Bulgaria: seeking buried identities

KK cover

After Vesna Goldsworthy‘s book on her upbringing in Yugoslavia and later life in the UK, Kapka Kassabova’s Street without a name: childhood and other misadventures in Bulgaria (2008) makes a worthy follow-up.

I know even less about Bulgaria than about the GDR[1] but such observations strike a chord with my experiences of China. Such works also explore my theme of post-traumatic historical amnesia.

Born in 1973, Kassabova left Bulgaria in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She reflects:

Totalitarian regimes are not interested in personal stories, they are interested in the Party, the People, and the Bright Future. Nor are post-totalitarian democracies. They are too busy staying alive.

Equally, in the West there hangs about a vague idea of collective life behind the Iron Curtain, and life after it, but there are surprisingly few personal stories to go with the idea.

Fair point, though such accounts (even in English) do seem to be growing. Kassabova cites an unnamed Yugoslav child in the 1990s:

I love my country. Because it is small and I feel sorry for it.

With the candour of childhood, she too asks her mother, “Mum, why is everything so ugly?” Still, she cites Walter Benjamin:

When an outsider comes to a new place, he [sic] sees the picturesque and the freakish, whereas the local sees through layers of emotion and memory.
So while a newcomer would have looked at Youth 3 [her housing block] and seen an uninhabitable dystopia of concrete and mud, I learnt to see it for what it really was: my home.
[…] There was also the butcher, the baker, the kindergarten, the grocery store, the Universal store, the bottle store. So what if they were all housed on the ground floor of blocks, or in small, bunker-like concrete buildings we called trafoposts because they were built to house the suburb’s electrical transformers? So what if the butcher only had mixed mince and bloody legs that she wrapped up in coarse brown paper? Or the baker only had two types of bread, white and wholemeal, and the Universal store was universally empty except for, say, a just-arrived pull-out sofa bed? Or the bottle store only sold lemonade and beer? You like lemonade, and you liked meatballs, and you already had a pull-out sofa-bed anyway. It’s not as if you lacked for anything. It’s not as if there was anything more you wanted. After all, you didn’t know there was anything more to want.

One product that might be available in the Universal store was the more accurately-titled Ordinary biscuits. On Bulgarian shops:

They weren’t actually shops, not in the conventional sense of the word. They were unheated ground-floor rooms with shelves on which something may—or may not, depending on the day—be displayed, perhaps even sold, if you could bear to queue up, fight with other citizens, and emerge battered but triumphant, clutching a pair of shoes, a kilogram of Cuban oranges, or a tub or margarine.

Sometimes inadvertently evoking Molvania, it’s a fine line that divides us from the old Commie-bashing trap of sneering at the failure of the socialist experiment—laying bare the privations comes better from people living under such systems than from foreigners or even expats. Whereas a book like Hester Vaizey’s Born in the GDR shows a more varied response from that generation born under socialism, in Bulgaria it seems harder to find people who appreciated anything about life either before or after 1990.

This is hardly comparable, but as a foreigner in China I soon lost the capacity to be shocked, growing used to clambering up unlit concrete stairwells piled with cooking equipment and cardboard boxes to visit families squeezed into tiny bare one-room apartments. This was just how people’s lives were. Even now I don’t bat an eyelid as I walk past stinking pits of litter strewn in village alleys. Whereas on fleeting visits to the GDR before 1989 I merely felt alien and out of my depth, not equipped to pass patronizing pronouncements.

Kassabova’s father went on work trips abroad, and sometimes foreign friends come to visit, laughing companionably with them:

For a moment, you could even think we were equal.
But we knew, and they knew, that we weren’t equal. Behind the laughter and the wine, I sensed my parents’ permanent nervous cringe. They knew the foreign guests saw the ugly panels, the cramped apartments, the mud, the overflowing rubbish bins, the stray dogs, the empty shops, the crappy cars, the idiots in the brown suits, and they were ashamed.

We were living in a banana republic, but minus the bananas.

