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First Read: “Performing Writers”

By Alek Popov & Angela Rodel

For Rob List

In the story I am about to tell, three Bulgarian writers have been invited to a literary reading in a small English city with notable architecture and an unpronounceable name that begins with D. However, their translator has mysteriously disappeared, along with the translations he has prepared for the occasion. None of the three knows English well enough to translate his own works, and besides, there’s not enough time for that. There’s no one in a 200-mile radius who understands Bulgarian. The reason the Bulgarian authors have been invited is also not exactly clear. One may assume that it came about via some European or local program aimed at diversifying the city’s cultural life. The lack of a translator, however, threatens to derail the entire artistic initiative. This undeniably alarms the members of the city council, who have allocated a certain sum from the municipal budget for the event. After a short yet momentous debate, an innovative solution is reached which sets a unique precedent in the history of literary readings. The three authors are informed that they will have to wordlessly act out their works on the stage of the local theater. Otherwise their financial support will be withdrawn and they will have to cover all expenses incurred during their stay in D. out of their own pocket.

The ultimatum-like character of this proposal is deeply shocking to the Bulgarian visitors. Within the borders of their homeland all three are respected authors who have won the admiration of critics and readers alike. All three have ardent fans, albeit amidst different social strata and age groups. All this, of course, does not contribute much to their financial stability, but nevertheless bestows upon them the consolation of belonging to the nation’s intellectual elite. And now suddenly—such humiliation! It’s not so much the prospect of playing the buffoon in front of a rosy-cheeked crowd of burghers—such a possibility is never even discussed—as much as the assumption on the part of the local authorities that such a thing could eventually actually occur.

Therein lies the heart of the mockery!

The three writers’ thoughts are overwhelmed with all manner of conspiracy theories. Could this be some kind of refined and perverse form of entertainment enjoyed by the ostensibly amiable residents of this affluent little city? It becomes evident that none of the three is personally acquainted with the individual who had proffered his translation services, the enigmatic Mr. Berg. All contact with him had taken place solely in cyberspace. Does he really even exist? If he exists, does he really know Bulgarian? The fact that the entirety of their communication had been conducted in English—something they hadn’t thought twice about, given the language’s globally prominent role—suddenly takes on alarming dimensions. Is it possible that Mr. Berg, or the individual masquerading under that name, could simply be a charlatan who had managed to get his hands on some hardscrabble grant for the preservation of the Old Continent’s cultural diversity or some such thing? They bemoan their collective naïveté. In the meantime, they attempt to contact the Bulgarian Embassy in London, but are met only with a cold mechanical recording with information about visa requirements.

The insult and not least of all their limited financial resources nudge them towards the only possible solution. They gather up their baggage with lightning speed and leave the hotel, trying not to notice the sneeringly raised eyebrows of the hotel staff, shopkeepers and the rare passersby as they drag their cheap suitcases through the picturesque medieval streets. They have calculated that they have enough funds to get them to London on the outrageously expensive British railways. From there—whatever the sword decrees![1]  

On the way, however, one of the authors—who also happens to be the writer of these lines—is seized by suspicion. Could anyone have seriously expected them to subject themselves to such degradation? The monstrous absurdity of the proposal seems to inherently anticipate their refusal. Perhaps it is merely a pretext to allow the local authorities to weasel out of their obligations? His suspicion gradually grows into conviction and the very instant before they purchase their train tickets, he announces to his compatriots that he intends to stay and present his works, to the extent his abilities allow, in the language of the body and gestures. His decision is strictly personal and does not obligate the others in any way whatsoever. His only request is that they be present in the audience so as to bolster his courage. He calls over the city councilman who has been tailing them doggedly from the hotel to the train station, hiding around corners, and informs him that one of the three will perform under the condition that the city council reimburses all three writers for their stay in accordance with the previously agreed-upon arrangements. While the writers continue to argue in the waiting room, the councilman returns out of breath and announces that the local luminaries have agreed to this condition.

Dressed in a black leotard, the writer steps onto the stage in a seventeenth-century wig and an ostrich-feather skirt. The auditorium is packed, as if the whole city has turned up for the show. He is met with suppressed snickering. His compatriots are sitting in the front row dying of shame, yet they still find the strength to clap, albeit rather listlessly. The writer makes his first movements. He lifts his arm high and spins around. The tittering swells into outright giggling. He has never done this before . . . Deprived of his language, like a blind man without his sight and an amputee without his legs, he attempts to compensate for his handicap with gestures, yet he quickly realizes that precisely this makes him all the more pathetic. So he curls up into a ball and begins sounding, casting all words out of his body. Then he stands up again, raises his arm and spins around. But no one is laughing anymore. Because this is a different kind of spinning. Everyone is waiting to see what will happen next, as if sinking their teeth into the pages of a nice fat novel with a promising title. He is now moving without trying to translate words into the language of the body. His motions do not illustrate anything at all. They arise from themselves and end within themselves. He has never before narrated with such freedom, he has never seen his own stories so clearly—as if stretched between two banks that he must pass between.

And he passes between them . . .

The audience feels ashamed. The entire spectacle has suddenly become unbearable. “That’s enough!” someone yells. The author of these lines, however, continues moving. Complex movements, simple movements. Twitches: with his shoulder, his elbow, his heel, his toe. Stretching, turning, bending, squatting, walking, flying. He has never gone so far, never been more open than in front of these strangers, in these completely unfamiliar poses. And voila—in the end, they all burst out crying and run away a moment later, sobbing, led by the mayor, the honorable Beresford Ellis, and his five daughters. The writers return to the hotel, morally (and physically) triumphant, and feast on pig’s-trotter jelly, the local delicacy, served on silver platters. The next morning the city’s residents all decide that they have to learn Bulgarian.


This essay by Alex Popov is from The Radical Thinker’s Companion, a collection of more than forty essays published on topics such as the role of the writer and the intersection of society, art, and science. Translated into Serbian, it does not yet have a US publisher.


[1] The phrase kakvoto sabya pokazhe (lit. “whatever the sword shows”) is from a poem by one of Bulgaria’s most beloved poet-patriots, Hristo Botev (1848-1876), who was killed in an unsuccessful uprising to liberate Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire. The expression is now used to mean “come what may” – translator’s note.

Published Feb 22, 2016   Copyright 2016 Alek Popov & Angela Rodel

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