#EU27Project: Bulgaria

Although Bulgaria is Romania’s southern neighbour, and although one of my best friends at primary school was Katya, a Bulgarian, I know next to nothing about the literature of this country. So I rather randomly picked Georgi Tenev’s novel Party Headquarters, transl. Angela Rodel. Partly because it was the Winner of the 2015 Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest, but mostly because it was easily available to order online.

I read it back in February or March and have very nearly forgotten what it was about and what I thought of it. The plot is not the most important thing here, which is just as well, since I found it quite difficult to follow: it skips between the present-day, soon days following the fall of Communism and the summer of the Chernobyl disaster. The narrator is a man who has been tasked by his dying father-in-law, a former high-ranking Communist Party official known as K-shev, to transport a suitcase containing one and a half million euros. Many ex-Communists were suspected of squirrelling their ill-gotten wealth abroad so as to start new lives after regime collapse in their countries. The narrator hated his father-in-law and remembers all of the key moments that cemented that hatred, while wandering around Hamburg, cavorting with prostitutes and generally being a bit at a loss.

Disjointed and disturbing, just like its narrator, the novel is perhaps designed to show the lingering after-effects of a dictatorship, that keeps people in mental prisons long after they are nominally set free. But it does so in such a convoluted way, combining the sexual excesses of Philip Roth with the pretentiousness of David Foster Wallace, that I soon lost interest.

But I do remember sighing as I put it away and saying to myself: ‘Why do all the books that get translated from the former East Bloc have to be such hard going?’ After reading the books for Slovakia, Estonia, Slovenia, Latvia for my #EU27Project, I can’t help feeling that publishers of English translations from these countries have certain expectations, because they all share certain characteristics: experimental prose, anti-chronological narrative, grim subject matter about repression and dictatorship or war, very earnest and ‘worthy’ literary works.

Yet each of these countries has no doubt got a huge variety of literature, covering all genres, all tastes. I recently mentioned Lavina Braniste, who gives us a very Romanian Bridget Jones. Estonian author Indrek Hargla has a fantastic crime series set in medieval Talinn, but only one has been translated into English (and rather sloppily at that). Bulgarian short story writer Deyan Enev has been compared to Lydia Davis for his lyrical, almost flash-fiction short pieces, but there are others who have yet to be translated. It’s a shame that we only get a very one-sided view of literature from these countries.

8 thoughts on “#EU27Project: Bulgaria”

  1. I have to admit, Marina Sofia, I don’t know anything about Bulgarian literature. So I’m glad that you discussed this one. It sounds as though there are some interesting elements in it, even if it is a bit disjointed, and didn’t really keep your interest over the story. You raise such an interesting point about the translation, too. I think that’s a factor in a lot of novels.

  2. I agree Marina: It’s as though we have to take our medicine sometimes when we decide to read some of these books. Sad. And as you say, one sided.

  3. That’s interesting Marina, and I hadn’t considered before that our view of a particular place’s literature could be very skewed because of the selective nature of translation. Which may make me rethink everything I know about translated lit!!!

  4. Hear! Hear! I’ve almost given up on trying translated fiction outside mainstream western Europe for exactly the reasons you give – they seem to pick the books for their literary experimentation and/or their commentary on the evils of their governments. All very well occasionally, but it would be great to get more range of what people read for entertainment…

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