Just one more extract from “The Nobel Laureate” by Elena Aleksieva

June, 2013

  1. Just one more extract from “The Nobel Laureate” by Elena Aleksieva

    June 6, 2013 by Christopher Buxton

    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.




  2. An extract from The Nobel Laureate by Elena Aleksieva I used at the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation seminar on Translation – followed by some recommendations

    June 4, 2013 by Christopher Buxton


    (Context:  Gertlesman – Chilean Nobel Literature Prize winner has just arrived in Sofia.  He is talking here to his Bulgarian publisher – that very night he will be kidnapped)

    “However much it pains me to admit it…” For a second Gertlesman seemed to be talking to himself.  “…But there, I haven’t read a single Bulgarian writer up till now. And yet I am sure you have an interesting literature.  Can you recommend something for me to read?”

    “Well, you see, Mr Gertlesman…” the publisher sighed.


    “Yes, thank you Eduardo.  Of course we have a wonderful literature, but sadly we don’t have a Nobel laureate and I doubt we will have in the near future.  And this fact on its own tells us many things.  Good writers – lots of them, but great writers…!”

    “Recommend one of the good ones then!” Gertlesman chuckled.

    “We expend prodigious effort,” the publisher continued as though she hadn’t heard him at all, “to make our literature better known in the big world, to commission translations, but you ought to understand: small culture, small language, small nation if you will.  Well we’re barely seven million.  And apart from those seven million, no-one else talks Bulgarian anywhere.”

    From The Nobel Laureate by Elena Aleksieva.

    Well unlike the shamefaced publisher, I can recommend a number of contemporary writers straight away. Milen Ruskov’s Pinnacle is perhaps the most important Bulgarian novel published in the last ten years or more. It tackles head on the whole web of nationalist mythology surrounding the glorious struggle against Ottoman oppression. In similar iconoclastic fashion Alec Popov’s Palaveevi Sisters offers us a sometimes hilarious revision of Communist Partisan history.  From an older generation Vladimir Zarev has rewritten his Vidin family Saga, Essence, Exit and Law – a prodigious trilogy reflecting on the last 70 years of Bulgarian history. Kristina Dimitrova’s Sabazee is an ingenious take on the Bacchanalian excesses of Gangster/Chalga post-communist society.  Emil Andreev is a master story teller with a real ability to convey the mysteries of the natural environment. In The Glass River and Crazy Luke, French and Bulgarian mountains reverberate with sinister echoes from the past.  Deyan Enev (in fantastic translation by Kapka Kassabova) writes short stories that celebrate the bizarre circus of Bulgarian existence.  Mikhael Veshim’s English Neighbour made me rock with laughter.

    And now I have been reading Elena Aleksieva’s The Nobel Laureate with increasing excitement. It uses the detective genre to raise important issues relating to Bulgarians’ self image following the collapse of communism.

    If Nigel Farage had not done enough to undermine Bulgaria’s fragile self esteem, imagine the impact of the kidnapping of a Nobel Prize winner just one day after his first visit to the country. No wonder the Minister needs a fast response.  European eyes are watching.  And no wonder the Bulgarian Publisher’s eyes are red from shame. The distinguished writer has disappeared before she’s had a chance to recommend Vasov.

    Inspector Vanda Velovska is recalled from disciplinary exile to save the honour of her maligned motherland. Her character follows hot on the heels of sweater clad Sarah Lund(the Killing), the Aspergers Syndrome Saga Norén (the Bridge)  and Ellie Miller (Broadchurch), Elena Aleksieva has given us an excellent addition to that blossoming subgenre of detective fiction featuring angst ridden female investigators.  In her purse this heavy smoking insomniac just has 20 leva. She has forgotten where she last parked her car weeks ago and has to beg a Police Informer to pay for her petrol. This is the hero entrusted with saving Bulgaria’s blushes.

    The writer happily breaks with most of the clichéd conventions of the Detective genre and in so doing conveys stark insights into uniquely Bulgarian situations. From run down flats to shameful rubbish fields, the writer eschews the usual images of beautiful Bulgaria.  Having travelled through the post industrial wasteland of Pernik, I particularly enjoyed her description of the standoff between the Police and the local gypsy population as they gather round a writer’s muddy corpse.

