1. Translation of Alek Popov’s new Palaveevi Sisters novel

    September 7, 2018 by Christopher Buxton

    From The Palaveevi Sisters – on the Road to the New World

    In this sequel to his bold satirical novel, The Palaveevi Sisters in the storm of History, Alec Popov follows the fates of his twin heroines, soon to be divided by the so called Iron Curtain. Following the betrayal of their partisan group, Kara manages to escape to Sofia, where she finds out the family home has been wrecked by an Allied bombing raid and her parents are dead. With a significant price on her head, she is betrayed to the police by maid-servants, Elitsa and Mika. Meanwhile her sister, Yara, has stumbled across the border into Yugoslavia, where she falls into the care of Partisan dwarves, escapees from a monstrous Nazi experiment. Eventually she will escape to London.

    On September the 9th 1944, the Russian army crossed the Danube, and a Communist regime has been established in Bulgaria by the so called “Fatherland Front”. In the immediate chaos of the coup,  Kara escapes from prison, but is assumed dead and declared a hero. With a new identity she will become a trusted agent in the new security system.

    Easily forgotten in the turmoil of the Red Terror, the little group of house-maids meet in a ruined warehouse. Their former masters and mistresses, once important politicians, financiers and industrialists have been executed, imprisoned or exiled to provincial villages and their maids wonder about their changed circumstances in the brave new Communist world.

    Alec Popov uses these teenage maids as a black-comedic chorus, reflecting their limited understanding of the dramatic upheavals that will change their lives forever .

    The union of outcast angels

    Circled by bricks, the fire flared up and the smoke found its way out of a hole in the ceiling. Amidst the flames were stacked table legs, chair backs, legs and seats, cupboard doors and picture frames…Some kind of metal spring released in the embers opened with a metallic groan and threw a shower of sparks ceiling-wards. Round the improvised fire, ten to fifteen ragged creatures were holding out their grubby little hands towards the lifesaving heat. The flickering light played upon their dark serious faces, smeared with ash and crusty snot. They were all girls between eleven and sixteen. Some of them were sitting on suitcases and bundles; others on newspaper and cardboard, others were simply squatting. They’d occupied this damp ground floor space for months on end now. In the beginning there were only three: Elitsa, Mika and Zlatka, suddenly out on the street, after what they generally called “the events”, the consequences of the 9th of September.  Elitsa had been working in Judge Diamandiev’s flat; Mika was with the Chokmanovs. Both Dimandiev and Chokmanov were arrested on the same day and their families were given just four hours to pack their bags. They were loaded on to lorries, their flats were sealed, and where they were hauled off to, no-one knew. The two maids were wandering aimlessly round the railway station, when they met Zlatka – a tall swarthy girl the same age as Mika. She’d been a maid at Morev’s. He was a tobacco merchant who’d also fallen into the whirlpool of “events”. Zlatka had found shelter in the ruins of a former furniture factory, “Nedelchev and Son”, and she took the pair in. The building had been destroyed by the previous spring’s bombing with the exception of the ground floor. The owners had had the foresight to haul themselves abroad and the place was deserted. You got in through a narrow passage out into Slivnitsa Boulevard, known only to a few.   In the following days and weeks the Sofia streets filled up with poor little serving maids, who had lost their employers. Most of them made their way back to their villages, but there were some, whom city life had spoilt so much that they wouldn’t hear of returning to their birthplaces, even at the risk of dying from hunger. It was they who formed the nucleus of this tiny commune, which occupied this cheerless space.

    At least once a week, if not more often, the little maids passed by their former cosy homes, to check whether the owners hadn’t returned. But they found the doors locked and sealed with wide, white tape, and the insignia of the Fatherland Front. The little money they’d saved ran out. After that in the flea markets they exchanged  various  trinkets that they’d managed to lift in the chaos before being kicked out – silver spoons, paper knives, glasses, watches one or two golden chains…The cold tightened its grip. During the day the girls split up into groups and ran through the neighbourhood.  Some turned over the cellars of bombed buildings for winter conserves. Others searched for items they could sell for money or food. Others gathered whatever could be used for burning and dragged it back to their shelter, to warm up the cold winter nights… They’d already burnt all the wood they’d managed to scavenge from the factory store. Sadly there was nothing else there. “Ey if only it was a canning factory!” the little maids lamented. February passed, March came, but winter would not loose its grip.

