I met Milen Ruskov briefly in Sozopol at the Elizabeth Kostova seminars. He was a dark glowing presence in the corner. Everyone was talking about his new novel, Вьзвишение, which translates into Summit. Ruskov’s novel is set in the sacred decade of Bulgarian liberation from the “Turkish Yoke”. In these days of nationalist angst it is a bold author who wants to take on such a context.
And Ruskov is a bold author. The feverish time of revolutionary committees, of raids on Turkish cash-convoys, of Vasil Levski, of brigand freedom fighters and of a surge in the quest for knowledge and identity – this is all conveyed in the simple speech of two characters, wonderful creations to eclipse the one dimensional Bai Ganyo, as multifaceted national prototypes. The pretentious pomp of revolutionary ideals is filtered through the consciousness of the practical Bacho Gicho and his credulous companion Asen, as they set out on their great adventure. And it is their language that confronts the reader, a rich crude Renaissance language which demands to be read out loud.
This was the first book I bought after returning from Sozopol. I was a little wary. Would I understand a single word? Well I’d need some help with some of the folk allusions but the dialect pulls you irresistibly along on a crazy ride through the Balkan mountains and you just surrender to Batcho Gicho – his innocence and worldly cunning. Furnished with only two books by Rakovski and Peter Beron, Gicho attempts to explain the new world to himself and to his kleptomaniac companion. The result is brilliantly comic. And Ruskov’s daring blows away all the patriotic clichés normally associated with this deadly serious patriotic saga, without for once undermining thdesperate heroism of the times.
Bulgarian literary critics are often coming up with unlikely comparisons – of the type: This is Bulgaria’s answer to Dan Brown or After this book Marcel Proust can eat radishes. So let me follow in their heels and suggest that Milen Ruskov is the Bulgarian Cervantes. His two main characters represent Bulgaria in the same way as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza represent Spain. And I particularly like Grandpa Yovan, a horse with character to rival Rocinante.
This is a book that is difficult to translate but for fun I have tried to convey extracts in a local Suffolk dialect. Suffolk is a county which was famous in the middle ages for the wealth of its wool trade and so is an appropriate dialect for our two heroes from Kotel and Zherevna.
This is the first paragraph. Here goes:
“Twenny seven Febry, aaar! This en’t no life! So proper freezen rafty, wood en stone are bustin ’emselves. Tiday oi goin from Kotel and oi’d be on moi way if it weren’t ’avin to wait for Asen from Zherevna, my mate. If he en’t turned over ’is cart in the snow? It were down to ’im to get an ’orse, buy it or steal it, howmsoever chance’ll have it, ’cos I can’t get one from ’ome. It’s other things dependin on me…..Big big cold! Kotel is right bang in the middle of the mountains, like God made it in his sleep. . Or if it were a feller, what feller aloive would hev builded it here, I can’t tell, but it’s likely he weren’t in his wits. That’s to say I know what stoopid old folk tales do tell about how supposedly some old boys from Novachka village lost their ’orses, their ’orses come here to the springs, and these old boys found ’em ’ere and loiked the place so much that they scratched their stoopid ’eads and declared: “’Ere’s where we’ll start afresh”, and that’s how these buggers hev founded Kotel. Fuck their old lost mother, ’cos of them oi’m stuck in this snowy hell! ’Ere the famous blizzards blow up the whole winter, you cain’t pass. If you ’ent bin out to sea, you can happily go drown yersel ’ere in some snowdrift.”
And here’s Bacho Gicho on the important question as to whether to wash your hands before a meal:
“A little later the servants bring some chicken stew and red wine and feed us up right proper well. After supper they bring us bowls of water, for us to wash our ’ands like proper folk do. I do hear recently that some folk hev taken to washin their ’ands afore the meal, but that’s a step too far, I reckon. They’ll be scrapin off their skin with so much washin. It’s all á la frenchie, mate, is what I say. If some mad idea fly in your head here in Bulgaria, all you got to say is that it’s European, that it’s what they do in Europe and everyone going to believe it and they start doin it. Mates! If you tell ’em it’s á la frenchie to take a shit in the street, they’ll all start takin a dump. It’s the same with washin before you do eat. Why wash, boy, when you goin to be touchin meat right away in any case? So you’re goin’ to wash again afterwards – that right? Well it’s fine for those as has no work to do…”.