Book review

27/08/2013 by Christopher Buxton


The personal name of the days

Alexander Urumov

Published by Janet 45 2011

Bulgaria is currently a cultural battlefield. Village culture and morality survived its transplantation to ugly communist built urban complexes.  Grannies and Grandpas still enjoyed the afternoon sun sitting on benches outside the blocks.  They kept an eye on comings and goings and were very free with their comments, criticisms and advice. Sit next to them and you’d get their life histories along with the lowdown on their neighbours’ dirty washing. This culture endures now despite the entry of Bulgaria into the multi-cultural and politically correct EU, despite fears stoked by nationalists of Gypsy crime, Mafia and Moslem extremism, despite the falling birthrate and increased emigration of Bulgaria’s youngest citizens

A lexander Urumov’s 2011 collection of short stories are like urgent testimony from this battleground. He renders the typical Bulgarian experience of living one’s private life in public, intensely aware of others’ opinions. His monologues capture that typical Bulgarian combination of secret shame and aggressive unapologetic  self importance. He has such a feel for the real rhythms and repetitions of speech that you can almost feel the speakers’ breath in your ear, his hand gripping your elbow.

The stories are by turn comic and tragic, a modern continuation of the work of past masters, Yovkov, Pelin and Chudomir. Often the speakers are in thrall to the past, as with the diabetic who was denied sweets as a child by his penny-pinching parents, or the five times married man who continues to hoot his horn by the bus stop where his first wife and child left him.  The compulsion to confess, to share secrets with strangers leads to astonishing revelations of personal weakness  and delusions– as with the brother-in-law who goes along with the astonishing  abuse of a donkey, or the woman who doesn’t understand she is raising a murderer.  In a hilarious study of delusion a modern Bai Ganyo travels to America in the role of an ex-Communist Army officer on a trip to share experiences with his new US NATO allies.

Self revelation is at its most pertinent  in the story Sinner – a monologue that goes to the heart of the moral conflict facing Bulgaria. The speaker cannot contain his excitement at being appointed producer of a reality TV show. He gets to be God deciding the fate of unfortunate people – based on his boss’s assertion that Bulgarians love to see others’ suffering.

Urumov  is capable of startling and original poetic insights – as in his metaphor of boys and islands in the love story Daniella and his realization of the dangers of sudden silence in Quiet.  These insights stay with the reader even after the memory of the story’s detail fades.

My favourite story is the Hollow in which an obstinate man decides to uproot a tree stump with disastrous results. His dogged resistance to his wife’s warnings, and his neighbours’ advice is heroically Bulgarian, particularly after his taciturn workmate and then his dog are sucked into the hole.

Read my translation here.