In praise of Gencho Stoev

18/03/2010 by Christopher Buxton

Gencho Stoev’s The Price of Gold 1964, gives us a multi-narrative account of the April uprising. While it never skirts the horror of the Turkish atrocities, Stoev drives home the moral dilemmas occasioned by nationalist fervour. Although the novel enjoyed considerable critical success, it was never a popular book with Communists or nationalists.

There were bodies too in the church yard and in the sunlight by the fence the teacher lay yellow and tubercular; looked just about alive, because his head hadn’t been cut off like the others, his body hadn’t been plundered and the chain of his watch – the only one in the village, glittered underneath his unbuttoned French coat; even the handle of his pistol still rested in his nerveless right hand.
“Ey! Are you happy now, School master?” Hadji-Vranyo had asked him through the smoke and the groans. “Are you happy the village is burning?”
“I’m happy, Daddy-Pilgrim,” the teacher replied. “The very best stakes are charred at the ends – so they don’t rot when you drive them into the ground. Just such stakes are what Bulgaria needs.”
“Who’ll plant stakes in empty unpeopled land, School master?”
“The emptiest lands are those which no-one has ever died for, but the most populated lands are those which the locals have watered with their blood. They are sacred lands.”
The words were spoken as if from an icon: wise, harsh and deaf.
“What do you know about land? What property have you got? You’d have no clothes on your back if it weren’t for my brother-in-law’s help…”
“True,” answered the teacher and his face was blotched, yellow, pink and black. “I’m no rich man; I’ve got no estate. So I seized on to the people’s cause, to lead you to freedom…”
“To lead us to the mass chopping block!”

(Translation Christopher Buxton)

The speakers are Peter Bonev, a teacher and rebel leader and Hadji Vranio, a patriarch and pilgrim to the Holy Land the richest man in the village of Perushtitsa. The date is Easter Sunday 1876. The context is the April Uprising, in which 1000 Turks were killed and at least 30,000 Bulgarians were massacred in response.

The confrontation between the two men takes place in the village church, by which time the village is in flames and apart from the already dead and dying insurgents, the remaining villagers, men women and children are about to be massacred.

The April Uprising has been the subject of much nationalist-pornography – particularly during the Communist period, where the government was seeking to whip up anti-Turkish fervour in support of its policy of forcible re-naming and reclassification of its Moslem and Turkish populations. It was simple to paint the insurrection in terms of evil bloodthirsty Turks and heroic patriots. It was tempting to dwell on the barbaric methods of execution employed by the oppressors. The inconvenient fact that most of the country did not respond to the badly organised call to arms was explained in terms of cowardice and capitalist self interest of those Bulgarians who had prospered in the Turkish Empire.

The teacher Bonev has drawn Hadji Branyo’s sons into the insurrection. Bonev rightly foresees that the insurrection is but the preface to the inevitable end of Turkish rule in Bulgaria. But Hadji Vranyo feels no elation. The old man, who has amassed thousands of pounds from his wine and sesame oil business, now anticipates the annihilation of his family and everything he has worked for. Ironically his wife and surviving grand-daughter are to be saved from rape and murder by his old friend Ismael Aga – an unusual but not unique portrayal of a humane Turk in Bulgarian literature.

So Gencho Stoev proved to be a brave writer in the context of his simplistic time. His novel dispassionately presents us with sharply realised dramatic confrontations – between human beings who despite ethnic and religious differences are striving to understand the horror that has been unleashed. As a result while the book has rightly been hailed as a literary masterpiece, Stoev never received the acclaim accorded to Anton Donchev and his novel A Time Apart. He even faced difficulties getting the book published and his film script was blocked by the Communist Central Committee.

The Bulgarian critic Boycho Penchev has spotted an anti-Stalinist aspect to Bulgarian historical fiction in the 1960s in which: the conflict between the Bulgarian People and narrow minded dogmatic communists was played out in costume. This conflict is exemplified in the extract translated above.

The words that Stoev puts into the ideologue Bonev’s mouth have a disturbing resonance. The notion that land has to be fought for to have any value – that land that necessitates death is “sacred” – this word alone summons up the mystical patriotic fervour that fuels the Serbian patriot and war criminal Karadjic and seeks to justify the massacres at Srebenitsa and the fight for Kosovo.

Bonev is an iconic figure, enthused by the same romantic passion that inspires IRA and ETA bombers and the Taliban. His destructive actions are designed to provoke extreme reaction which will lead to the changes he desires. The immediate consequences – rape and massacre are not just a price worth paying but an essential holy sacrifice. Ironically, Stoev in his sequel to The Price of Gold paints a very negative picture of the repressive Bulgarian monarchy that Bonev and his co-insurgents helped put in place of the rightly hated Turkish empire.

And the words Stoev uses to describe Bonev’s uncompromising declaration: wise, harsh and deaf mark him out as a truly courageous writer.