July, 2009

  1. Patriarchy

    July 17, 2009 by Christopher Buxton

    A typical statement – it could have been made at any time in the last fifty years: If not for anything else, I blame the Turkish yoke for imposing an oriental system of values on us.

    When pressed to define oriental values, the speaker, a woman in this case, cites the enduring legacy of patriarchal control, particularly in family relationships. This patriarchy boils down to the authority of the father figure over his wife and his apparently God-given right to command his children’s lives even after those children have reached the age of thirty and way beyond.

    Interestingly these “oriental values’ became a cornerstone of Communist policy between 1944 and 1989 – particularly in the increasing struggle to channel youthful enthusiasm and control its tendency towards rebellion.

    Once the attempt to substitute real fathers and mothers with a portrait of Georgi Dimitrov in every living room and a poem about Mother Party on the lips of every child, had clearly failed, Communists had no choice but to fall back on the traditional family to impose hegemony. The function of the family was stated as: “childbirth, upbringing and educating the children to be boundlessly faithful to the Fatherland”. Todor Zhivkov called on the ‘valuable national traditions and virtues’. Key to this was the practice of passing childcare over to grandparents. And so the Oriental patriarchal traditions prospered.

    One’s children are a resource. They can live the lives that we could only dream of. They can however be used as a weapon against us. This was especially true in communist times. Let us imagine a typical conversation between a functionary of the State Militia and an embarrassed Party official.

    We had to pick up your son, last night. He was with a group of long haired decadent hooligans, singing subversive song in the park. Lucky for him Sergeant Goshkov recognized him, separated him from the rest and sent him home, with a flea in his ear.

    I’m so sorry Comrade.

    Might I suggest you have some strong words with him about his behavior, his dress and the company he keeps?

    As nothing remains a secret in this society, our desperate party official will have to endure the schadenfreude of his colleagues. Comrade X has problems. He can’t even control his own children.

    Communism falls but the underpinning values remain. The way our children make their way in the world is a comment on our own worth as human beings. In the theatre of Bulgarian society, we are judged on their academic, professional and personal successes and failures. We are therefore expected to intervene decisively.
    The following exchange is from a conversation with my neighbour, (we’ll call him Boncho Bonchev). The subject is my son who has just returned to Europe after year long travels in Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

    B.B. : How did you let him go?

    Me: He’s 24 he makes his own decisions

    B.B.: I’ve told my children. They have no business beyond the Bosporus.

    You might reasonably ask how typically fathers like Boncho Bonchev maintain their power over their grown up children. It is through the power of patronage and guilt. In return for significant material help through their adolescence and adulthood, they can expect obedience. The typical Bulgarian father is proud that he supported his children through school and university. Not for them the indignity of part time work!

    I didn’t educate my daughter to serve in a bar or clean floors.

    After they have repaid him in getting a respectable degree so he can treat his neighbours, children can expect further significant help in buying their first car, their first apartment and so on. In return they should respect his pronouncements – at least to his face – and prepare to repay their debts as he gets older by ensuring a female member of the family looks after him.

    The problem is that Boncho did not foresee globalization. Now in the cold alienated capitalist world, children travel to build lives far away from their controlling parents. But if the patriarchal contract is broken, the consequences are not always bright.

    In the UK, even in liberal newspapers an interesting question is being raised. Has Women’s liberation led to the breakdown of social cohesion? Once, frustrated middle class women could only find fulfillment in socially useful local voluntary work. Now freed from their dominant masters, they have become so overtaken by their professional needs that they have no time to bear children, let alone care about their local community.

    From both the UK and Bulgaria, seekers for the traditional values and institutions, so praised by Todor Zhivkov, will need to travel east – to Turkey or Iran.

    It is particularly ironic that the nationalist Ataka party opposes what they call the Turkification of Bulgaria and at the same time whips up nostalgia for the good old days when traditional values held families together, crime was low and groups of pensioners were given carte blanche to control children’s bad behavior in the neighbourhood. Ataka would feel comfortably at home in many parts of the Muslim world.

  2. Fate of two novels

    July 8, 2009 by Christopher Buxton

    It just doesn’t seem fair.

    All these worthy Bulgarian writers slaving away at the mines of Bulgarian reality, have to step away from their back breaking work to see an Indian youngster after just two months stay in Bulgaria produce a book that has gained international acclaim.

    I read Solo by Rana Dasgupta just after finishing Worlds by Vladimir Zarev. Both books are heroic attempts to convey the fascinating, challenging, frustrating present and past that Bulgarians inhabit. Dasgupta seemed to have found the perfect metaphors for failure both in his hero, a hundred year old blind man living in a smelly leaking flat and in his hero’s country, Bulgaria with its history of savage false- democratic dawns. Zarev is equally ambitious in his attempt to put Bulgaria’s fate in a global context. One book will receive plaudits. The other will be ignored.

    Rana Dasgupta’s book has rightly gained critical attention. He has been recommended by no less a writer than Salman Rushdie. Reviews by Kapka Kassabova and Anthony Georgiev endorse the writer’s phenomenal achievement in conveying in unchallengeable detail the tragic history of the Bulgarian state, starting in days of infant cosmopolitan hope in the 19th Century Railway age but soon muddied by various forms of state tyranny that contract boundaries to a tiny flat with urine soaked walls.

