Review of Nashington by Mihael Veshim

14/05/2011 by Christopher Buxton

How Bulgarians behave when they are far from home is as fruitful an opportunity for satire now as it was when Aleko Konstantinov presented the world with his wonderful creation, Bai Ganyo. In today’s febrile Bulgaria, continually racked by corruption and economic crises, where right wing commentators are talking of a third national catastrophe, caused by falling birth rates and increased emigration, Mikhael Veshim has attempted to lighten the mood with his latest book, Nashington. The nearest English translation could be Ourshington or Washingrad.
As the title implies, this sometimes hilarious, sometimes melancholy novel celebrates Bulgarians’ resource in recreating a little Bulgaria in whatever corner of the world they find themselves in.
Four Bulgarian men gather to celebrate St George’s Day in the land of the free. Gosho is an extraordinary gardener and cook, able to magic Bulgarian tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers from his suburban plot in a land where vegetables normally taste of genetically modified cardboard. To these skills he has added animal husbandry, successfully raising a lamb bought for his name day from the local pet shop. He is blissfully unaware that in the land of the free, such a purchase will inevitably lead to a visit from the animal welfare police, who might just spot the lamb’s cooked carcass on the dining table.
With forthright bluntness Gosho is ready to point out that his Korean neighbours have a pet dog – he assumes is destined for their cooking pot.
For his friend Tosho, the name day feast provides welcome training for an imminent hot-dog eating championship. Rasho whose smoking and drinking have brought him to a centimeter from death’s door, has had a pace maker fitted that sounds an alarm the moment a cigarette or glass of rakia approaches his lips. Rasho bitterly resents this alien intrusion that seems designed to thwart his very Bulgarian need for spectacular self annihilation.
His friend Sasho, firearms expert and talented handyman is apparently the most successful of the group. There is nothing he can’t do with his magic screwdriver. He can even disable Rasho’s pacemaker, so that he can drink and smoke to his heart’s discontent.
Like Bai Ganyo, our four heroes feel a healthy distrust for the country they find themselves in. Having failed to realize their dreams in the land of supposedly limitless opportunity, they console themselves with their undoubted intellectual and cultural superiority. Gosho’s only fear is that his son may be “Americanchised”, that he will be contaminated. His Serbian friend’s son has come out as a homosexual. Gosho prays to the Bulgarian God that the same does not happen to his son.
Veshim is a gentler satirist than Aleko Konstantinov. Bai Ganyo with his miserly peasant cunning and his thick headed ignorance continues to be a painful stereotype for Bulgarians, anxious to claim their rightful place in Europe. Veshim shows a real affection for his characters and does not miss the opportunity to confirm Bulgarian prejudices about America. The Bulgarian reader will be tickled by our heroes’ improvisations in combating a culture of general ignorance, petty restrictions, political correctness, celebrity fixation and tasteless cuisine. The sure sign that this book does little to challenge stereotypes is the presentation of the only black American character as a shallow airhead.
Veshim has produced a book for the folks back home. Worried by the increasing disappearance of young talent in waves of emigration, Bulgarian readers will take comfort that the grass is not greener on the other side of the mountain, and that there is something heroic in our comic characters’ attempt to preserve their Bulgarian spirit in alien climes.