Letter from Bulgaria

Context N°19

by Yordan Kosturkov

It was only in the nineteenth century that Bulgaria began to develop a literary culture of its own. Very quickly, the local equivalents of Chaucer or Spenser began to appear—Ivan Vazov, for instance, who practically invented the Bulgarian novel in 1888 with his masterpiece Under the Yoke, about the doomed uprising against Turkish rule in 1876. It is a glamorous nineteenth-century epic to rival the works of the great European masters in scope, and eclipsing lesser Bulgarian successes with its discovery of a new, uniquely Bulgarian literary language—a felicitous merging of Enlightenment, Romantic, realistic, and regional, folkloric imagery, digesting the leading trends of the European novel to date in an unprecedented way. Under the Yoke is the most widely read Bulgarian novel both in Bulgaria and abroad.

It had the curious and negative effect, however, of checking the further development of the Bulgarian novel—even giving rise to the idea that this one book had somehow exhausted the form completely, and that the true Bulgarian genius was for short prose: the short story, the novella. All the early masters of the Bulgarian short story (Yordan Yovkov, for instance, or Elin Pelin, whose work is comparable to that of Maupassant, Chekhov, or Hemingway) produced novels, but these were books of anemic “local color,” or else awkward modernist experiments, following World War I, both, in their way, coming to nothing—and nowadays eulogized only by scholars. From this point of view, Under the Yoke was both a blessing and a curse.

The novels that came out after the Second World War failed to attract much attention either, and the political events they may have reflected (the war itself, the communist-dominated resistance movement against Nazism, the political changes that came with the establishment of a new totalitarian regime) remained veiled and ambiguous in their pages. Needless to say, the new political regime was a factor in this, discouraging experiment, historical analysis, and even psychological study, with the additional intrusion of a dogmatic attempt to institute Soviet-style “socialist realism.”

The late ’50s brought a few important breakthroughs. A critical factor was the enormous growth in readership that occurred with the gradual urbanization of a historically rural nation: the increased literacy, as well as the new influx of translations of American, European, and Russian literature, both played important parts. For the first time, book publishing began to be considered a profitable industry, rather than just an ideologically desirable institution. The first breakthrough came in the form of the historical novel. While initially disapproved of as too nationalist—even chauvinistic from the perspective of Soviet ideology—the medieval romances of Fanny Popova-Mutafova, wife of repressed expressionist experimental writer Chavdar Mutafov, began to be published in enormous print runs, with new novels by Dimitar Talev (who wrote a Bulgarian-Macedonian saga that is one of the high-water marks of the Bulgarian novel, ranking even with the work of Ivan Vazov), the novels of Anton Donchev, of Dimitar Dimov, and many others.

But aside from Bulgarian historical novels, the communist regime completely banned the writing, translation, or publication of any kind of genre fiction. This naturally impacted the literary situation in profound ways. No romance, no erotica or pornography, no comic books, no crime and mystery, no science fiction or fantasy. Modernist works for various reasons were also considered suspect, and were either ignored or actually banned. Although a large number of the new state-funded publishers were allowed to prepare their own lists, centralized institutions controlling copyright, printers, supply, and distribution reviewed their editorial decisions and vetoed what was considered inappropriate. No formal bureau of censorship was necessary, though these informal censors would periodically organize witch-hunts, banning authors and translators and sending them into exile, or else restricting their activities through a special literature branch of the secret police. This oftentimes produced absurd situations: for many years Henry James wasn’t translated because someone influential had confused him with Henry Miller.

The positive effect of these ridiculous policies was that the growing readership in Bulgaria became a fully consolidated market. Regardless of what their individual preferences were, readers of all ages and classes only had access to mainstream literature. The local authors, therefore, regardless of their talents, worked hard to produce exactly that. There were other major factors as well—“exchange programs” for translations with other Eastern Bloc countries, but also with some Western nations, and the huge Russian market, where record-breaking domestic print runs in the hundreds of thousands would necessarily translate into millions. Needless to say, the authorities soon put a stop to this runaway moneymaking, and authors stopped receiving royalties for print runs of over 50,000 copies. Most importantly, readers were happy: lining up in front of bookstores when new books arrived (encouraged by the socialist theory of deficit versus waste), furnishing their small flats with bookshelves full of high-quality translations and both contemporary Bulgarian literature and classics. The system of “links” that helped people survive under the depressing deficits of the day made it possible to purchase spare parts for your car (while having to sign up years in advance to be allowed to buy a new one) by selling an often semi-literate shopkeeper your books!

The novel of the ’70s and ’80s actively explored and exploited the new economic situation (though the explicitly political was still taboo) and its effect on the psyche of its characters. A large number of the novels produced during this period are outright propaganda, but as a whole there was a great deal of excellent work being done by authors such as Nikolai Haitov (Wild Tales), Pavel Vezhinov (Far from the Shore; The Boy with the Violin), and Emiliian Stanev (Over Hill and Dale), all of whom were translated into English, as well as Gentcho Stoev, Yordan Radichkov, and others. Much of what this generation produced was translated worldwide; a good number of their books were adapted as films, and these won some prestigious international awards. Many of these writers claim that Bulgaria’s increasing freedom of expression in these days was due to the daughter of the reigning communist dictator—Ludmila Zhivkova, herself open to Western culture, surrounded and supported by influential intellectuals, and who died under mysterious circumstances before she was thirty-nine—but however it came about, the overall trend towards a more “liberal” regime (promoted by the Soviet Union: Khrushchev’s “thaw,” Brezhnev’s “détente,” Gorbachev’s “glasnost” and “perestroika”) had only positive effects for Bulgarian literature.