    Bulgaria is a country that offers little in the way of social support but in which notions of family duty are still paramount.  So on a very personal level I was moved by the impact of the sudden stroke that afflicts Vanda’s mother. In the midst of the most important investigation of her life, Vanda has to contemplate the abrupt end of her career, as from now on she will have to care for someone she feels no affection for.  (This lack of feeling is a terrible sin in Bulgaria)

    The kidnapping of a Chilean winner of the Nobel Prize for literature  gives Elena Aleksieva the opportunity for significant satirical sideswipes at the whole publishing industry.  She has helped me and I guess many other writers come to terms with the fraudulent vicissitudes of this industry.



    June 3, 2013 by Christopher Buxton

    They are the only channel that tell the truth!” My mother-in-law watches SKAT with avid interest every night. And indeed SKAT TV can claim that it represents the interests and articulates the feelings of disadvantaged Bulgarians – particularly impoverished pensioners who see their children unemployed or emigrating, who are easily scared by crime and failings in the health service, who feel that their secure futures were stolen with the downfall of Communism.  Alongside single view “discussion” sessions SKAT provides its viewers with fascinating historical documentaries, health advice and concerts of old fashioned music.

    So many years after its foundation, the sheer amateurism of SKAT TV has become quite endearing. In its political programmes angry men sit behind desks and rave in front of a fixed camera.  They order up clips to support their arguments and precious moments drag by while they wait for the technical staff to fulfill their clearly unexpected whim.  The audience is left entirely in the dark as to why they are being shown the clip. And the angry man talks over it, so the audience cannot hear what is being said.  At last the angry man peremptorily closes the clip with a wave of the hand and continues his harangue.

    Last night the supreme master of fury unleashed his feelings about the newly  formed Bulgarian Government of Plamen Oresharski.  The programme began with a flurry of salty invective. The new Cabinet smelled of soiled underpants. One of its female members had once been a secretary – an opportunity for our angry presenter to suggest that his viewers understood what a secretary’s unwritten duties included. A photo-montage was presented of Bulgaria’s presumed new rulers  Gay, (Sergei Stanishev), Bey (Lyutfi Mestan) and Filthy Play (Volen Siderov). All are given comic fezes to wear. Of course SKAT TV distanced itself from this Facebook product, presumably in the interests of some imperialistic notion of political correctness. But Angry man could not resist showing this again and again throughout the programme.

    He then made the mistake of promising his viewers an in-depth expose of each Cabinet member in turn.  This required his technical team to show the photo of each new minister as he revealed their incompetence, corrupt relationships, and  sexual peccadilloes. You could only imagine the ensuing panic. “Colleagues, please show the picture of …” For long minutes the angry man stared baffled at the screen, for once lost for words.  Things did not always improve when the angry man got exactly what he wanted – the right photograph at the right time. “Ah!” he announced triumphantly. “I’ve got something you’ll all want to hear about this one. Now where was it?” Angry man scrabbled through his papers like a supply teacher who has lost his lesson plan. At last he sighed in frustration. It would have to keep.

    Thank God for his guests – former MP and insider Stoyan Ivanov and in particular that great investigative journalist Assen Yordanov.  Assen is a man of hard facts. He does not dwell on sexual orientation or descend to calling the new government Turkish. But his close analysis exposes the disconcerting truth that Volen Siderov’s decision to attend parliament and thus provide it with the necessary quorum, has given the green light to a Cabinet which is so mired in potential scandal that none of SKAT TV viewers’ very real problems will be effectively addressed soon. Assen’s gift is to focus attention on the very particular rather than make broad brush propaganda statements.  He rightly dwelt on the newly created Ministry of Investment Planning,  MIP which we all suspect actually means Manipulation Into Pockets of most Euro funds. First choice for this ministry is the architect mired in the Dune-gate scandal. Second choice is his close colleague.  Neither choice reflects well on Oresharski.

    Unfortunately just as Assen was warming to his theme, the programme ran out of time.