In praise of Gencho Stoev

March, 2010

  1. In praise of Gencho Stoev

    March 18, 2010 by Christopher Buxton

    Gencho Stoev’s The Price of Gold 1964, gives us a multi-narrative account of the April uprising. While it never skirts the horror of the Turkish atrocities, Stoev drives home the moral dilemmas occasioned by nationalist fervour. Although the novel enjoyed considerable critical success, it was never a popular book with Communists or nationalists.

    There were bodies too in the church yard and in the sunlight by the fence the teacher lay yellow and tubercular; looked just about alive, because his head hadn’t been cut off like the others, his body hadn’t been plundered and the chain of his watch – the only one in the village, glittered underneath his unbuttoned French coat; even the handle of his pistol still rested in his nerveless right hand.
    “Ey! Are you happy now, School master?” Hadji-Vranyo had asked him through the smoke and the groans. “Are you happy the village is burning?”
    “I’m happy, Daddy-Pilgrim,” the teacher replied. “The very best stakes are charred at the ends – so they don’t rot when you drive them into the ground. Just such stakes are what Bulgaria needs.”
    “Who’ll plant stakes in empty unpeopled land, School master?”
    “The emptiest lands are those which no-one has ever died for, but the most populated lands are those which the locals have watered with their blood. They are sacred lands.”
    The words were spoken as if from an icon: wise, harsh and deaf.
    “What do you know about land? What property have you got? You’d have no clothes on your back if it weren’t for my brother-in-law’s help…”
    “True,” answered the teacher and his face was blotched, yellow, pink and black. “I’m no rich man; I’ve got no estate. So I seized on to the people’s cause, to lead you to freedom…”
    “To lead us to the mass chopping block!”

    (Translation Christopher Buxton)

    The speakers are Peter Bonev, a teacher and rebel leader and Hadji Vranio, a patriarch and pilgrim to the Holy Land the richest man in the village of Perushtitsa. The date is Easter Sunday 1876. The context is the April Uprising, in which 1000 Turks were killed and at least 30,000 Bulgarians were massacred in response.

    The confrontation between the two men takes place in the village church, by which time the village is in flames and apart from the already dead and dying insurgents, the remaining villagers, men women and children are about to be massacred.

    The April Uprising has been the subject of much nationalist-pornography – particularly during the Communist period, where the government was seeking to whip up anti-Turkish fervour in support of its policy of forcible re-naming and reclassification of its Moslem and Turkish populations. It was simple to paint the insurrection in terms of evil bloodthirsty Turks and heroic patriots. It was tempting to dwell on the barbaric methods of execution employed by the oppressors. The inconvenient fact that most of the country did not respond to the badly organised call to arms was explained in terms of cowardice and capitalist self interest of those Bulgarians who had prospered in the Turkish Empire.

    The teacher Bonev has drawn Hadji Branyo’s sons into the insurrection. Bonev rightly foresees that the insurrection is but the preface to the inevitable end of Turkish rule in Bulgaria. But Hadji Vranyo feels no elation. The old man, who has amassed thousands of pounds from his wine and sesame oil business, now anticipates the annihilation of his family and everything he has worked for. Ironically his wife and surviving grand-daughter are to be saved from rape and murder by his old friend Ismael Aga – an unusual but not unique portrayal of a humane Turk in Bulgarian literature.

    So Gencho Stoev proved to be a brave writer in the context of his simplistic time. His novel dispassionately presents us with sharply realised dramatic confrontations – between human beings who despite ethnic and religious differences are striving to understand the horror that has been unleashed. As a result while the book has rightly been hailed as a literary masterpiece, Stoev never received the acclaim accorded to Anton Donchev and his novel A Time Apart. He even faced difficulties getting the book published and his film script was blocked by the Communist Central Committee.

    The Bulgarian critic Boycho Penchev has spotted an anti-Stalinist aspect to Bulgarian historical fiction in the 1960s in which: the conflict between the Bulgarian People and narrow minded dogmatic communists was played out in costume. This conflict is exemplified in the extract translated above.

    The words that Stoev puts into the ideologue Bonev’s mouth have a disturbing resonance. The notion that land has to be fought for to have any value – that land that necessitates death is “sacred” – this word alone summons up the mystical patriotic fervour that fuels the Serbian patriot and war criminal Karadjic and seeks to justify the massacres at Srebenitsa and the fight for Kosovo.

    Bonev is an iconic figure, enthused by the same romantic passion that inspires IRA and ETA bombers and the Taliban. His destructive actions are designed to provoke extreme reaction which will lead to the changes he desires. The immediate consequences – rape and massacre are not just a price worth paying but an essential holy sacrifice. Ironically, Stoev in his sequel to The Price of Gold paints a very negative picture of the repressive Bulgarian monarchy that Bonev and his co-insurgents helped put in place of the rightly hated Turkish empire.

    And the words Stoev uses to describe Bonev’s uncompromising declaration: wise, harsh and deaf mark him out as a truly courageous writer.

