2014

  1. Thoughts on stereotypes

    December 2, 2014 by Christopher Buxton

    Let us pause to consider the English.

    Who when they pause to consider themselves they get all reticently thrilled and tinglish,

    Because every Englishman is convinced of one thing, viz:

    That to be an Englishman is to belong to the most exclusive club there is:”

    Ogden Nash

    This is a playful charitable start to considering the national stereotype of self-deprecating superiority, which all English living abroad should be wary of. The moment an English person presumes to judge aspects of life in another country they lay themselves open to accusations of an assumed superiority – “treating the natives as if they were aborigines,” (in the words of my Russophile former student).

    Worse below the surface of strained conviviality there is a whole shoal of poison barbed puffer fish, that represent the memories of every wrong committed by the English nation in its imperial history. It would be hard to find any nation that does not bear justifiable historic grudges.

    Iran, Iraq, Palestine, the Kurds, the Irish, the Kenyans, the Greeks post WW2 and the Bulgarians (the Bulgarians?) have felt themselves the wrong side of “Perfidious Albion”.

    The following extract is taken from the longest story in Lyudmil Popov’s excellent collection of short stories Gypsy Stories, published by Smart Books. In this story set in a provincial private school, the Headteacher and pupils are getting extremely frustrated with an Englishman, called Michael, whom they have taken under their wing in return for his native speaker input. Michael turns out to be a freeloader, taking Bulgarian charity and hospitality for granted, particularly after he loses his credit card.

    “If someone tells me that English people are clean,” Paul declared. “Well, I’ll spit on them and march them off to see Michael. There’s nobody dirtier than the Englishman”

    They convinced Michael that the souls of the English are equally dirty – they’ve always played dirty tricks on Bulgaria and the rest of the world. The slogan of their great statesman has coloured all their politics: “we don’t have friends, we have interests!” Mikho (that’s what we’d begun to call him recently) “hadn’t heard” of this slogan – just fancy that. England is Bulgaria’s greatest enemy through all time – this we managed to prove to him with historical examples – tragedies for Bulgaria.  Well they’re dirty dogs everywhere these gentlemen. And it was according to the above slogan that Michael lived without realising it.

    It is ironic in a book that sets out to eschew racial stereotyping and to set the balance regarding gypsies straight, that the author shares a suspicion that Michael is an English gypsy.

    But hey, members of dominant cultures need to take stereotyping on the chin.


  2. What I’m Reading

    September 3, 2014 by Christopher Buxton

    Arrhythmic Revolution by Jordan Svezhenov published by Iztok Zapad

    For sheer entertainment, guts and imagination “Arrhythmic Revolution” will be my Bulgarian read of the summer. Jordan Svezhenov joins Alec Popov and Mikhael Veshim in a select band of writers that make me laugh out loud in public places.

    With a host of well described characters and an extraordinary range of starting points all the way across Europe and beyond, Svezhenov has a script writer’s eye for detail, ear for dialogue, and brain for drawing together all the strands of his narrative into the Balkan mountains climax. Throughout the cleverly plotted cliffhangers and often hilarious misunderstandings, Svezhinov’s penetrating satire reflects the new post Cold War criminal order, and the opportunities offered by a borderless Europe.

    A disgruntled trio of Bulgarian pensioners plan a shocking act of revolution from their village where they are now the only inhabitants; Johnny Red and Spoiler, two penniless Bulgarian scrap car dealers make their way back from the UK with a disparate band of Bulgarian Roma; an Afghani drug dealer has his world turned upside down when he is visited by an old comrade intent on blowing up Koln Cathedral; a Russian Grannie is kidnapped from a Bulgarian coach, leading to a telephone call to Vladimir himself; a naive Estonian policewoman finds herself the victim of a people smuggling ring; a Russian prostitute escapes her pimps in Spain  to searchfor a better life.

    World realities are brutal and yet Svezhenov has a lightness of touch and great comic sympathy for all his characters. This is one book that I was sorry to finish. I wanted more.

    An extract

    Johnny Red has spent all his cash on a Toyota sports car in England and we now find him driving four gypsies back to Bulgaria so they can help pay for his petrol and share in the driving. Unfortunately Johnny was asleep when Kenzo, the only gypsy possessing something like a legal license, took a series of wrong turns. This is why Johnny is now driving past San Remo in Northern Italy instead of Nurnberg.

    “Oh I know that place!” Great Grandaddy Pramod shouts out and decides to relieve the boredom by raising the cultural bar. “This is where folk hold a fair, they give out prizes for international songs. They gather together gypsy masters from all over the world. Italians, Bulgarians, Turks, Armenians, Abyssinians, Patagonians, you can see all kinds. Like Melody of the Year – only international.”

    “Mhm…” Johnny Red is hoarse and doubtful. Great Grandaddy doesn’t stop.

    “I remember when I got married in ’77. Lilly Ivanova won the Melody of the Year.”

    “How old were you in 77?”  the driver cannot contain his incredulity.

    “Old enough, old enough!” Pramad reassures him. “Back then Lilly was still a yummy mummy …”

    “And I still wouldn’t send her away now …”  Little Lad calls out.

