In her brilliant novel Aleksieva describes an encounter between her heroine, Inspector Vanda Velovska and a Literature expert, Professor Chernogorev. In the midst of a vital investigation, the lead inspector has just heard that her mother has been paralysed by a stroke. This conversation touches on a personal nightmare that stalks all of us – but particularly Bulgarians. The combination of an ageing community and mass emigration first to towns and then across the world has posed a terrible dilemma. Bulgarian patriots pride themselves on their country’s agrarian morality of personal responsibilities., where families stayed together and cared for their weaker members. This model may have worked for Haitov but it’s scarcely applicable now. But now with a lack of State social support structures, individuals can find their lives changed irrevocably by the sudden incapacity of a parent.
Vanda helped herself to another ham sandwich and chewed it deep in thought.
The Professor did not eat anything at all but was observing her with interest.
“I hope that I didn’t offend you when I said your profession isn’t popular,” he said politely.
“That’s the kind of job it is” Vanda’s mouth was full.
“And why did you decide to join the Police?”
“My mother was always asking me the same question and whatever answer I came up with, she was never happy.”
”But I’m sure you had your reasons and she understood them in the end, as now she’s stopped asking you.”
“Ha ha ha! It’s simply that she doesn’t want to talk. Or else she can’t – who can tell. That’s why she doesn’t ask.”
“Why? What’s happened?”
“She had a stroke. She’s in the hospital.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
And little by little, whether it was because the cognac had loosened her tongue, or she felt more confident than usual, somehow supported by the Professor’s cozy quarters, every inch securely protected by walls of books against eventual invasion from the outside world, Vanda told him about her mother and the long years of battle with her, which just up to a few days ago she had imagined she had won, until suddenly it had turned out that in fact she had utterly lost. She wasn’t drunk but even so her words got sometimes tangled from excitement, because she had not talked like this for a long time, and from embarrassment, because she knew that Professor Chernogov, whom she was seeing for the first time, was neither linked to her nor had any duty to listen, but still she carried on talking to him because she simply could not stop.
Guilt spoke through her.
Guilt normally screamed voiceless accusations in her head and Vanda could not oppose it because she did not understand its language.
“That’s it,” she said at lat, when she’d repeated the most important and the most painful things twice and thrice over. “I can’t begin to describe the shame I feel in wasting your time. I don’t know why I’ve done it. Maybe because I feel so confused and frightened and I’ve got no-one to talk to. Now it’s way too late to apologize.
“There’s no need,” replied the Professor, “I myself have children. Grown up. And they don’t just not want to live with their father – not that I want that of course – but they don’t want to see him. Don’t ask me why. In spite of that, though, I know that one day I will be left at their mercy. At the mercy of their love, their hatred or of whatever the feelings between us have become. Up till recently I would state definitely that I wouldn’t let it happen, that I would take timely steps to avoid becoming a burden, if it ever came to that, but now I’m not so sure. They, just like you, reckon that they have a duty towards their father and that frightens them as much as it frightens me. Certainly I’m in no position to complain as I expect I brought them up that way, but by the time a person becomes grown up enough to be able to tell the colossal difference between duty and love, usually it’s already too late.”
“And what is the difference?”
The Professor fell silent, leveled the remaining cognac and emptied his glass in one gulp.
“With love there is no place for guilt. Whereas duty is just guilt and only guilt. Guilt is the reason for duty and the punishment for its non-fulfillment.
“Your children are very lucky to have a father like you,” exclaimed Vanda.
“Tell that to them. And let’s see how they answer,” chuckled Chernogorov. “If you think that I can talk to them like I’m talking to you right now, you’re sadly mistaken. The point is that children always carry out their duty to their parents with a feeling of disgust and that’s just part of human nature. Let’s say no-one’s to blame. Nature itself is at fault. And as it’s you alone or the pressure of society that has made you undertake this duty, the only way to carry it out is not to expect too much of yourself. You should not be ashamed that you find something unpleasant that can never be pleasant. And don’t load yourself down with more morality than you can carry. At the end of the day it boils down to a question of existence, everyday life, and not some ethical doctrine. And you know what?”
Chernogorev leant towards her and Vanda’s face felt the caress of his soft alcoholic breath. “Bringing up children is not so fantastically pleasant as they’d have you believe,” he whispered. “At all events it’s more unpleasant than making them. But that is a question of duty as well, and not so much towards the children themselves as to nature.”
“I don’t have children,” Vanda replied.
“That’s what I thought.” Once again he gave her a conspiratorial wink, but this time provoked no responding smile.