Historical fiction – a great hiding place for Emilian Stanev
What would you do? You’re an ambitious erudite writer, you’ve got progressive ideas. You have a quick sympathetic imagination. Just as your short stories are beginning to make an impact, the Communists take over your country.
You’re not a party member, but someone likes your work. You are not dispatched to break rocks like Dimitur Talev. You’re invited to join the Party. You’re given a dream job managing a hunting estate for privileged comrades who enjoy shooting animals. You like hunting. Why not? It must beat your previous job working for the Sofia Town Hall.
Your short story The Peach Thief is turned into a film designed to boost Bulgaria’s reputation. It wins enthusiastic plaudits throughout international film festivals. It’s comfortably historical. It is set at the time of the First World War. It is the moving story of a love affair between a Serbian Prisoner of War and the repressed Bulgarian wife of the camp commandant – it establishes your broad internationalist humanist principles. It carries appropriate messages about the evils of imperialist war and the hierarchical sexist class system. The Bulgarian government is keen to bask in your success and you are rewarded. You are made a hero of Socialist Labour.
You become a Representative in the Communist parliament. It’s expected of you. You represent Dimitrovgrad – ironically the birthplace of the suicidal alcoholic Communist poet, Penyo Penev. You try to take the job seriously, but complain privately of its absurdity, joining in unanimous vote after unanimous vote as required by the Party hierarchy. Anyway you’ve now written Ivan Kondarev – a novel about the 1923 uprising of Peasants against the right wing Tsar’s government. You’ve paid your dues, re-representing recent history to order. You get the Georgi Dimitrov award.
You’re now over sixty. It’s me-time – time to express all your insights; time to write the great Bulgarian novel. You could be the Bulgaria’s first Nobel laureate. Hell, in neighbouring Greece, Kazantsakis showed you the way. You’ve read Nietzsche too. You’ve got something to say about living in a Godless Universe. But can you get it past the Bulgarian censor?
Talev has given you the answer. Go deep – back into Bulgarian history. Set your novel in the Middle Ages. Pick a period! The fall of Bulgaria under “the Ottoman Yoke” is a promisingly tragic context for your startling novel about the human condition in extremity. You can get in lots of references to “brave suffering folk”, “duplicitous Boyars” and “dirty barbaric unbelievers”. Your novel’s called “Antichrist”. It sounds reassuringly atheist. That should make the Censor happy.
But you’ve got to consider your international audience too. So you create a screwed up persona – an anguished monk, caught between God and Devil, celestial light and sexual darkness.
The Bulgarian alphabet marks the intense episodes in our handsome humourless hero’s journey. It starts with an improbable childhood romance with our hero writing poetry to his school desk-mate, a Turnovo Princess. Inevitably disappointed, he enters a monastery and tries to ignore the attentions of Sodomites. Here he encounters the future Patriarch Evtimi. As a test of his faith he is told to serve a troublesome old monk who does much to heighten our hero’s angst. Even hesychism affords him no solace. He closes his eyes and mouth and finds celestial light. It’s all too easy. It is an irresponsible escape from the real world. Frustrated he joins a community of Bogomils. They’ve got the right idea. The world in all its beauty is Satan’s creation. The hierarchy of Church and State is evil. He settles to a life of earthly pleasures with a woman whose beauty is fatal – he kills two men because of it. Arrested in a purge of heretics and Jews, he witnesses tongues and ears being torn out and is himself flogged and branded and cast out into the wider world. In a somewhat rushed conclusion he finds his purpose in life in a kind of anachronistic patriotism. He kills Turks and treacherous Boyars.
So that’s all right then. The Censor scratches his hairy stomach and sighs. He has had to wade through a lot of archaic language, misogyny, theological controversy and existential angst to get to the progressive patriotic bit. It’s not an easy read – but that’s what you have to expect from great writers. OK there’s a lot of references to God, the Devil and Jesus – but it is a historical novel. He supposes that most people will buy it, put it on their shelves and then not read it.
And Communists identify with Bogomils. Communists like their attack on social hierarchy. They don’t realise that in Bogomil eyes, they would appear as much as Pharisees and hypocrites as the Kings, Boyars and Patriarchs of the Middle Ages. The harsh treatment meted out by the powerful mirrors the show trials, executions and labour camps of Communist Bulgaria.
Well done Emilian! A closer look at your novel reveals an acute critique of life under Communism – especially your account of Monastic life where in a silent world everyone is spying on his brother.
You didn’t get the Nobel Prize though. Then neither did Kazantzakis. He got pipped to the post by another purveyor of Existential angst – Camus.