Young Kapka even feels like a poor cousin in neighbouring Macedonia, and even more so on a trip to East Berlin. When her father gets a six-month fellowship in Delft on, his wife visits him:

It wasn’t the supernaturally clean streets, the tidy bike lanes, the smiley people, but the university toilets that tipped her over from stunned awe into howling despair.

Mind you, I’ve felt a bit like that in Holland myself… On their return, her father puts a brave face on things.

“They’re just normal people. OK, they have more material things than us, but otherwise their lives are not that different.”
“Of course they are,” my mother insisted. “Whether we like it or not, they are different.” They think differently. They take so many things for granted. They have rights, they demand things… They live in another world.”

When her father’s Dutch colleagues come on a visit they too look on the bright side, which leaves the family lost for words.

Kassabova relates another Soviet joke (which actually resembles my granddad’s joke):

A man in the deli section of the supermarket says to the butcher behind the counter: “Can you slice up some salami for me?” The butcher replies, “Sure. Just bring the salami.”

Our parents shared the same world: a world where political jokes and birthday parties were the norm, and you were united by a distrust of the idiots in the brown suits.

Even in her teens she could deconstruct the motto “Let us Construct Socialism with a Human Face”:

a) Socialism with a Human Face did not occur naturally, it had to be constructed like so many blocks of flats; and b) there was also Socialism with an Inhuman Face.

The teenage Kapka watches Brazilian soap operas, The thornbirds, and Star wars; she listens to The Beatles, and the gritty songs of Vladimar Vysotsky. Like Goldsworthy, she attends a lycée, where

The general idea was not to get top grades, but to mix with Sofia’s brightest brats, wear your navy-blue school mantle short at the bottom and unbuttoned at the top, smoke in the toilets, wear blue make-up, and sulk. (p.105)

She immerses herself in hoarse, acerbic French songs (Renaud, Sardou), translating their rage against the capitalist machine:

to our ears, there was only one machine to rage against, and that was Socialism with a Human Face.

Aged 16 when the Wall fell, she moves on to The Scorpions—a most long-lived and prolific band who graduated to heavy metal (as you do; am I the only muggins who had never heard of them? Cf. my mum’s comment on the Beatles). After the collapse of the regime, she basks in their 1990 Wind of change (one of the best-selling singles in the world, over fourteen million copies sold!), and then

The nation’s new year present was the televized execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu by a three-man firing squad. It wasn’t quite as good as having our own Todor Jivkov shot in the head, but it was better than nothing.

After a brief sojourn in Colchester, the family returns to their block in Sofia:

It had turned from the wild East into the wild West, and it was hard to say which was worse. Tiny cafés and shops had mushroomed among the panels. People sold contraband cigarettes and suspect alcohol mixtures straight from their underground cellars. The elder Mechev son was a racketeer.
[…]
One thing was clear: money was king. Education, culture, and the life of the mind were for sissies, and sissies sold pantyhose on the street, walked the streets with a lunatic grin, starved to death, and were run over by speeding black Mercedes.

After moving abroad, Kassabova’s own life remained rootless for many years. For the rest of the book she assumes the role of travel writer, skillfully combining the struggling present and the socialist deprivation of her youth with digestible vignettes of Bulgaria’s complex ethnic history. She visits superficially idyllic scenic spots, quite aware of being an outsider. [2] And she finds a lot of dying villages with left-behind people, like in China.

She notes the meek behavior of passengers as their flight is delayed:

Nobody is complaining. They are used to waiting: in state hospitals, shop queues, immigration offices, visa departments…

Landing at “the world’s worst-named airport” Vrajdebna ( “Hostile”), she returns to visit her rural relatives, enduring literal and metaphorical potholes. They watch a TV documentary about Bulgarians abroad, whose director has “artfully collated people’s homesickness to form a home-affirming narrative.” Yet

Between the small, confused person who sat here anaesthetizing herself with cakes and the impossibly foreign Richard Chamberlain in The thornbirds and the grown-up person lying here with a “foreigner” and two passports, there is no common language. They can’t meet in time, they can’t speak, they can only lie in this bed, very still, without touching.

