“Respect the Past if you want to have a future.” Dimitar Berbatov.
Four generations in Bulgaria:
A: The oldest, now at the end of their lives, those who remember life before Communism, and who depending on their circumstances spent a significant period of their twenties surviving the terror or excitement of the Soviet experiment in its most brutal phase.
B: The 50-60 year olds – Zhivkov’s children, brought up in a time of compromise – don’t rock the boat and life will be unchangingly OK. Sure there’ll be shortages and power cuts, mind numbing lip service to fraudulent 5 year plans, joyful workers’ demonstrations unremitting propaganda, but there’ll be good education, crap job security, basic health care, Opera and Theatre. These 50-60 year olds fell in love during communism, danced and drank perhaps a little too much, bought Lada cars, saw their children born. In 1990, the same folk saw their factories closed, learnt to be very afraid of crime, could not afford medicines, saw their children emigrate to the furthest corners of the world.
C: The 40-50 year olds – those born in the cynical years of Zhivkov’s reign, who negotiated the transition from Communism to a form of Capitalism – some with significant help from far-sighted privileged parents; others through startling initiative – all through a grim struggle with corruption and bureaucracy.
D: The young – with no clear memory of communism, but with a growing understanding gained from their disappointed parents that Bulgarian “Democracy” is deeply flawed, works to the benefit of criminals, so that many end up believing that their future lies elsewhere.
There is a tendency in the higher echelons of Bulgarian culture to ignore or discredit all literature written before 1990. And so Generation D is being encouraged to believe that the years leading to Democracy are best left in a shameful fog, that pre 1990 writers are either too provincial or too compromised by their inevitable subservience to the Communist Party.
So there is nobody in the Bulgarian State, willing to promote new translations of Bulgarian Classics – as once the Communists did with its often literal Sofia Press. In this they are backed by the new critics, ever enthusiastic for often impenetrable experimental writing, and quick to condemn writers of a previous generation.
Let me identify myself as a member of Generation B. I lived three years in a panel block, fell in love, married and saw our daughter born and cared for by the Bulgarian Health Service. I cheerfully wiped my bottom with “The Workers Cause,” queued for meat and petrol, held my tongue but laughed at outrageous political jokes. I sat in small gardens under vines and fig trees (sadly they have all but disappeared), drank and sang Bulgarian Folk songs. In these neighbourhood family gatherings I leant the enduring strength of Bulgarian history and values.
And I read Bulgarian books as soon as my language skills allowed. What follows, in no particular order, is an arbitrary list of Bulgarian writers who to paraphrase Wordsworth have signaled a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts:
Dimitar Talev: The first writer I read. He opened a rich historical world. Following 1944, instead of being feted he was branded an enemy of the people and became a helpless bespectacled victim of the red terror. But he was allowed to survive the camps in order to follow approved Party line on Macedonia. Nevertheless his sagas helped me understand the extraordinary patterns of Bulgarian history.
Georgi Karaslavov: is perhaps the most compromised of the writers. As president of the Writers’ Union, he wrote proletarian prose to order, but his early novels made a lasting impression with their evocation of brooding village life, mothers-in-law stirring pots of poison, peasant farmers jealously guarding every ear of corn.
Gencho Stoev: a writer who captured the moral complexity of the Turkish Atrocities, managing to avoid nationalist and class stereotypes to penetrate the common paradoxes of the human condition. Anton Donchev whose work greatly contributed to national paranoia, admitted to Stoev that he had written a much better book.
Ivailo Petrov: A Bulgarian William Faulkner, able to convey a multi-perspective history of the 20th Century destruction of village life. Six old men set out on a wolf hunt from a depopulated village. The absurd hunt becomes a vivid metaphor for the state of modern Bulgaria.
Nikolai Haitov: now an icon to far right nationalists. But his stories of isolated villages in the Rhodopes have a raw power.
These are writers who are seen to be compromised by the material support and privileges granted them by the Communist regime. However, as with the film makers and dramatists of the period, censored times can create enduring art.
In uncensored times, good writers have greater difficulty in being read.