Random connections


  1. Random connections

    December 4, 2013 by Christopher Buxton

    I didn’t mean to do this – it’s just a typical pensioner reflex to turn on Radio 4 whenever  in the kitchen– so as I chopped the vegetables I listened to the Sunday morning repeat of Ed Milliband’s much mocked choice of Desert Island discs.  Somewhere between AHA and Blake’s Jerusalem, Paul Robeson’s majestic bass voice sang the Ballad of Joe Hill. That rather than the onions brought tears to my eyes.

    I last came across this song in Norway and sang it in Norwegian with my leftist folk singing group. It sounded great.  Joe Hill was born in Sweden and I think I saw a Swedish film about his short life and judicial murder in the States. Hill was a migrant worker, political song writer and “Wobbly” Union activist at a time of brutal exploitation. In the wrong place at the wrong time he turned up at a Utah hospital with a bullet in his chest and was subsequently framed for the murder of a store-keeper. He was executed by Firing Squad  in spite of representations by the American President Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller and the Swedish Ambassador.

    As if in anticipation of the song written after his death, Joe Hill did little to contest his rigged trial. It was as if he wanted to be martyred. Either that or a misplaced discretion prevented him from revealing the names of the love rival who shot him and the woman with whom he had formed an attachment – shades of the song: The Long Black Veil.

    In The Ballad of Joe Hill, Joe appears in a dream to announce his immortality:

    Joe Hill ain’t dead he says to me, Joe Hill ain’t never died; Where working men are out on strike, Joe Hill is at their side, Joe Hill is at their side.

    This is so like Jesus Christ’s promise to his apostles “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”, as quoted by St Matthew.

    Slovene Slavoj Žižek is a volcanic speaker whose eruptions last up to half an hour smothering his listeners with an apparently random list of anecdotes, quotations, startling opinions, strained associations and brilliant metaphors which despite their spluttering semi coherence coalesce into a cogent argument. His take on Christianity in “God in Pain”, is a portrait of a baffled God.  The Father of the Old Testament has ceded his omnipotence and having seen his human incarnation crucified. Quoting the French poet Paul Claudel’s conclusion that “God can’t do anything without us”, Žižek envisages God leaving humanity with the challenge of living up to Christ’s sacrifice, with the inspiration provided by the Holy Spirit.

    It should not be fanciful to see Joe Hill in this light. A partly self created Jesus Christ fighting for humanity’s betterment.

  2. Lora Lazar’s murderous homage to Atanas Dalchev

    November 2, 2013 by Christopher Buxton

    I’ve been long surprised at the lack of quality crime fiction in Bulgaria, particularly as the yellow press never misses an opportunity to report lurid stories about underworld figures with colourful nick-names.

    In the summer in my last trawl of Bulgarian bookshops to tide me over my UK winter months, I chanced upon “Грешният Квартал” by Lora Lazar.  I read the blurb. Could this be the book to challenge the Scandinavian noir writers that dominate the English speaking market at the moment?

    The title is difficult to translate as “Грешният” has two meanings – “sinful” and “wrong” as in the sense of “mistaken”. Let’s keep with sin and call it “The Sinful District”, though as every district has its shameful secrets we need to keep the second option open.

    Lora Lazar provides a deeply satisfying read.  Her novel keeps close to the conventions of the serial killer genre – an irascible bloody minded detective at odds with his superiors; a loyal young sidekick/apprentice; a meddling journalist who gets under their feet: an anonymous murderer always one step ahead and with a real flair for dramatic visual representation; a series of marginalised and abusive victims and most importantly a vivid backdrop of a decaying urban wasteland.  Lazar keeps the reader hooked.  Her tightly organized plot drops timely clues and red herrings.

    So far so Scandinavian but Lazar serves up two elements that are uniquely Bulgarian. First, her sinful district is a post communist mess of some neglected old houses, panel blocks, disused factories and workshops turned into warehouses, hovels and broken sheds, a sprawling gypsy quarter, with a railway line running through it all and a typically Bulgarian predilection for gossip. Shameful truths of physical and sexual abuse  slowly emerge.  Second she has skilfully weaved into the story several of Atanas Dalchev’s poems, which complement the mood, the environment and the characters perfectly. 

