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The City and the Writer: In Sofia with Elena Alexieva

By Nathalie Handal

This entry is a part of a special series of The City and the Writer featuring writers who will be appearing as a part of the 2016 New Literature from Europe Festival, happening in New York City, December 7–10. See Elena Alexieva at the festival, and check back on WWB Daily next week for interviews with Immanuel Mifsud, Krisztina Tóth, and Ann Cotten, all conducted by C&W curator and festival participant Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Sofia as you feel/see it?

Sofia has many different moods, many different faces, perhaps just as many as the people who live here do. She can be hectic, rejecting, even vulgar sometimes. She can be also serene, forgiving and—well, not exactly loving, but accommodating in a rather affectionate way. I was born here and I’ve spent my entire life in a love-hate relationship with a city in which I’ve never felt at home and always wanted to be elsewhere. But the minute I get away, I long to be back. She reminds me of someone who has every reason to be happy, but somehow never is. Of course, this is hardly a mood. It is a mental condition.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

On a personal level, it is the loss of my most beloved ones. The struggle to obliterate the places where we’ve been together, cross them out of the map. And yet, I have to walk through them every single day.

But also, on a more imaginative level, there’s a memory that is not my own, it is the city’s. This is the carpet-bombing of Sofia by the Allies in WWII, in the winter and spring of 1943–44, when large parts of the city were completely destroyed. I don’t even know why the picture of Sofia’s old city center lying in ruins keeps haunting me, but it does.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

To me it is the melancholic beauty, abandon, and loneliness of Sofia’s backyards, with the narrow, often dilapidated balconies hanging above. And the trees, the lindens above all. In early summer there are whole streets lined with them, and the smell of linden blossom can make your head spin. Then, there is also Mount Vitosha, with parts of the city creeping up its slopes. Of course, a mountain can hardly go unnoticed, but I remember that as a child I used to believe that every city had a mountain, so natural it seemed to have one so close.  

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Bulgaria being a small country, the majority of its writers live in Sofia, which is probably not so good, but it’s a fact. I don’t mean quality—I’m just talking about concentration per capita. Sofia’s literary output is surprisingly big, with new work emerging all the time—Alek Popov’s novels or Deyan Enev’s short stories, or poets like Georgi Borissov, Vassil Balev, Marin Bodakov, to name but a few.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I find myself quite regularly strolling through at least two of Sofia’s open-air markets, especially the one in Krasno selo, which is a real feast for the eye. The colors are fantastic and the atmosphere is quite oriental, not to mention the people and the general excitement, which is not so much about buying and selling as about being alive and able to enjoy whatever the place has to offer you.  

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Not really an iconic place, not one that I can think of. But what comes to my mind is the National Theater, which used to have as its dramaturges some of Bulgaria’s greatest and finest poets, such as Peyo Yavorov and Nikolay Liliev. Yavorov is one of the most tragic figures in Bulgarian literature. His office at the National Theater has been preserved intact and so is his presence there. It is a very special place, so loaded with a whole century of Bulgaria’s literature and drama, that it gives me goose bumps every time I go there. And it’s still in use, still as much alive as it was a hundred years ago.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

I will never forget the several days I spent years ago at Sofia’s Central Prison, not exactly as an inmate—it is a men’s prison after all—but as an interpreter for a foreign mission. It was not a hidden city but a whole hidden universe. I guess you can say this of any such facility, but nevertheless it felt weird to stand in one of those overcrowded, cold, and damp cells, with their peculiar smell which haunts you for days after, and to see through the tiny barred window the ordinary people’s homes across the way, the bus stop or the tiny pub where we used to have lunch. It was an otherworldly experience, at least to someone who knows that in a couple of hours she’ll walk freely out of there.

Where does passion live here?

It depends on what kind of passion you’re after. Whatever it is, it is never too much on display and yet much closer to the surface than you’d expect.

What is the title of one of your works about Sofia and what inspired it exactly?

Details of Sofia are scattered all over my works but I have never thought of writing especially about her. She is everywhere, I can’t get rid of her even if I wanted to, so why bother? 

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Sofia does an outside exist?”

My outside Sofia is outside everything, literally. It is a nearby village where I spend as much time as I can, whenever I can afford it. I live there, work there, get disconnected from everything and everyone there. It’s in the mountains, and the pine and beech woods are just fifteen minutes away. This is my true home. So in the spirit of your quote, outside Sofia, everything is inside; outside Sofia is where real life begins.


Elena Alexieva was born in Sofia, Bulgaria. She is the author of fiction and poetry books, among them the short story collections Readers’ Group 31 (winner of the Helikon Prize for modern Bulgarian Fiction, 2005), Who, and Pets Syndicated, as well as the novels Knight, Devil and Death, The Nobel Laureate, and others. Her works have appeared in periodical publications and anthologies in English, French, Polish, and Spanish, among others. Who was published in Spain, followed by Knight, Devil and Death in Serbia, and The Nobel Laureate in France (Actes Sud, 2015). She is also the author of several plays, among them The Therapist, produced by the National Theatre in Sofia and winner of the Askeer National Award for modern Bulgarian drama; Glass, produced by the Plovdiv Theatre and the National Theater in Sofia, and winner of the Award of the Society of Independent Theatre critics in Bulgaria; Madame Mishima, produced as an independent project at Sofia Theater, winner of the Ikar National Award for new Bulgarian drama; and Phantom Pain, produced by Theatre 199, Sofia. Her plays were also published in two volumes, Angel Fire (2014) and Victims of Love (2015), a collection of three solo plays. “The Fun Fair,” a short story that appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Elena’s latest works are the novel The Book of the Prophet, and Mr. Kaboda’s Tales (2016). She lives and works in Sofia as a freelance interpreter and writer.

Published Dec 2, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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