  2. Family Memories of War

    March 10, 2010 by Christopher Buxton

    It is generally accepted that former combatants are unwilling to talk about their war-time experiences.

    My maternal grandfather, known as Grandad

    Grandad was extremely reticent about his time in the First World War trenches. I don’t know what moved him to share some memories with me, two years before his death. Perhaps he was irritated by my anti-war unpatriotic views and my generally shaggy appearance. Or perhaps he felt that with my naïve passion for history I needed educating. Anyway, out of the blue he opened up.

    “Of course I had to fight. You had to fight for King and Country. I didn’t know anything else much. Some Arch Duke shot in the Balkans. But King and Country was good enough for me.”

    After basic training, he found himself in the trenches. In spite of the mud, the order was still to keep every piece of equipment polished. This included the helmet. It was only after countless Tommies were shot by German snipers that the order went out for helmets to be caked with mud.

    Grandad was promoted to Corporal and was sent one night into No-mans-land with two privates to superintend the digging of a new forward trench. The flares went up; random sniper fire broke out. The two privates dug for their lives and as soon as possible, Grandad took shelter with them in the deepening trench.

    An officer appeared above them (life expectancy of an officer was three days). “Corporal Jones! What are you doing down there?” “Taking cover, sir!” “Get up here at once! You’re in charge!” Miraculously Grandad survived having to stand in the brightly lit open ground until his detail safely completed the task.

    Before going over the top in the battle of the Somme, Grandad was issued with a measure of rum served in a can. Then somewhere in No-mans-land a shell exploded and filled his body with shrapnel.

    He lay between unconsciousness and death out in the open. It was lucky for him that the Generals on both sides cared about the health of their surviving soldiers. It was vital that they died from bullets, gas or shrapnel rather than dysentery. So after sharp conflict had taken its usual toll, a short truce was declared so carts could be sent out to collect the dead bodies, before flies spread disease. As the red cross guys threw Grandad’s body into the cart, they noticed it twitching.

    Close to death, Grandad was temporarily patched up and then shipped back to a London hospital. After some considerable time he was discharged from hospital, wearing a suit that Grandma had brought in. He got on a bus to take him home. There he noticed two young women who stared at him and then fell into earnest conversation. A decision was reached and one of them, crossed the bus, reached into her handbag and presented Grandad with a white feather.

    What I can’t get over is the thought that alongside makeup and purse, every red-blooded English girl had to have a collection of white feathers in her handbag, ready to present to total strangers not in uniform. I expect they read the Daily Mail.

    He was not considered to be sufficiently fit to return to the front but was sent instead to Ireland, which was on the brink of civil war. He told me that walking the streets of Ireland was more terrifying than being in the trenches. It was there also that he was demoted. He was escorting a prisoner – I think they were at a railway station. The prisoner wanted to go to the toilet and of course Grandad was too much of a gentleman to stand over him while he relieved himself. There was a back window to the toilet which provided even greater relief to the agile prisoner. The escape was seen to be Grandad’s fault and so he was relieved of one of his stripes.

    My father-in-law

    Shortly after the 9th of September, after the Russian crossed the Danube and triggered a “spontaneous Communist revolution,” Ivan Volkanov, my father-in-law, found himself as an officer in the new Peoples Republican Army, pushing up alongside the Red Army though Yugoslavia. His battalion was following the earlier thrust against the German occupying forces.

    There had been a battle up ahead in which some lads from his village had reportedly died, so the following night, Ivan saddled up his horse to see if he could get more news. . He rode up along a railway track which led to the forward positions and the battlefield. Eventually he saw in the distance a flickering light and drawing closer, he made out some figures sitting huddled about a brazier on a platform in small village station. They were Bulgarian. He asked about the lads from his village. They shrugged and pointed up the line.

    Ivan rode another mile down the track and reached the battlefield in the cold dawn. Bodies lay on both sides of the dividing track. On one side were Russian and Bulgarian boys; on the other lay Germans. What he saw needs no comment from me.

    “I looked to my left. The Bulgarian and Russian boys were filthy, they were lousy, they were ragged. I looked to my right. The German boys were clean shaven, their uniforms were spotless, their boots were polished. But they were all dead – all dead!”

  3. Boyko losing it?

    March 10, 2010 by Christopher Buxton

    A report today in Standart has burly Boyko threatening that he has a letter of resignation, ready in his pocket. Striking Doctors and disgruntled farmers had better not push him too far!

    This report, if true, only goes to show that he is a remarkably unprofessional politician.

    Professional politicians don’t threaten to resign. They wriggle and hope the storm will pass. They have too much to lose financially to worry about their popularity.

    Any exasperated teacher will tell you about the effect of such lame threats. “Quiet! Shut up! Listen to me! If anyone else farts or throws another paper aeroplane, I’m walking out! Yes! That’s right! I’ll just walk out that door and never come back!”