    I read a lot of poetry when I first lived in Bulgaria in the Communist years, but it is only recently that a Bulgarian poet recommend I read Dalchev. It was a revelation. Perhaps it’s not surprising that I wouldn’t have heard much about him in Communist years.  In the 60s just before his death he wrote “Silence” about the paralysing fear of those times. Most of his poetry was written between the wars in a no less turbulent period . His dark poems invest simple everyday features – windows, doors, balconies with a threatening symbolism. A shadow in the yard like a broken spear on the staircase reminds him of some undiscovered murder. Lora Lazar allows her murderer to educate his pursuing policemen as he styles his murder scenes around Dalchev poems. Lazar’s prose complements Dalchev’s subtle shadows, making the book a pleasure to read.

    As in any murder story doors are very significant.  Here is my translation of Atanas Dalchev’s poem on the those everyday objects

    The doors

    by Atanas Dalchev


    The doors, the street front doors

                of the ancient rotting houses

     you recognise them, don’t you,

                for how many years gone by

    they noisily close behind you,

                when at night you come back home,

    they make way for you as if to say

                “Please enter dear Master!”

    They speak in strange voices

                anytime weekday or Sunday

    From morning  through to night

                they sing through yawning mouths

    when you throw them open

                and then you close them gently:

    Oh, those songs and voices,

                already known from childhood

    The doors sodden in the rain,

                rotting from water and winter

    gnawed by numberless worms

                stripped bare by the winds

    the doors with thousands of scars –

                colours and nameless letter plates

     with studs, knockers and brackets

    and their rust running like blood

    And last night with all its might

                a storm, unleashed in the gloom,

    battered them like a wrecking ball

                and the doors were stretched thin

    and through the night till dawn

                they were beating and rattling

    like the wings of some black bird

                dying wounded in the shadows.


    The doors, your very own doors

                there’s little point in locking them

    alas you will never feel

                safe and sound behind them.

    When the night time fills your ears

                and startled dogs are barking

    they cannot keep you safe

                from Her – the eternal hoodlum

    More of my translations of Atanas Dalchev can be found here.

  3. Fingering an open wound

    October 2, 2013 by Christopher Buxton

    A recent survey reported in the Standart newspaper showed a significant proportion (20%) of Bulgarian young people wishing they had been born in the communist era. Commentators offer two explanations for this result – the rosy picture painted by grandparents of a time of full employment, accessible health care and crime free streets;  the complete absence of  information about this era in the school curriculum. This year, in the village of Odurne, the DSP elected mayor fulfilled a pledge to his electorate by commissioning and unveiling  a bust of Todor Zhivkov, the former Communist Dictator.

    One need look no further than the streets of Sofia with its daily anti government protests and pro-government counter-protests to realise how divided Bulgarians are by both the present and the recent past. There is a great lack of standard accessable objective information about the whole Communist experience.  The media remain partisan and are distrusted.How could be otherwise where one newspaper talks of the thousands of victims of the Communist terror and another newspaper declares the same terror to be a complete myth.  The excellent History of Bulgaria in 3 volumes (Anubis) stops at 1944. I did come across A Short History of Socialist Bulgaria by Dimitur Ivanov (Ciela) in a book fair beside Sveta Nedelya Church. It seemed very dry. Packed with statistics it failed to convey the feelings and personalities of the time.

    The palpable shame felt by many Bulgarians regarding their present position and recent past makes certain subjects almost taboo. Thus a friend’s comment on Alec Popov’s excellent tragicomic novel about Bulgarian Communist partizans was that its humour was too close to fingering an open wound, a mockery of a painful time in Bulgarian history.

    However documentary historians are beginning to address the period directly before the Russian invasion of Bulgaria and the “spontaneous” Communist led revolution that led to 46 years of one party rule.  There is a wealth of Police archives from before 1944 that allow for a scrupulous revision of the previously one sided accounts of Communist heroism. I really enjoyed reading Nikola Geshev against the Black Angels by Andrea Iliev (Ciela).  Nikola Geshev was the legendary Secret Police Chief and the Black Angels were young Communist idealists recruited to assassinate   “enemies of the people” in the war years.  This is popular history at its best, juxtaposing the memories of the surviving assassins with contemporary police reports.

    But we will probably have to wait another fifty years for a consensus on the fascinating Communist period.





  4. Supporting the new Bulgarian Renaissance

    September 15, 2013 by Christopher Buxton

    This week I was honoured to be asked by Helikon to organise a journalists’ workshop aimed specifically at getting the print and visual media behind a quality campaign for better support for Bulgarian writers.  This in my best Bulgarian is the plan I worked to:

    Какво трябва да се направи, за да подкрепим Българската литература и да помогнем на Българските писатели да станат по значителни в България и в по-широкия  свят?

