, the dog responds to three basic commands and my boyfriend to the most important one—“Gimme that!” I am happy and this is what matters when you when you have to care for a dog, isn’t it?
Stanislava, thiry-two, mother of three children
We have two dogs in the apartment we live in and I have two more at my parents’ village house. A dog shouldn’t live alone among people, even if they shower it with love. If I found myself in a situation where I had my way, I would take in all the homeless dogs and care for them as if they were my children—I’d split everything equally among them. I dream of running an animal shelter. I think my children are going to be like me, most of their stuffed animals are puppies. We have to love our dogs, they are our relatives, our kids. I often have this dream: I live in a tall building full of dogs and most of them are ill or sad, I take care of them and I am like Mother Teresa to all the world’s canines.
Milena, forty-eight, social worker
I don’t need a dog, but who asked me? My husband got it, but I take care of it, I take it for walks before and after work, I feed it, I clean up after it. It’s like having another man in the house. The dog helps me talk to people, it will make me more humane or so my husband says. My husband likes it this way—me doing his work. Or the dog doing it.
Hristina, twenty, a student
I never thought I would own a dog. A friend of mine left her dog with me for a while and I haven't seen her since. The dog became mine. The feeling of owning a dog is amazing. I love to hug it. It’s like having a real, live stuffed animal. At night it sleeps at my feet. It’s restless when I am restless. It licks my tears when I cry. It looks around for me when I am gone. I wish that I could meet a man who’s like my dog. Who would be loyal to me, like a dog. I’m looking for someone to become my dog.
Asena, sixty-eight, widow
I took in a dog so I could talk to it. Since my husband died I have no one to talk to, I have no one to say a single word to. Having a dog is even better than having a man.
Evdokiya, forty-five, unemployed
At first, my relationships with men were like a separate food diet—they came in limitless quantities, I just had to combine them in the right way. Lately they seem more like separate bins for recycling. I need the dog to help me recognize them—which type each one is. Dogs know what is good to eat and what isn’t. This dog is all I have left from a man from ten years ago. I wanted a baby, he gave me a dog.
I’m leaving The National Club of Women Dog Owners. I took what I needed, which is the evidence gathered for my assignment. I've chosen the more interesting motivations for owning a dog and now I have to summarize them. Tomorrow I will add the men’s points of view, in the morning I will be in the park and will also interview the homeless dog owners, two dog trainers, eventually someone from the mayor’s office. I can't forget the children, I need the opinion of some people who are now growing up. I want to do my assignment properly. It won’t be easy with all these relations between dogs and the sexes, dogs and temperament, dogs and language, dogs and adults, dogs and religion. These psychologists!
I don’t know whether women live longer than men do. I don’t know whether women dog owners live longer than women who are not dog owners. All I know is that the mornings are longer and start earlier when you own a dog. The dog makes your day longer. Do longer days make life longer and do women live longer than men? I really don’t know. What I know is that love truly is a dog. I own a dachshund and that is love.
Love is a dachshund: it gets longer as years pass by but it doesn’t get taller—no, it doesn’t.
© Yordanka Beleva. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Ivan Kolarov. All rights reserved.
Frontier, the latest novel by the experimental Chinese writer Can Xue, in a straightforward and accessible translation by Keren Gernant and Chen Zeping, describes life in a border town. But what, exactly, does Pebble Town border? It’s far in the north of China, and literalists will at first conclude that Pebble Town is near the border with Outer Mongolia, but keep reading. There is such a constant thrum of magic in Pebble Town that, in fact, it seems to be set on the border with reality itself. Newcomers to Pebble Town struggle mightily to adjust to the town’s magic. The earth shakes and punches them when they sit down. A southern garden appears and disappears; walking out to find it, they are lost in a wasteland. The townspeople are subject to constant hallucinations. They see wolves in the marketplace and panic. They mistake snow leopards for sheep.