    “Let’s go back to the village, Sis’ Mika!” mumbled Elitsa. “If you only knew how I yearn to sink my teeth into a hunk of dripping! You know with added leek and pepper…”

    She was wearing a man’s fur hat which practically reached her nose with thick ear pieces.

    “You gone crazy girl?” Mika shook her head. “You yearning for dripping.  You wanting to slave for pigs? Dragging yourself out at the crack of dawn!”

    “Yeah, yeah. You can just picture me back there grazing the goats!  Whole day out in the hills with a crust of bread and an onion!” Radka, Bogdan Filov’s little maid, joined in.

    “Rake the shit, dig the spuds. If that’s any life,” Stanka, Gabrovski’s red-faced maid, called out.

    “Round ours ten people eat from one bowl. They lie down and get up with the animals,” added Gunka, maid to financier Burov through clenched teeth. “Can you call them people at all?”

    “In the end you’re cracking lice the whole day, if you’ve got nothing else to do…” Marta’s voice echoed in resentment. Marta (she insisted on being called Mary) had been a maid in the Murashanovs’ exquisite home and she continued to wear the white lace cap, although now it was stained, which her mistress had brought her from London, way back, before the war.“And even if I drop dead, I ain’t going back to that louse farm!”

    Out from the ramp that led to the basement, came the sound of shifting bricks and other rubbish. The faces around the fire turned automatically towards the noise. Two silhouettes appeared from the darkness.

    “Zlatka, is that you?”

    “No it’s the cat’s mother!” grunted the taller girl.

    She was wearing a green, oversized, velvet dress, over which she’d thrown a thick knitted scarf. Her thin ankles were twisted into some scuffed high heeled boots. She was disheveled. Her lips bore traces of lipstick. From one hand hung a string shopping bag, through which you could see the edges of a heavy bulky object like a paving stone.

    “You OK?” Radka was worried.

    “Well I really bopped him one!”  Zlatka swung the bag meaningfully and in her eyes the flames of victory sparkled. “bastard was going to grab me … bopped him with his tins on his head!”

    “What did you expect? That he was just going to give them to you, for the sake of your pretty eyes?” Mary shook her head. “You’re playing like you’re a toy with these soldiers! One girl, they lured with salami, fucked around with her and then threw her in the canal.”

    “And no-one dares tell on them,” added Gunka. “Russky brothers!  Look out, Zlatka! They ain’t looking for girls like us. I hear Russian, I take the long way round.”

    “The Krauts had more class.” Radka sighed.  “Civilized country.”

    “Civilized?” Stanka waved her hand. “After they toss off two-three-four rakias, they all turn Arseville!”

    “Who’s that girl then?” Mika pointed at the girl who’d appeared behind Zlatka. She was a short plump creature, around twelve years old, dressed in a fur coat with a yellow flowery headscarf and a bundle on her shoulder.

    “Totka she was a maid at Arnaudov, the professor. Two days she’s been out on the street.

    “And them too… have they been.. erm…you know what-ed?” a timid voice called out.

    “Them too, them too!” Zlatka nodded energetically.

    “God! Anyone can read gets carted away.”

    “Well, they will come back,” sobbed the plump girl.

    “Yeah, yeah,”  they burst out laughing.

    “The Professor said that they only wanted to check something…”

    “And that’s what Morev said, but he still hasn’t come back. And they took him, how long ago e-hey? “ she rolled her hand. “And the mistress with the kids, they haven’t come back. I heard they’ve been spirited all the way to Deliomarna.”

    “They’ve bumped him off!” Stanka broke in. “Don’t you be waiting for him, not for a second! A girl told me, she’s a cleaner at the cop-shop: five lorries a night. They leave full and they come back empty. They’ve buried them somewhere near Radomir in trenches.”

    “First they kill them, then they try them,” Radka joined in.

    “What’s given you the hump?” Gunka snapped at her. “Your Filov, they tried him first, didn’t they…and what? Self same.”

    “And once the bullets run out, they kill them with picks, shovels and whatever comes to hand,” Stanka continued quietly. “And then they get drunk and forget to bury them. Lying on top of the pile there was a good looking lad, a dentist, with a smashed skull. Some fox comes by and eats his brain. And that chap he rose from the grave and straight to Ikhtiman where his executioner lived. Found his wife and cuddled up to her while she was asleep. And started to stroke her. And she thought it was her husband come back.”