    The novel centres on the memories, dreams and fantasies of a semi autistic centenarian failure – one time Chemistry student, son and friend of dissidents, informer for State Security, and finally blind helpless pensioner. Significant markers in this saintly fool’s progress are two murders – that of the poet Geo Milev in 1925 and that the businessman/crook Ilya Pavlov in 2003.

    Dasgupta must have been like a sponge for that two month sojourn in Bulgaria. Thereafter he must have lived in real and virtual libraries rooms to consolidate his research and assemble so much political, cultural, scientific and even topographical information. This he was able to transform into a treasure chest of vivid stories that burn into the reader’s imagination as authentic fact.

    Vladimir Zarev is rightly considered to be one of Bulgaria’s finest living writers. But this is a pretty meaningless description. Zarev’s novel is unlikely to receive any critical attention – especially in Bulgaria where what passes for literary comment is a mere adjunct of marketing. At least as a result of generous subsidies, he has seen his books translated into German. I hope too that there his books have been better bound, printed and edited. They may even be more widely read for who in the daily hurly-burly of Bulgarian life has time to read a 536 page book. Let’s all read Zift instead – an amoral compelling pastiche of pulp noir – which is at least short.

    Zarev’s novel, Worlds, is a thwarted love story. The worlds of the title are of a Bulgarian divorced low paid University lecturer with a suicidal daughter and of an American businessman with a difficult personal past, on a mission to put Bulgaria at the front of the Internet revolution. It conveys the baffling reality of post-communist Bulgaria, where democratically elected well meaning politicians can do nothing without the support of corrupt malign businessmen. The book contains compelling encounters with barely disguised real figures – Philip Dimitrov, Zhelyu Zhelev, Stefan Danailov. It conveys particularly well the state of palpitating panic and shame, experienced by any conscientious Bulgarian who has the task of guiding a foreign visitor through the darker corners of her country.

    The Internet becomes the divisive central metaphor for the book, as hero and heroine struggle with their particular national commitments and predilections. Without any great optimism, I really recommend this book.

    Ah! Pity the poor Bulgarian writer! Recently I attended a seminar organized by the Elizabeth Kostova foundation. The subject was Literary Diplomacy. The subtext was how Bulgarian literature might become better known across the world – particularly the English speaking diaspora.

    And there was Teodora Dimova bemoaning the fact that writers had to become their own self publicists, editors and agents and so lose valuable time away from their garret writing desks.

    Oh for communist times where chosen writers were properly supported andSofia Press would routinely produce literal translations of Dimitur Dimov’s work, alongside such literary masters as Georgi Karaslavov and Stoyan Daskalov.

    The consensus of the meeting was that there was a need for good translators. Having had to screw my eyes to read the faint and bodged printing of Vladimir Zarev’s work, I would add good publishers.

  3. Bulgarian elections

    July 8, 2009 by Christopher Buxton

    Happy new government Bulgaria!

    Boyko Borisov – his very name promises a bout of fisticuffs! The snow-shoveling get-things-done Bulgarian prototype with his serious/mournful expression is now the lauded new Prime Minister of Bulgaria. I am sure he will deal as masterfully with Bulgaria’s crisis as he did with Sofia’s road and rubbish problems. He will lead his team like Christo Stoichkov to resounding victory! (Are you sure about this? ed.)

    An ironic cheer for Ahmed Dogan the only politician to perhaps unwittingly take the election campaign to a much needed ideological level, leading voters to at least a muddy understanding of what kind of people rule us.

    A roar of bafflement at the clown tram driver Stanishev and his total lack of any discernable socialist advocacy. Rightly comparisons have been drawn with the British Labour party and their perceived betrayal of their natural electorate. In Labour heartlands pensioners are voting BNP. In Burgas they vote Ataka.

    A certain satisfaction that the vote buying oligarchs of Lider/Novoto Vreme failed to reach the required four percent despite their smug portraits beneath the sanctimoniously meaningless slogan “We want change”

    A farewell to those style icons of the Tsar’s party, Milen Velchev and Daniel Vulchev, though they are assured photo-shoots for fashion magazines for at least the next three years. – perhaps Spas Roussev can provide his yacht in Monte Carlo again.

    And a really sad farewell to The Ministry of Extraordinary Situations – that fabulous emblem of Bulgarian surreality. It was nice to think in the hurly burly of everyday challenges that next to Saint Nedelya cathedral, site of the 1925 bomb blast, was a Ministry devoted to responding to or perhaps even devising the extraordinary situations that every Bulgarian encounters every five minutes.

    In 1944 Boyko Borisov’s grandfather was brutally murdered by the new Communist masters. Now times are more tender. As a signal of new decisive rule, the ex-Deputy Minister of Extraordinary Situations was arrested yesterday for gross corruption. Sadly for national stereotypes the Minister appears to be of gypsy origin. At least he won’t be shot or turned into soap as some supporters of Ataka would doubtless advocate.

    Finally massive cheers that a whole lot of ruffians whose posters littered Burgas failed to gain any votes. I pay particular attention to Ivailo Drazhev, whose slogan Put a stop to shame I found deliciously ironic given his chequered and unpunished past; and the plump fat neck, former associate of Volen Ziderov, Pavel Chernev, the man famous for not being present when innocent motorists were being beaten on the Plovdiv motorway.

    Well the axe fell and Kostov gained new credibility as the dark brooding face of Borisov rose in the new dawn.

    God bless Bulgaria.