On 23 September 1947, Nikola Petkov, the last significant opposition leader to the Communist takeover in Bulgaria, was hanged in the Central Prison in Sofia, Bulgaria, sentenced to death after a rigged trial: “Petkov was hanged by the neck and was dead, slowly, as they expected . . . a poor job of it in the eyes of some, though in their eyes: well done, the life of him squeezed out, pulled out, gasped out.”
The son of a former Bulgarian prime minister and the brother of a murdered revolutionary, Petkov might have lived out his life as a gentleman of leisure in Paris or Venice. Instead, he had returned to Sofia as the leader of the Agrarian Party, was active in the underground, was imprisoned in the concentration camps, and later was minister of the first postwar government in Bulgaria.
In a novel that mixes history and fiction, biography and imagination, Thomas McGonigle records the last minutes of Petkov’s life and death, a death that his executioners purposely intended to be prolonged and painful. At the same time, we see glimpses of the author sitting at his typewriter in New York City reconstructing Petkov’s dying moments as Petkov remembers and reflects upon his and his country’s past.
McGonigle has resurrected for us a political and historical figure, as well as a country, that has been forgotten in the West. In the very best sense, this is a subversive novel that remains faithful to both history and art.