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The Unveiling of Bulgarian Literature

By Svetlozar Zhelev

Translated by Milena Deleva

Can you find Bulgaria on the map? What about the literary map?

If its location—somewhere at the southeast end of Europe—is somewhat known to some people, in literary terms Bulgaria remains a deep mystery, especially in the Anglophone world.

Have you read at least one Bulgarian writer? Can you list a single name? Miroslav Penkov? His splendid collection of short stories East of the West is entirely about Bulgaria. Although he lived in Bulgaria until he turned nineteen, he is now to a bigger extent an American writer. And he writes in English. Kapka Kassabova? The same thing. Ilija Trojanow and Elias Canetti? Both of them were born in Bulgaria, but they write (wrote, in the case of Canetti) in German and are considered German writers. Perhaps Georgi Gospodinov? One of the most popular authors in Bulgaria and abroad, with his novels he has won all possible domestic awards, and has received many nominations for prestigious international awards. Perhaps you’ve read the New Yorker review of his outstanding Physics of Sorrow?

Alek Popov? Milen Ruskov? Zachary Karabashliev? Angel Igov? Albena Stambolova? Virginia Zaharieva? Georgi Tenev? Thanks to the work of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, their novels have been published in the US or the UK. I strongly hope that you've read some of them. Or someone else?

The classics of the Bulgarian literature such as Ivan Vazov, Aleko Konstantinov, Yordan Radichkov, Yordan Yovkov . . . You haven‘t read them, have you? Fine, you have quite a load of homework then—go to the closest bookstore or a library and ask for these authors. I hope they’ve got them. If not,  you can undertake a short literary adventure, a journey through contemporary Bulgarian literature, here. You will find some of the most interesting names, short excerpts,  bios, and reviews, as well as a list of translators at your disposal if you‘ve become  intrigued by this exotic language and exotic culture.

And now that I‘ve half-opened the door for you, I‘d like to recommend four authors I haven‘t mentioned yet, but who you should really pay attention to. Especially if you are publishers. One of them has work translated into English and published by Portobello in the UK in 2010, the second one is only translated into Serbian, the third has yet to be translated, and the fourth is a debuting author.

The first one is Deyan Enev. The best Bulgarian contemporary storyteller. Like Carver and Munro, he only writes short stories. He has published myriad short stories and books, he’s garnered awards, his books are taught in the schools, loved by both the readers and the critics. Deyan Enev is a true cognoscente of the soul, an observer, empathetic to all living creatures, who profoundly penetrates into the social, economical, political, emotional, and the pure human condition of his characters. His stories are exceptionally short, like flashes of lightning that illuminate an instant, a person, an incident, an event, a human drama, someone's daily life or a moment of happiness, pain, joy, love, grief, loss,  malice, ordeal, a smile or just an elderly woman feeding cats. His short stories exude a sense of humanity, sincerity, and empathy.

The second writer is Alexander Sekulov. A poet, a storyteller, a novelist, a painter with words. His prose carries poetic power, without compromising the purity of the expressions, the metaphors, the brilliance of the phrase, and the concentrated energy, usually characteristic of the verse. His trilogy Gravior na sanishta (Engraver of Dreams) is one of the most original works in contemporary Bulgarian literature for its Latin American-like magical realism and its rich imagery and verbal flashes of light, from the ports of Valparaiso and the Mediterranean to the dark paintings of Rembrandt. His images are as light and airy as smoke but colorful and sparkling like a Brazilian carnival. The book contains so much light that after closing its last page, your eyes continue seeing reflections of sunrises and sunsets in the sea or in the eyes of the beautiful women. Wat h out for Sekulov and his novel Engraver of Dreams.

The third author is Peter Delchev. His Casting for Messiah created a furor in Bulgaria three years ago. Very interesting and original story. In 2054, at the millennium of the Great Schism between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, representatives of all Christian denominations gather on an island in the Pacific to create a unified credo for their four billion members.  But a new internal order mounts a challenge, arguing for intertwining contemporary science and traditional religion for the new millennia. What follows? You’ll have to read it.

Last but not least, Katerina Hapsali and her debut novel, Greek Coffee. A wonderful story, told by a mother to her infant son after she’s lost her husband. The love story with his father, the story of her family five generations back, intertwining present and future, a journey through two hundred years of Balkan history and through the life of a remarkable family. A novel about borders, the difference between generations, the strength of women, the love, the roots, the pain of loss, about a mother’s love for her son, about the importance of not forgetting, about the ups and downs, about everything that shapes us as humans. An extremely sincere, honest, highly autobiographical novel about sharing and the metaphysical force of the blood ties, about loss and salvation. Having lived in in Bulgaria, Croatia, and the United States—where she earned a journalism degree —has led her to a storytelling mode that is highly concentrated, stylized, refined, and whose themes and style can be understood everywhere. We’re awaiting her second novel, to come out in November.

And I wish you happy reading. While you wait for some of the works above to be translated, you can get started with the ten or so titles already found in English.

Published Oct 12, 2015   Copyright 2015 Svetlozar Zhelev

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