The story––to the extent that there is a story––is broken into long chapters, each from the perspective of a different character. There are some dozen characters. Among them, there are Nancy and Jose, a young couple from faraway Smoke City, who come to Pebble Town to work in the Design Institute. There’s Qiming, a middle aged janitor originally from Fish Village, who is fruitlessly in love with a Uighur beauty from the nearby mountain. There is Liujin, Nancy and Jose’s daughter and the only person born in Pebble Village––a true child of the frontier. And there is the director of the Design Institute, a nameless and fantastical personage who has risen from the dead to oversee the lives of Pebble Town’s people.
Some readers will be frustrated by Frontier’s lack of shape. The novel is jittery and the action is constantly stopping and starting. Characters set out to visit each other, only to find themselves in an unknown wilderness, whereupon they simply turn around and go back home. The director is at one moment a farmer, and in the next moment a piece of white cloth flapping in the wind. Much of the novel is a sort of montage, a series of brief, dreamlike scenes cobbled together.
Take Liujin’s visit to the mysterious Design Institute, late in the novel. She goes to the office where a family friend, an African named Ying, works. The room is dark. There is a string of skulls hanging from the ceiling making a racket. Ying tells her that they are the skulls of men who lost their lives to a malaria epidemic. Abruptly, Ying and Liujin go outside to visit a magical rock. They go inside and visit another office, where an evil wind sickens Liujin. Then back to the rock again, where they watch a man wrestle with a snake. Liujin gets on a bus and goes home.
Most of the scenes in Frontier work this way. There is no outcome. Nothing ever really happens, because the environment is constantly fading and transforming before people can impact it. There is not a lot of interaction in the novel. The lines between thought and speech are blurred, and there is no action to mediate between the two. So characters observe each other and speculate about each other’s inner life, but rarely seem to connect.
Liujin has a sort of suitor, an enigmatic man named Sherman. He visits her building’s courtyard and opens up a basket of croaking frogs. He comes to her stall in the market and fingers the cloth she’s selling. The two of them sit and drink tea together, but they never actually talk to each other, or touch each other. All is silence and possibility. The relationship never goes anywhere.
The town itself seems to tear apart connections between people. Nancy and Jose, the young people from Smoke City, are a close-knit couple before they arrive in Pebble Town. But after just a few days in the frontier town, they become strangers to one another, even as they remain strangers to the locals. Nancy quickly adapts to the rules of life in Pebble Town. She feels comfortable with the shifting landscapes and the taciturn people, while Jose is still confused. Here they are having lunch in the Design Institute’s canteen:
Nancy had bought her food and was sitting at a round table waiting for him. When he carried his food over there, he noticed that no others were sitting at this table, yet the other tables were crowded. ‘I think things are very well organized here,’ Nancy said quietly as she ate. She was satisfied. Jose thought, he and Nancy were becoming more and more distant from one another. Still no one had joined them by the time they finished eating. Everyone else was crushed together, and many people even stood as they ate. The director and the two of them were isolated in this canteen.
But just as Pebble Town separates people, it can bring them together. Soon after their arrival in Pebble Town, Nancy has a baby, Liujin. Liujin is an enchanting, precocious baby. She has a mesmerizing gaze. She is also very, very colicky. Nancy can’t bear the baby’s endless crying and flees to the Design Institute, where she buries herself in work, leaving Jose to raise the baby. Jose develops a strong bond with his daughter. Significantly, they bond over the stories that Jose tells Liujin, and their bond transforms the stories themselves.
The baby’s days began filling with happiness. Whenever Jose bent down to pick her up and tell stories, she kicked her little feet happily in the cradle. And so father and daughter, faces touching, kept on talking. The baby was still babbling broken syllables, but with time they became more and more focused and enchanting. These snatches of syllables stimulated Jose’s thinking. Bit by bit, he felt he no longer controlled his own narration: more and more blanks appeared in his stories. He loved this new narrative style: these stories filled with blank spaces were both simple and a little hard to explain.
Jose’s narrative style might just as well be Can Xue’s. This novel’s stories, filled with blank spaces, are both simple and a little hard to explain. Maddening and endlessly demanding, Frontier is at its best when we read slowly and with great patience, when we listen to it the way we might listen to a maddening, endlessly demanding but lovable child.