Just last year, I posted my excitement at discovering a young new author on the Bg. literary scene, Jordan Svezhenov. With astonishing speed, he has a second book out: Anarchy on Three Seas -published by Siela. What I like about this writer is his positive portrayal of warts-and-all Bulgarian reality, with no trace of self pity or cynical loathing. As with his previous book, Arrhythmic Revolution, his heroes include abandoned old men from isolated villages, gypsies and pole dancers. Again he does not hesitate to throw his canvas wider than the three seas of the title. A self-centred womanising German based actor, the crew of a clapped out Russian warship, a lonely old Turkish businessman and a pair of startlingly dumb Ukrainian/Russian twins all converge on a Bulgaria which is threatened by a dastardly conspiracy conceived by naive semi-competent middle eastern terrorists.
In Svezhenov’s absurdist mirror, Bulgaria is portrayed in all its deficiencies – corrupt officials, drug addled priests, brusque and cynical doctors, but the sheer pace of the narrative, the vigour of the main characters,and their colourful language leave no time for depression or self pity. The result is a hilarious breakneck ride which never loses an essential sympathy towards all his characters .
I’ve included an excerpt in translation.
From Anarchy on the Three Seas by Jordan Svezhenov Siela 2014
Translation Christopher Buxton
Dr Pandora Katastrova picked up the oily doughnut with two plump fingers and stuffed it into her mouth even before she’d swallowed the previous two, spraying powdered sugar and maple syrup all over her desk. Her routine was to treat her Kamenar village patients every Friday afternoon in her private surgery, but this did not include her starting on time.
There was an urgent volley of knocks at the door.
“Ye-e-s!” shouted the GP, her over-stuffed mouth adding another salvo of sticky crumbs to those already strewn across her desk.
The office door creaked and a round face was framed in the opening.
“Excuse me, when are going to see us because our kid’s got the runs and is throwing up, and just now he’s working up to do both? It says that you start work at twelve, and now it’s twenty past!
“Can’t you see I’m filling in forms?” yelled Katastrova through a cloud of powdered sugar and made a show of bashing a few keys on her computer. “When I’m ready, I’ll call you!”
As soon as the door closed, the doctor grabbed the remaining doughnuts from the box, stuffed them into her mouth and wiped her hands on an old diagnosis.
“I don’t need that anymore,” she spluttered to herself. “He forgot to tell me he was allergic to laxatives. God rest his soul. Do I have to think of everything?”
Doctor Pandora Katastrova had an unwavering policy on the treatment of all her patients. According to her, all illnesses arose for three reasons – constipation, colds or stress. And they were to be treated in three ways – laxatives, aspirin and tranquilizers. Everything else was a world conspiracy on behalf of the drug companies. The Kamenar GP did not dispense prescriptions. She opened a battered chest and sold medicine directly to the patients. They called this chest “Pandora’s box”.
Katastrova wiped her chin on the sleeve of her jacket, stood up puffing from her creaky chair, which had lost two of its five wheels, opened the door and looked out into the corridor. At her appearance the throng gathered outside her door thickened.
“Me…” an old man barely croaked, squeezed among another twenty pensioners, four schoolkids, two sniffling women, eight mothers with small children and a worker with a bleeding hand.
“But what happened to the child with diarrhoea and nausea?” the doctor knit her brows.
“Couldn’t hold out,” someone called out.
“Couldn’t hold out at the top or the bottom?”
“Well looking at the puddle, I’d guess the top.”
“Certainly from a nervous disposition,” Pandora concluded and nodded to the old man. “Come in!”
“Could I ask you something, just for a minute?”
A snooty middle aged lady with chin lifted high and far too much lipstick applied to her fiercely pursed lips was elbowing her way through the crowd. She pushed her way to the very front, crushing the old man in her wake and waving a piece of paper. Katastrova looked her over and barked:
“Just a question – four leva. Just a question and entering my office – six leva. Just a question and following examination – fifteen leva. The Ministry of health doesn’t pay me for just a question. It’s not within the clinical rule book.”
“Well I…” the woman froze on the spot.
“Make up your mind!” The doctor waited a few seconds and then as she’d got no reaction, she grabbed the old man by the collar and barked, “Come in and sit down!”
As soon as the old man was settled on the couch and the chubby Pandora on her long suffering chair, the questions began.
“What brings you here, Grandpa?”
“Well, for you to measure my blood pressure, Doctor.”
“It’s all down to nerves. I’ll give you a tranquiliser to calm you down for now.” The doctor bent down towards her chest.
“But I mean, you haven’t even checked. Is it high or low?”
“What am I supposed to check?” Katastrova raised her eyes to the ceiling in frustration. “Whether it’s high or low, it all comes down to nerves.”
“Well but what if it’s normal?”
“You, how old are you?”
“I’m 92” the old man announced proudly but with a trembling voice.
“Well, how could it be normal at your age, are you normal? Are you constipated?”
“No. How could I be when I haven’t got anything to put in my tummy. I practically don’t eat.”
“My pension’s not enough.”
“Well how do you expect to have normal blood pressure, then? Do take aspirin for your heart?”
“Well now you’ll take it and everything will be as right as rain.” Pandora opened her chest. “Here’s a blister. Seven leva forty stotinki.”
“That’s a lot, Doctor!” the old man’s eyes bulged. “At the chemist near us they’ve got them for stotinki.”
“They’re no good. They’re for pickles. Don’t experiment, you’d pickle yourself with that fakery, you’ll get constipated, you’ll be stuck in the toilet and you’ll get a heart attack brought on by nerves alone. Give me Seven leva sixty and off with you – alive and well!”
