Wolfhunt by Ivailo Petrov is a Bulgarian modern classic. It was first published in 1986, four years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Tragic and comic in turns, it was the first novel to bravely spell out the human cost of Communist policies in Agrarian Bulgaria, written by a man who never lost his close understanding of the claustrophobic eccentricities of village life. It has been translated into Russian German Hungarian and Czech and gone through eight editions. It was adapted into a six part TV drama in 2000.
Set in the late 1960s, it is an account of an absurd midwinter wolf hunt. Six old men set out from a warm village pub into a blizzard from which only three will return. The wolves are a pretext. The hunt has been conceived as a means of healing old wounds. But the wounds are deep. In the freezing wilderness, the hunters are separated and each has an irresistible opportunity to even up long festering scores, many of which have been exacerbated by Communism and its campaign of Collectivisation.
The village is inhabited by the old – the result of a policy of industrialisation and migration to the towns. Each of the hunters has a nickname: Salty Kalcho a work-shy recluse; Zhendo the Bandit, a former rustler and calculating pragmatist; Ivan Jack-of-all-trades, restless painter, actor, dissident and womaniser; Nikolin the Horn a naive easily deluded orphan, unlucky enough to inherit an estate just as the Communists seize power; Kiro Go-to-hell, a hard working one-time small farmer devoted to his land and animals, hoping with the proceeds to see his sons through university; and brooding over them all the man who has modelled his persona on his hero, Stalin: former Party Secretary and President of the Collective farm, Stoyan the Georgian.
The main spur for the hunt is the memory of a wedding in 1943. At the wedding feast, following the bedding of the young couple, unstained bridal sheets spell shame and a harsh reckoning for the bride’s father, Salty Kalcho. But Zhendo the Bandit’s calculated triumph lasts only as long as the sorry life of his new daughter-in-law.
At the same wedding, Ivan Jack-of-all-trades sneaks off to the barn with Mona. The girl who is conceived there will break the heart of Nikolin the Horn.
Stoyan the Georgian is the unwilling Godfather at the wedding. Disapproving of old superstitious customs, he looks forward to the triumph of the Russian Army and the passing of power to the Bulgarian Proletariat. He will become the village petty Dictator, frustrated by his fellow citizens’ inability to share his vision. Smallholders who have struggled all their lives to make a living from their tended plots and cherished animals, balk at the idea of common ownership, which, as they see it, can only benefit the lazy and incompetent. Some will hang themselves. Others will have to endure threats to their family and physical abuse before they sign away everything they have worked for, for “the common good”. Kiro Go-to-Hell sees his much loved cows fall sick in the communal barn.
Along with the new regime of fairness for all comes a puritanical code of morals that party activist Ivan Jack-of-all-trades will fall foul of. His use of local characters as subjects for the new church icons, especially Mona as the Madonna, leads to their public burning. His protests result in his being sent to a labour camp.
Now so many years later, in a village where only one baby has been born in the last ten years, a wine tasting ritual awakens bitter memories, and in an attempt to assuage them, Ivan Jack-of-all-trades proposes the hunt.
Petrov’s theme is the helplessness that drives people towards desperate solutions. He uses a multi narrative technique that is reminiscent of Faulkner but much more accessible. Past events are viewed through the eyes of the six hunters in turn. Through these changing perspectives, the reader is taken on a voyage of deepening understanding, putting the calamitous history of twentieth century Bulgaria into a human context.
Ivailo Petrov who died in 2005 remains one of Bulgaria’s most popular novelists. His novel Before I was born and Afterwards is a richly comic account of his home village and the eccentric characters to be found in it. It describes a world that has been irrevocably transformed by the changes brought about since the war. In Wolfhunt the Bulgarian village is once again a source for vibrant humour. But sensing the imminent implosion of a failed human experiment, Ivailo Petrov seized the opportunity to write a tragic masterpiece. His humanity and attention to comic detail make this an unforgettable reading experience – one which the English speaking world has had no opportunity to enjoy.
Ivailo’s widow, Ofelia, has given me permission to translate the book. So far I have translated the first two parts.