    Добре дошли в нашия уъркшоп!  Събрали сме се тук журналисти, критици, издатели, книжари, творци и учители, но най важното е че всички сме читатели.  Искам да ви се представя: Казвам се Кристофър Бъкстон.  Аз съм писател, преводач и четящ човек.

    Искам да започна с откъс от романът Нобелиста на талантливата Българска авторка Елена Алиексиева.  Откъса, който ще ви прочета е от началото на романа – действието се развива на един прием, даден за получателя на Нобеловата награда за Литература, който е гост в България.

    Четене на откъса: (сами можете да представете с какъв срам се посреща новината че върпросният нобелист е бил отвлечен от Софийския му хотел.)


    Като преводач, аз търся талантливи писатели, които могат да предават Българската действителност с цялото й комично и трагично богатство.  Вярвам че Българското всекидневие е нещо уникално – понякога сюреалистично, но винаги убедително, обещаващо и много сложно.

    Това всекидневие е било брилянтно описано от такива класически автори като Йовков, Елин Пелин, Чудомир, Иваило Петров и тази богата традиция продължава със Милен Русков, Емил Андреев, Алек Попов, Деян Енев, Калин Терзийски, Георги Господинов, Васил Георгиев, Александър Урумов, Владимир Зарев, Мишо Вешим, Иво Сиромахов, Елена Алиексиева, Кристин Димитрова и много други.  Да не забравим бързо растящият брой писатели емигранти като Мирослав Пенков, Захари Карабашлиев, Капка Касабова и други.  Всички тези автори имат своя стил и индивидуален поход към реалноста.  Такива хубави романи и разкази съм чел напоследък, че мисля че не е преувеличение да говорим за нов ренесанс в Българската литература.  Казвам това, въпреки атаката на всеизвестния ни критик Проф Юлиян Вуичков във Вестник Ретро, където без особено внимание към детайлите – за мене не беше много ясно дали той е чел авторите, за които говори въобще – той нарича всички съвременни Български писатели некадърници.  Очаквах голям отзив от други негови колеги-критици, които да защитят Български писатели.  Не знам дали това се получи.  Нали казват тук всяко чудо за три дни!  Но все пак един ренесанс е крехък.  Всички ние читатели, журналисти критици, издатели, книжари, носим отговорност за процъфтявянето му.  И слава Богу, научавам от Вестник Стандарт – трябва да е истина – че Георги Господинов е надминал Дан Браун по продажби.

    Но да се върнем към задачите! Това събитие се нарича Уъркшоп – както знаете, тази английска дума, означава „работилница”.  Признавам че чужденец – особено англичанин, да говори за Българската реалност е все едно да ходи на пръсти върху счупени яйца.  Не съм тук да ви уча как да продавате краставици!  Според правилата на Уъркшопа вие ще давате акъл!

    Искам да ви дам като начало две загряващи задачи.  С тях се надявам да надникнем в уникалните рисурси и стимули, които ползват Българските писатели.

    Моля, обърнете столовете си назад и сформирайте групи от по 3-5 човека.  Използвайте дадената ви хартия – 25-30 минути.

    Задача 1:  Направете списък от поне пет стериотипни, но конкретни ситуации от Българското всекидневие.  Пример: бабите, които седят по пейките пред блоковете и обсъждат дрехите на минаващите съседи.

    Задача 2: (по същият начин) Номинирате пет важни момента или тенденций в българската история.  Пример: Турското робство

    Всяка група трябва да избере техен говорител, който да прочете списъците.  Моля предайте ми написаното.


     Моля обърнете столовете си напред за обща дискусия.

    Теми за разговор –

    ·        Какви са най важните жанрове и защо някой липсват в Българската литература?  Например: детективски, фантаси, исторически, ужаси, романтика, детски, тийнейжърски, научна фантастика и други. Предимства и опасности на етикирането.

    ·        Какво правим всички ние за младите читатели?  

    ·        Каква трябва да бъде ролята на литературните критици и журналистите, които пишат по литературни теми?

    ·        Важностша на връзки със други медии – телевизионни сериали, радио програми, филми, дигитални издателства и др

    ·        Положението на книжния пазар на преведена Българска литература в Англо-говорещия свят

    ·        Важността на литературните награди и тяхна подкрепа от заинтересувани организации.  Ролята на медиите в тази подкрепа .