“Wasn’t it forty?”
The old man sighed deeply, pulled out a hankie in which he’d wrapped his meagre funds, counted out the exact sum, pocketed the blister and made his perplexed way to the door.
He still hadn’t reached it when an indescribable din broke out in the corridor. You could hear shouting, strange booming music and women screaming.
As soon as the old man pulled the door open, the cacophony burst like a wave into the room, and the second patient whose turn it was to enter, was swept aside by a dozen local swarthy gypsies, yelling unintelligibly and carrying some kind of white bundle. When they dumped the moaning package on the couch the astonished Pandora managed to identify under the many layers of white a young gypsy bride with the dimensions of a medium size whale. The whale emitted an intolerable howl – something in the middle between “gonnadieegonnadieegonnadiee” and an air raid siren. Pushed to one side, there was a creature, looking like a walking rake, in a light grey suit and spiky hair smothered in gel, joining his voice to the chorus calling for divine aid from at least half the world’s religions. This was obviously the bridegroom. At his back, mothers, stepmothers, aunties, in-laws and another thirty relatives seethed and screamed in horror, while the men who’d carried in the victim, stood in front of Pandora and belched out a barrage of conflicting information in three languages, from which The GP understood nothing.
“Hey wait a minute!” Katastrova tried to out-shout the travelling circus and almost succeeded.
At that moment the gypsy wedding band turned up playing a wild dance and began to push their way in to join the others in the room, but the drummer and the fat tuba player the got stuck in the door frame, so the musical accompaniment was left to blare in the corridor. This didn’t help reduce the noise, as in the corridor the reverberating Balkan pop became even more deafening.
“She’s having a baby! A baby! Help Doctor! You’re father and mother!” Katastrova at last managed to make out something comprehensible from the screams, yells and billowing waves of belly dance music from the band.
Pandora pushed through the relatives who were squashed against each other in the tight space like bus passengers at rush hour, she reached the unfortunate bride, whose extremities overlapped all four sides of the couch, and she pressed her stomach lightly.
“Now let me see if you’ve got contractions! Does it hurt here?”
“It hurts everywhere, Doctor, gonnadieegonnadieegonnadiee, Lord, Lord! Vasil, I‘ll bite your head off, putting this baby into me, without me knowing, fuck your dirty mother!”
“Who are you calling dirty you slut!” yelled the bridegroom’s mother and leant forward to slap the expectant mother.
But in all the confusion she struck the bride’s father on the back of his neck. He roared like a branded bull and began punching all about him. His frenzied reaction dragged the thirty squashed gypsies into an uncontrolled melee. Everyone tried to thump someone else while at the same time avoiding the whizzing fists, slaps and bottles. Only the restricted space, which did not allow for much mobility, saved the participants from serious injury. And the band provided enthusiastic backing to the scrap with a fine galloping tune.
“Stop this minute, before I don’t whack the lot of you!” Pandora’s voice rose above the chaos. “I think that the contractions have started. Has the water broken?”
“What idiot brings water to a wedding, hey!” yelled the bridegroom’s father. “Pour the Doctor a glass of rakia! I’m going to be a Granddaddy!”
“He’ll be a boy, a bo-o-o-y! If it’s hurting that much, it means it must be a boy coming out. We’ll call him….” The Bridegroom’s mother looked hastily about her, read a product label and made her decision, “Rivanol.”
“Long live Rivanol,” shouted the best man and, to the booming drum out in the corridor, led a spontaneous line dance, which got a little stuck in the crowded room.
Goodness knows how but a live cockerel appeared in the hand of the best man. In his drunken devil-may-care state, the youth waved the bird madly over the crowded relatives. In a second the poor creature suffered a massive shock and a rain of feathers and droppings poured over their heads.
“Here, grab this knife, Horatio! Kill the cock for the baby’s health!” came the encouraging yell and in the next second a sharp blade cut through the bird’s shrieking throat.
Hot drops of blood joined the feathers and shit flying through the air. The agonizing headless bird, slipped out of the hands of the unreliable best man and jumped spiralling over the heads of the guests, increasing their screams, which even drowned out the drum beating out a belly dance out in the corridor.
It took all of Doctor Katastrova’s strength to suppress this spontaneous outbreak, and turn back to concentrate on the suffering mother-to-be.
“Help us to push this baby out! If it gets stuck, it’ll suffocate!” she yelled at the crazy crowd and began to squeeze the gypsy bride’s tummy.
The bridegroom’s mother and two aunties joined in pummelling the folds of flesh, as if they were kneading an enormous cheese loaf, and a small bridesmaid, jumped with both feet straight onto her big sister.
“One!… Two!… Three!…” the doctor ordered and the band took up her beat.
The gypsy bride, gave a powerful push, and her face got as red as an Easter egg. She was convulsed in pain, but felt that relief was close at hand. Just one more heave, and yet another, and…
Suddenly from beneath the layers of white cloth and folds of fat, came a continuous roll of thunder, a mixture of non-stop machine gun fire caught in a cheese tin and an erupting volcano, and the air was filled with the sharp smell of fermented beans and sour cabbage.
The musicians choked and their instruments quickly fell silent, as the crowd of relatives attempted a panic evacuation from the surgery, almost demolishing a wall in the process. Only the terrified bridegroom walked in circles and asked in a high pitched voice:
“What’s going on? What’s going on? Is there a baby? Is there a baby?
“No baby!” Katastrova’s replied, coughing with relief. “Just gases!”