    Cue loud farts and a cascade of flighted paper to rival the Battle of Britain.

  4. Why Boyko’s post-box is full

    March 5, 2010 by Christopher Buxton

    The news that Boyko Borisov receives three times more letters than Sergei Stanishev did when he was Prime Minister should surprise no-one. A populist politician from his weightlifter’s shoulders to his tub thumping toes, he should expect that Bulgarian people, so long the victims of extraordinary situations, would temporarily forget their cynicism and believe that like some super-hero he will ride to their rescue.

    Politics was easy in Bulgaria until Boyko appeared on the scene. Those people who voted, voted from inertia, voted according to old loyalties, without much hope that anything would change. Bulgarian politicians played the roles the Bulgarian people expected. They held high level meetings with criminals, bought up desirable tracts of land at knock-down prices and lined their pockets. This was nothing new. You only have to read Golemanov by St L Kostov to realise that things were exactly the same in the 1920s.

    Still, something extraordinary happened in last summer’s Parliamentary elections. World weary Bulgarian friends who had sworn that they would never vote, went out to elect GERB and Boyko was returned with an unprecedented thumping majority. Boyko conducted the campaign with his most-popular-bloke-in-the-pub style. And just in case, you wondered if this down to earth, salt of the earth character was going to be too simple, he was flanked by the balding worried looking figure of the Prospective Home Secretary and the bespectacled keen and lean Prospective Minister of Finances. The fact that Boyko lacked a respectable education – usually so important to Bulgarians in clinching any argument – was ignored.

    And on the face of it, things seem to be taking a turn for the better. One of the first of the new Governments acts was to abolish the aptly named Ministry of Extraordinary Situations. Every day there are new arrests of allegedly corrupt Judges and Magistrates. Operation Octopus has resulted in the investigation of the Heads of Internal Security, the Customs and Immigration Services, along with their links to organised kidnapping, highway robbery, drugs import and car theft gangs. Criminals with unlikely nick-names are either under arrest or being sought. The Hamster is singing like a Chicago canary. The Big and Little Margins are implicated in the latest street murder. The Crocodile and the Geyser had their alibis blown apart when the border policeman confessed to accepting a substantial bribe to state that they were out of the country when they were in fact tying a hapless Turkish driver to a tree..

    All this hectic activity must be seen in the context of EU demands that the Bulgarian Government must be seen to be doing something about the problem of corruption if it is to receive the subsidies it so badly needs. As Boyko Borisov basks in the apparent glow of their approval, however, the slow corruptible legal system is letting him down. Once when Borisov was Home Secretary in the Tsar’s government, he famously articulated his frustration with the legal system: “We arrest them; you let them go.”

    Things have not changed. High level criminals with smart lawyers, money and connections still know that they can thwart justice. Powerful corporations in league with town halls can steamroll ordinary citizens. Roman Romanov, head of Zekom, a company that has fraudulently occupied property bought by UK citizens in Bansko, was quoted in the Daily Mail: “All issues are to be resolved under Bulgarian law. This means only one thing – God Help You.’

    In Burgas, relatives of an innocent couple killed in a drink-driving incident ten years ago on the Sozopol road, are still to see justice done on the perpetrator. This year in the latest twist of this typically protracted case, the presiding magistrate suffered a mysterious illness, thus preventing her from reaching the expected conclusion and sentencing. The whole affair now has to start from the beginning – allowing yet more opportunities for bribery and intimidation of witnesses.

    The French Ambassador stated recently that without a proper legal system, you can have no democracy. There is little protection for the ordinary citizen when their interests collide with criminal, corporate or local government interests. At least after ten years of legal twists and turns, finally a Veliko Tirnovo court put the highly connected murderers of a Bulgarian student in Paris behind bars.

    Those reading our blog will know that we too have become entangled in the Bulgarian legal system. In the unequal struggle between a financially pressed disabled pensioner and the Petrol Corporation allied to Burgas City Council, the Supreme Court reached the completely absurd conclusion that in the case of a perfectly sound property in the centre of Burgas, electricity and water supplies should be cut off to enable some unspecified repairs to be carried out.

    A long haul Bulgarophile needs to share the pain and helplessness of ordinary people – also some of their naivety. Having attended a reception for Boyko Borisov in the London Embassy, where hundreds of Bulgarian emigrants jostled to have their photographs taken with the great man’s arm around their shoulder, we felt emboldened to write a letter to him. A copy of the letter and its translation can be found in our blog.

    Well, we should have known better. We received a letter in reply, expressing regret for our difficulties but reminding us of that old chestnut beloved of all students of true democratic structures – the essential division of powers and the inability of the executive to interfere with the Judiciary.

    So there we have it. Loud noises are being made about investigations and arrests. Former Socialist ministers and the President are squealing protests. New Gerb controlled town halls are getting on with their business of making money, And the Judicial system continues to crawl on to no satisfactory conclusion, while witnesses die or disappear.