    ·        Как може държавата да помогне и какъв натиск да се положи за постигането на тази помощ.

    Заключение: Как можете да помогнете вие? 







  5. Alec Popov’s Palaveevi Sisters

    September 11, 2013 by Christopher Buxton

    The most effective accounts of the tragedy of war have had humour and irony as their essential ingredients. Laughter sharpens the sense of pathos.  Thus in the UK – especially for a younger generation lacking any direct contact with the realities of war, the comedy drama series Blackadder Goes Forth has done more to illustrate the grotesque absurdities of World War 1 than  five viewings of All Quiet on the Western Front – however noble that film might be. In this context we should also mention Kurt Vonnegut’s take on the horror of Dresden, Slaughterhouse 5, Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Schweik and of course Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. The authors of such works always run the risk of being accused of a lack of respect for the heroic dead, poking their fingers into a gaping wound as though humour shows a lack of patriotic passion.

    Such accusations have been leveled at Alec Popov following publication of his novel The Palaveevi Sisters – in the eye of the historic storm. This important book conveys the day to day surreality experienced by a Partisan group of fighters hiding out in the Balkan mountains towards the end of the 2nd World War, a war in which the Bulgarian monarchist government had allied the country to Nazi Germany.

    There has been a long tradition in Bulgaria of young men taking to the mountains.  It started when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire.  Brigands feeding off the rich pickings from Ottoman tax wagon trains and ill-guarded merchants’ convoys, took on the status of latter day Robin Hoods and when the time came for rebellion, fitted easily into a national liberation mythology. The mixed motives of these bandit/freedom fighters was described brilliantly last year by Milen Ruskov in his work The Pinnacle. During World War 2 however the Bulgarian partisan movement was relatively small and ineffective compared to its Yugoslavian counterpart. Its ranks only swelled to bursting when Russian invasion was imminent.

    In Alec Popov’s novel, the eponymous twin teenage sisters from middle class backgrounds are on the run from the authorities. They have joined a Partisan group based in the Balkan mountains. The Partisans are a mixed bunch of young and old communists and Peasant party members, all dedicated fighters against the Bulgarian monarchist regime and their German allies. Many have adopted colourful nicknames. Nail – short for final nail in the coffin of Capitalism – or Digger – short for Gravedigger of Capitalism. Others have adopted the names of revolutionary heroes – Botev and Lenin. There is a renegade monk called Tikhon. There is only one other female – white haired Extra Nina whose grasp of Communist ideology has made her the Commander’s trusted right hand Political Officer. The Commander Medved is a former refugee from the 1922 Bulgarian White Terror, returned by Russian submarine eighteen years later to command local resistance against the Bulgarian government.  He speaks Bulgarian with a heavy Russian accent. As Commander he can order the execution of any unit member who is suspected of class treachery or found derelict in duty.

    Alec Popov’s warts and all depiction of the Partisans does not detract one iota from their bravery and the sincerity of their beliefs. No-one in history can be blamed for an inability to foresee the future, particularly if they die for a cause that turns out in the end to be as suspect as the extreme regime they were fighting against. And Popov cannot be accused of belittling the ruthless government forces led by the sinister Captain Night and the methods they will use to extract information from any communist sympathizer that falls into their hands. (Well of course he can be by critics like Professor Yulian Vuichkov who clearly has not read a line of the novel.)

    The comic absurdity of the chapter on masturbation (translated with the author’s permission on my site) only increases the poignancy of a story whose context is a withering civil war.  However shameful the subject of masturbation, the chapter ends with men and women preparing to die for their beliefs. The naïve foot-soldiers in this war would go on to be either sanctified or demonized by the mythmakers of the Communist regime which came into power after the Soviet invasion of 1944 and held on to power until 1990.

    In The Palaveevi Sisters writer Alec Popov does what all writers must – tell the unvarnished truth as he has researched it.  He has produced the first partisan novel since the fall of communism.  (You can just imagine how many shelves were filled by novels and memoirs on this subject during the Communist years – enough to reflect the monuments that still stand in nearly every village).  Popov has brought  these stone statues to life and so has brought meaning to those generations who have only experienced communism through the hazy memories of their parents and grandparents. He has walked the tightrope between pathos and absurdity with aplomb – without a drop of cynicism. He made this reader laugh and cry.

    Read the translation here