The most effective accounts of the tragedy of war have had humour and irony as their essential ingredients. Laughter sharpens the sense of pathos. Thus in the UK – especially for a younger generation lacking any direct contact with the realities of war, the comedy drama series Blackadder Goes Forth has done more to illustrate the grotesque absurdities of World War 1 than five viewings of All Quiet on the Western Front – however noble that film might be. In this context we should also mention Kurt Vonnegut’s take on the horror of Dresden, Slaughterhouse 5, Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Schweik and of course Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. The authors of such works always run the risk of being accused of a lack of respect for the heroic dead, poking their fingers into a gaping wound as though humour shows a lack of patriotic passion.
Such accusations have been leveled at Alec Popov following publication of his novel The Palaveevi Sisters – in the eye of the historic storm. This important book conveys the day to day surreality experienced by a Partisan group of fighters hiding out in the Balkan mountains towards the end of the 2nd World War, a war in which the Bulgarian monarchist government had allied the country to Nazi Germany.
There has been a long tradition in Bulgaria of young men taking to the mountains. It started when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire. Brigands feeding off the rich pickings from Ottoman tax wagon trains and ill-guarded merchants’ convoys, took on the status of latter day Robin Hoods and when the time came for rebellion, fitted easily into a national liberation mythology. The mixed motives of these bandit/freedom fighters was described brilliantly last year by Milen Ruskov in his work The Pinnacle. During World War 2 however the Bulgarian partisan movement was relatively small and ineffective compared to its Yugoslavian counterpart. Its ranks only swelled to bursting when Russian invasion was imminent.
In Alec Popov’s novel, the eponymous twin teenage sisters from middle class backgrounds are on the run from the authorities. They have joined a Partisan group based in the Balkan mountains. The Partisans are a mixed bunch of young and old communists and Peasant party members, all dedicated fighters against the Bulgarian monarchist regime and their German allies. Many have adopted colourful nicknames. Nail – short for final nail in the coffin of Capitalism – or Digger – short for Gravedigger of Capitalism. Others have adopted the names of revolutionary heroes – Botev and Lenin. There is a renegade monk called Tikhon. There is only one other female – white haired Extra Nina whose grasp of Communist ideology has made her the Commander’s trusted right hand Political Officer. The Commander Medved is a former refugee from the 1922 Bulgarian White Terror, returned by Russian submarine eighteen years later to command local resistance against the Bulgarian government. He speaks Bulgarian with a heavy Russian accent. As Commander he can order the execution of any unit member who is suspected of class treachery or found derelict in duty.
Alec Popov’s warts and all depiction of the Partisans does not detract one iota from their bravery and the sincerity of their beliefs. No-one in history can be blamed for an inability to foresee the future, particularly if they die for a cause that turns out in the end to be as suspect as the extreme regime they were fighting against. And Popov cannot be accused of belittling the ruthless government forces led by the sinister Captain Night and the methods they will use to extract information from any communist sympathizer that falls into their hands. (Well of course he can be by critics like Professor Yulian Vuichkov who clearly has not read a line of the novel.)
The comic absurdity of the chapter on masturbation (translated with the author’s permission on my site) only increases the poignancy of a story whose context is a withering civil war. However shameful the subject of masturbation, the chapter ends with men and women preparing to die for their beliefs. The naïve foot-soldiers in this war would go on to be either sanctified or demonized by the mythmakers of the Communist regime which came into power after the Soviet invasion of 1944 and held on to power until 1990.
In The Palaveevi Sisters writer Alec Popov does what all writers must – tell the unvarnished truth as he has researched it. He has produced the first partisan novel since the fall of communism. (You can just imagine how many shelves were filled by novels and memoirs on this subject during the Communist years – enough to reflect the monuments that still stand in nearly every village). Popov has brought these stone statues to life and so has brought meaning to those generations who have only experienced communism through the hazy memories of their parents and grandparents. He has walked the tightrope between pathos and absurdity with aplomb – without a drop of cynicism. He made this reader laugh and cry.