At long last, the ’70s and ’80s saw the popular incursion of fiction taking greater stylistic risks: of a peculiarly Bulgarian magical realism, as well as experimental and even postmodern work. The influence of translated literature was decisive in breaking the stranglehold of the historical romance over Bulgarian literature, but one can also speculate, in economic terms, that the Bulgarian novel was now seen as a marketable product—and that, in itself, it was marketing “socialist cultural affluence” locally and abroad—and thus that a freer market was simply the most efficient way both to profit from and disseminate the merchandise at hand. Still, given this new freedom, the continued absence of dissident writing is notable. It could be explained by the national character, or by the lack of interest the West had taken in the Bulgarian situation, or by the new prosperity the country was experiencing—but only one major novelist, Georgy Markov, could be called a true dissident, and he was a defector, producing documentary literature in exile (he was murdered by spies in 1972: they poked him in a London street with the poisoned tip of an umbrella). To what extent the new generation of domestic experimental writers—or those who couched their criticisms of the regime in satirical fairytale-language—can be considered anticommunist depends on how one wants to measure their protest: there were always books banned and confiscated, there were always authors being punished, fired from their jobs, arrested, prosecuted, sent into exile, banned from publication at home or abroad . . . but all in all, it would be very difficult to name any examples of popularly successful, serious writers debuting after the collapse of communism. And, these days, there’s very little interest in reviving (or rather reprinting) the successful authors of 1945-89.

After 1989, Bulgarian writers—many of whom joined the new political parties and became activists—soon found that their enthusiasm for democracy came with a price. They had lost all the benefits of the old, unified Bulgarian readership, and of substantial state-support: the regular, regulated, and well-planned publication in high print runs; the enormous domestic and even foreign markets filled with consumer-admirers; free retreats, free books, loans, decent advances, and much else besides. The bookstores began to be bought by people with no interest in maintaining them as such, and so books had to be sold out in the open—and one of the largest open-air book-markets in Europe is in the center of Sofia, which might sound exotic, but emerged out of necessity; the twenty or thirty state-owned publishers multiplied into 500-600 independents, and without proper bookstores to stock their titles. Agents appeared for the first time. The new, private publishers immediately started printing all the books that had been banned—crime and mystery novels, pornography, Mein Kampf, the Bible—and readers, feeling cheated by decades without these kinds of book, gravitated towards the very things they’d always been forbidden . . . and not contemporary Bulgarian novels. The print runs of Bulgarian novels fell from dozens and even hundreds of thousands to three hundred copies maximum. The prices of books—like everything else—soared. Even the people who still wanted to buy serious literature couldn’t afford it, and gradually, though the standard of living improved, people lost interest in buying books. The printers’ shops weren’t prepared for such a dry spell and started to close up. Commercial publishing died in Bulgaria, replaced by something only a step above vanity presses—and as there were no profits to be had, and little interest in literature, even the journals began to disappear.

Few if any new novels of any great interest appeared during the first ten years after communism. There was a proliferation of amateur writers of little merit who could afford to have their works printed, and perhaps who had felt themselves ignored or even repressed by mainstream publishers under the previous regime. Many of the older authors, feted under communism, died in obscurity. Many emigrated, but didn’t achieve the success abroad that they’d hoped for. Many stopped writing altogether.

Only recently, in the past five or six years, has there been reason for hope. National awards and competitions have been started, new journals and publishing houses have been launched, important works are being produced by young writers, foreign works are again being imported in translation, and, all in all, the delicate ecology of Bulgarian literature and publishing looks astoundingly healthy at present.

A staggering number of excellent novels have appeared in the past few years—and, whether or not their authors realize it, their subjects are as eminently Bulgarian as ever. Vladimir Zarev recently published his best work to date, Destruction. Ancho Kaloyanov started an ambitious series with his novel The Ninth. Ivan Golev, an experimental poet and short-story writer, continued his experiments with the full-length Ah Lo(v)e. From the older generation, Marko Semov has published his novel The Price. The talented author of short fiction Georgy Velichkov presented an impressive novel in You Were Not Like That. The young and successful novelist Vlado Daverov gave us The Life of the Others. Zdravka Evtimova, who has published work in English as well, presented her new novel Thursday. Dimitar Shumnaliev, a postmodern master, blended myth, history, and everyday life in his new novel Ferodo. Deyan Enev, a young master of the short story, won the prestigious Helikon award with his collection of interconnected novellas, Kyrie Eleison: Have Mercy on Us, Oh Lord, attempting a more panoramic sort of fragmented novel.

It’s not only that the nightmare of the ’90s is over, but also that the earlier emblematic works of authors such as Georgi Gospodinov (Natural Novel, available in English from Dalkey Archive Press), Alek Popov (An Advanced Level), Christine Dimitrova (Love and Death Under the Crooked Pear Tree), Anjel Wagenstein (The Pentateuch of Isaiah; Farewell to Shanghai), Dimiter Kirkov (A Balkan Sinner), Anton Donchev (Time of Parting, available in English), Nikola Radev (When the Lord Walked on Foot on the Earth), and many more—who were, in different ways, trying to give an answer to the essential questions of the downfall of Bulgaria—can be seen as the vanguard of a new movement, a literary renaissance that may finally realize the dream of our nineteenth-century authors: a uniquely Bulgarian cultural voice, the equal of any in the world.

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