    “Ey Granny lover!” Granddaddy is outraged.” How wouldn’t you send her away, ey? Now she’s like an Egyptian mummy. Messing about with her would be the same as messing about with an artistic monument. And we don’t mess about with artistic monuments.”

    “We just take them for melting down,”  Kenzo points out.

    “That’s different. That’s how we refresh the national economy. We carry the whole metal industry on our shoulders. Ey these two hands have given more metal to the nation than the Kremikovtsi steel works!”

    Great granddaddy Pramod spits on his palms and grinds them one into the other, giving life to several new generations of micro-organisms. Then he lets out an irritated roar.

    “Come on, stop interrupting me. I was talking about Lilly Ivanova and Melody of the Year. In 77 she won with the song ‘My old friend’. You know it? My o-o-ld fri-e-e-end.”

    The gypsy sings straight away, and from the back seat the broken voices of Kenzo and Little Lad join in.

    “Hear the ye-e-ears…

    Johnny Red grits his teeth. Gypsies are supposed to be a musical race, but right now it is as if the car has been orchestrated for a hungry pack of wolves, whose skins are being flayed along with their balls being squeezed. If Lilly Ivanova can hear this interpretation of her song, surely several layers of her makeup will crack and fall just by themselves. The redhead begins to dream of having another pair of hands, so he can clap them over his ears.

    Copyright Jordan Svezhenov; translation Christopher Buxton


  3. First death Norway 1976

    July 20, 2014 by Christopher Buxton

     

     

    It’s a blustery March Saturday. I’m sitting reading by my upstairs window. The view is the same – rain is melting the edges of obstinate snow patches in the muddy yard. I return to Anna Comnena’s  account of the Byzantian court. I hear a vehicle coming up the track. I look out and see a man in overalls and wellington boots get out of a green van. Ole Nefstad, the farmer with whom I lodge, strolls into sight. He greets the man and they walk together towards the barn. It’s none of my business. I return to Anna.

    Minutes later I hear air splitting shrieks from the barn. Through its dark doorway I see the two men backing out, bent and straining. They’re pulling a large pig by its ears. Ted Hughes in his poem describes the cries as “the rending of metal”. He was spot on. Anna Comnena has dropped to the floor. I have a presentiment of what I am about to see. A voyeur, I shrink back in my chair but keep looking.

    Dragged into the middle of the yard, the condemned creature is released, but it makes no attempt to escape. The barn door is still open, promising warmth food and jostling brothers. But the pig does not bolt.  As the man retrieves a rifle from his van, the pig stays absolutely still, with lowered head.  He presents an ideal target. Standing beside Ole Nefstad, the man aims the rifle and shoots. Time seems to stop for just the long second that it takes a body to realize it is dead and for the executioners to react.  The pig stands for this long second then just collapses into the snow. Ole is on him.  With an agility I have never seen before, he has drawn a sharp knife across the pig’s throat. The snow around the corpse turns red.

    Ole runs to his tractor with the fork lift ready. A few minutes and the pig has gone as has the rifleman in his van. When Fru Nefstad returns from a prearranged coffee morning, all that is left from the scene is the blood on the snow and the churned up mud

    .


  4. “One and the Same Night” by Christo Karastoyanov

    July 19, 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.


  5. Dancing in the lift – my first night in Oslo 1975

    July 19, 2014 by Christopher Buxton

    The hottest summer in years – and I spend it in specialist shops buying padded anoraks, sweaters, thermal underwear and mountain boots. I’ve signed a contract with the Norwegian ministry of Education to work in a village school for at least a year– and I can’t find the place on any map. Never mind, I pack my St Edmund’s school trunk and heavy duty grip and make my way to Newcastle Docks to meet up with 6 fellow contractees, similarly luggaged up. We’re all bound for different parts of Norway but we have a week’s survival induction in Oslo via ferry to Bergen and spectacular train journey. So two days later, we haul our bags and trunks off the train at Oslo railway station, load up various taxis and arrive at our designated hotel.
    The hotel occupies the third, fourth and fifth floors of a modern block. With much sweat and muscle strain we fill the lift with our luggage – there’s space for two of us and the rest take the stairs. The lift is doorless, so we watch the wall slide past as we keep the luggage pile from toppling over. At the third floor, I stay by the lift while my colleagues sort out our rooms. No problem so in a few minutes my colleague and I are back in the lift. He presses the fifth floor button, but the lift obeys a previous summons and descends to the ground floor where baffled folk have been waiting for the last ten minutes. They open the door to see the compartment filled with two sweating men holding on to tottering piles of luggage. They close the door and the lift lurches upwards. We reach the fifth floor to find that the outer door cannot be opened. We later understand the hotel has a problem with absconding guests. We press 3 to return to reception. Inevitably our journey takes past the ground floor where the same folk are becoming understandably restless. Back on the reception floor, my colleague gives way to the concierge who carries an impressive bunch of keys. We make our way to the fifth floor, again via the ground floor. At least the concierge’s considerable bulk offers some protection from the hot volley of complaints. The lift is now making alarming groaning noises as we ris to the fifth floor. The concierge finds the right key and inserts it, but before he is able to turn it, the lift shudders and begins to descend again, leaving his ring of keys to dangle precariously over the lift shaft. The concierge now performs dance of fury – quite impressive given his size and the lack of space. And I get my first lesson in Norwegian swearing.


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