Fate of two novels

08/07/2009 by Christopher Buxton

It just doesn’t seem fair.

All these worthy Bulgarian writers slaving away at the mines of Bulgarian reality, have to step away from their back breaking work to see an Indian youngster after just two months stay in Bulgaria produce a book that has gained international acclaim.

I read Solo by Rana Dasgupta just after finishing Worlds by Vladimir Zarev. Both books are heroic attempts to convey the fascinating, challenging, frustrating present and past that Bulgarians inhabit. Dasgupta seemed to have found the perfect metaphors for failure both in his hero, a hundred year old blind man living in a smelly leaking flat and in his hero’s country, Bulgaria with its history of savage false- democratic dawns. Zarev is equally ambitious in his attempt to put Bulgaria’s fate in a global context. One book will receive plaudits. The other will be ignored.

Rana Dasgupta’s book has rightly gained critical attention. He has been recommended by no less a writer than Salman Rushdie. Reviews by Kapka Kassabova and Anthony Georgiev endorse the writer’s phenomenal achievement in conveying in unchallengeable detail the tragic history of the Bulgarian state, starting in days of infant cosmopolitan hope in the 19th Century Railway age but soon muddied by various forms of state tyranny that contract boundaries to a tiny flat with urine soaked walls.

The novel centres on the memories, dreams and fantasies of a semi autistic centenarian failure – one time Chemistry student, son and friend of dissidents, informer for State Security, and finally blind helpless pensioner. Significant markers in this saintly fool’s progress are two murders – that of the poet Geo Milev in 1925 and that the businessman/crook Ilya Pavlov in 2003.

Dasgupta must have been like a sponge for that two month sojourn in Bulgaria. Thereafter he must have lived in real and virtual libraries rooms to consolidate his research and assemble so much political, cultural, scientific and even topographical information. This he was able to transform into a treasure chest of vivid stories that burn into the reader’s imagination as authentic fact.

Vladimir Zarev is rightly considered to be one of Bulgaria’s finest living writers. But this is a pretty meaningless description. Zarev’s novel is unlikely to receive any critical attention – especially in Bulgaria where what passes for literary comment is a mere adjunct of marketing. At least as a result of generous subsidies, he has seen his books translated into German. I hope too that there his books have been better bound, printed and edited. They may even be more widely read for who in the daily hurly-burly of Bulgarian life has time to read a 536 page book. Let’s all read Zift instead – an amoral compelling pastiche of pulp noir – which is at least short.

Zarev’s novel, Worlds, is a thwarted love story. The worlds of the title are of a Bulgarian divorced low paid University lecturer with a suicidal daughter and of an American businessman with a difficult personal past, on a mission to put Bulgaria at the front of the Internet revolution. It conveys the baffling reality of post-communist Bulgaria, where democratically elected well meaning politicians can do nothing without the support of corrupt malign businessmen. The book contains compelling encounters with barely disguised real figures – Philip Dimitrov, Zhelyu Zhelev, Stefan Danailov. It conveys particularly well the state of palpitating panic and shame, experienced by any conscientious Bulgarian who has the task of guiding a foreign visitor through the darker corners of her country.

The Internet becomes the divisive central metaphor for the book, as hero and heroine struggle with their particular national commitments and predilections. Without any great optimism, I really recommend this book.

Ah! Pity the poor Bulgarian writer! Recently I attended a seminar organized by the Elizabeth Kostova foundation. The subject was Literary Diplomacy. The subtext was how Bulgarian literature might become better known across the world – particularly the English speaking diaspora.

And there was Teodora Dimova bemoaning the fact that writers had to become their own self publicists, editors and agents and so lose valuable time away from their garret writing desks.

Oh for communist times where chosen writers were properly supported andSofia Press would routinely produce literal translations of Dimitur Dimov’s work, alongside such literary masters as Georgi Karaslavov and Stoyan Daskalov.

The consensus of the meeting was that there was a need for good translators. Having had to screw my eyes to read the faint and bodged printing of Vladimir Zarev’s work, I would add good publishers.