“One and the Same Night” by Christo Karastoyanov

19/07/2014 by Christopher Buxton

The most significant trend in Bulgarian writing over the last three years has been a re-evaluation of recent history, however painful. Novels like The Heights by Milen Ruskov, The Paleevi sisters by Alec Popov and now One and the Same Night by Christo Karastoyanov are effectively challenging the mythology created by 45 years of Communist rule. In these novels “revolutionary heroes” and “fascist/Turkish villains” emerge as complex human beings with their fluctuating motivations, driven by personal and public contexts.
One and the Same Night is an account of the last three years in the lives of two young friends, murdered by Government agents on the same night in 1925. The more famous of the two was Geo Milev, poet, war hero, editor and translator. His body and his glass eye were found and identified much later in a mass grave. An autopsy showed that his already damaged skull had been smashed but that he’d also been strangled with wire. Somewhere else at the same time his friend and patron, the anarchist Georgi Sheytanov was shot and decapitated. Both men were victims of a government white terror campaign, following the Communist bomb outrage at the Saint Nedelya Cathedral. In Communist Bulgaria Geo Milev was accorded the status of an anti-fascist hero, although in his life he had vigorously opposed linkage of his name to any political cause or party. Geo Milev was a serious promoter of avant-garde expressionist poetry. Having lost an eye and part of his skull in WW1 he campaigned for the rights of neglected veterans. His poem September written following an unsuccessful uprising against the then military dictatorship that had overthrown a democratically elected government. This was the poem that got the celebrated poet into trouble. He was given a surprisingly short prison term for “encouraging class hatred”, but before he could serve his term he was abducted – probably on the orders of General Vulkov. The Communists subsequently turned him into a hero, wrongly claiming him as their own. The school I taught at was named after him.
Sheytanov was forgotten.
Sheytanov was an anti-Communist anarchist, with a huge price on his head. Although never directly involved in any terrorist outrage, he had a romantic inclination towards bombs and assassinations of monarchs and government leaders. More than Geo Milev, Sheytanov felt sure that he was operating in a civil war situation, where so called allies could be your greatest enemies. He financed the publication of Milev’s periodical.
Christo Karastoyanov writes their story in non-consecutive short sharp episodes – each episode is titled with the date on which it was written. This technique brilliantly distances readers from the dramatic events as they unfold, while keeping them close to the writer and his creative impulses. The juxtaposition of remote events with immediate present allows for parallels to be drawn – for example the story of Victor Jara. What remains is the universal story of fear leading to repression and brutality and the writers’ unwitting instinct to speak out.
The laconic distancing strategy stops the story from becoming maudlin and melodramatic. There are even comic moments as when Sheytanov tries to stowaway on a Russian cruise liner. Throughout this spare but vivid the reader is encouraged to confront issues that have never gone away – to what extent violent action taken either by the state or by terrorists can ever be justified.