In another scene that must be familiar to many such migrants, she meets an old school friend, who surmises, “Well, if I’m not happy now, I must have been happy then.”

Kassabova joins in a saccharin song from the Zhivkov era, “an ironic but secretly nostalgic serenade”. She glimpses the provincial innocence of village girls that makes them prone to trafficking—“an innocence that springs from the poisoned village-well of ignorance, conformity, and fear”.

She describes the expulsion of the Turks (“the Revival Process”) in the 1980s, another grim component of a long history of ethnic cleansing over a wide area.

The ethnic Turks were the tobacco-growers, the agricultural workers, the humble workforce that buzzed away in the background, propping up the diseased body of the State. There was no official announcement that the Turkish exodus had dealt a deadly blow to the already decrepit economy, but it soon became obvious. [Hm, sound familiar?] We knew, even in the torpor of our ignorance, that the long holiday of our compatriots was no holiday. It was a purge.

Meeting Turks, she gingerly enquires about their experiences. She also introduces Pirin Macedonia, and the Pomak minority of Rodopi, early Muslim victims of the “voluntary” change of names under Zhivkov. She cites Brecht: “the State was dissolving the people and electing another people”. Yet amidst what seems like an impressively toxic rate of xenophobia, Armenians had found refuge, and Bulgaria’s resistance to the deportation of the Jews was creditable.

Kassabova tells the harrowing tale of the mausoleum of Dimitriov in Sofia, and in Veliko Taronovo she introduces the ill-fated 19th-century satirist Aleko Konstatinov. Zhivkov’s daughter Lyudmila makes cameo appearances—a kind of prototype for Ivanka, only the former’s wacky eastern mysticism made a less perfect fit with the “values” of the leadership than does the crass materialism of the latter (cf. “the values of the Carphone Warehouse”). Just before Lyudmila’s mysterious death in 1981 she led an expedition to Strandja, on the southeast border with Turkey, to seek the tomb of the Egyptian cat-headed goddess Bastet. Still, her esoteric artistic tastes didn’t prevent her designing “the ugliest and most conspicuous monument in Bulgaria”.

As Kassabova notes, more East Germans were killed at the Strandja border than at all other border crossings put together (“the number of dead Bulgarians is unknown because no one has bothered to find out”). On a train she gets talking with a survivor of the labour camps, who segues nonchalantly from a harrowing account of her youth there into an anti-Semitic rant.

Finally she returns to the apartment block of her youth, which belatedly and unexpectedly has become a leafy neighbourhood, if still hardly salubrious. But still she needs to escape again, unable to heal her fractured psyche.

Kassabova expands on these themes in Border: a journey to the edge of Europe (2017, also reviewed here), broadening the area covered to Greece and Turkey. Again reminding me of China, she writes,

As I set out, I share the collective ignorance about these regions not only with other Europeans further away, but also with the urban elites of the three countries of this border.

***

The soundtrack to all this would be enticing, but I’ll save turbo-folk and traditional music for another time.  On the bus back from Istanbul the driver puts on a tape of gritty chalga, and Kassabova also catches an Ivo Papasov gig. Her tastes since emigrating turned to tango, which she has also evokes in Twelve Minutes of Love: a tango story.

 

[1] This broader overview by Jacob Mikanowski, considering studies of East Europe, is also intriguing.
[2] Unlike Patrick Leigh Fermor, I must say, who unfailingly does that really irritating thing of instantly getting clasped to the bosom of ordinary folk. Nigel Barley debunks this conceit in his classic “harmless idiot” spiel—but that’s not important right now.

 

4 thoughts on “Bulgaria: seeking buried identities

  1. Pingback: At home with a master Daoist | Stephen Jones: a blog

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  3. Pingback: Europe: cultures and politics | Stephen Jones: a blog

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