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

04/06/2013 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.