    “Ugh! Stop it, you!”Mary shuddered.

    “They found her in the morning, hanging from a beam, white all over…”

    “Stop it girl! Shut up!” voices chimed all around.

    “Without a single tooth in her mouth!” Stanka finished with a flourish.

    “Ah you’ve got a nerve!” Mika called out. “I heard that story from my Granny, only it was about the September uprising in ’23. And it was some kind of poet that was on top. And it wasn’t a fox, it was a polecat…the lad rises up and goes to Pleven to the wife of the lieutenant who killed him. In the morning they find her hanged. And on the table instead of a final letter, there was a poem by guess who! When he read it the lieutenant blasted out his brains. They left a two year old boy behind, poor thing!”

    “Ah but that lad became a dentist and was killed by that poet’s nephew, who’d become a partisan!” Stanka spoke quickly, regaining her composure. “Come on, who can say there’s no such thing as fate!”

    The little maids nodded deep in thought. Some quickly crossed themselves, others clenched their grubby fists, others did both to be sure. Terrifying times had arrived. As if human wickedness was not enough, well now there were various unclean forces crawling out of their holes, mingling with folk, so you couldn’t separate them – human being or evil spirit!

    In the darkness a lonely sobbing voice could be heard. Elitsa got closer to the new girl, took her hand and put her to sit beside her and Mika. Huge tears rolled down Totka’s cheeks. A steady, unbroken note swelled from inside her fur coat like a bagpipe: euuuuuuuuuuuuu!

    “Why are you boo-hooing over those fascists, girl!” a hoarse voice rang out from the other side of the fire. “Not enough you’ve slaved for them, and now you’re weeping for them. That’s what happens to those who served Hitler!”

    A newspaper rustled. A dark face with a beak-like nose and greasy hair tied into a pony tail, appeared from behind the pages. Koina hadn’t said a word up to this moment. She reckoned it was beneath her to get involved in this serving girl chatter.  Free with her tongue and willful, she never lasted anywhere more than six months, but immediately found a new employer, because all of Sofia knew that there was no-one else like her, to polish up the parquet in the hall to such a shine that you could slide from one wall to the other with just one push. How many legs and arms had been broken on her floors! Koina also had no intention of returning to the village, but unlike the other girls, she read newspapers, she kept herself informed, as they say, and by now was clear about which way the wind was blowing. The old ways were not coming back.

    Not that she was particularly sad about that.

    “Well, but us?” Gunka called out nervously. “As we’ve been serving them, and so on…it’s not going to turn out that we’ve been serving Hitler.”

    “That’s different!” Mika broke in, but not without looking to Koina, as though she hoped to get her approval.

    Koina nodded importantly.

    “We are the proletariat. And we haven’t served, we’ve slaved. Hammer that into your thick skulls, otherwise you’ll have problems.”

    “That’s the straight up truth,” Radka clapped her hands. “How they used to torture me with that silver service. If it wasn’t soda, it was vinegar. Scrub till you’re gone crazy. And that Fascist never satisfied.”

    “Right, right!”

    “My hands were always round that carpet beater!” Stanka complained. “Bish-bash! Every God-given Saturday.  Roll up those carpets, take them into the yard, bash them, roll them up again, haul them…Good that there was a porter to help me.”

    “That’s what’s called worker-peasant solidarity,” explained Koina.

    “They fed me on left overs,” Mary didn’t want to be left out. “Whatever was left of the cake, let’s give it to the maid. And they scoffed all the cherries. Not one did they leave me. Just pastry and cream.

    “What kind of cream?” Elitsa twitched.

    “Vanilla with lemon.”

    “Then my mistress made cake from biscuits and walnuts, sprinkled with crushed meringue. “

    “That’s for paupers, girl!” Mary pursed her lips.

    “And did they give you lamb?” Zlatka asked.

    “Yes they did,” Mary admitted half heartedly. “But mostly ribs and skin. And stuffing.”

    “Well the skin’s the tastiest bit!” Elitsa was salivating.

    “Give me stuffing every time!” Zlatka sighed. “The stuffing I’ve eaten.”

    “Yeah, stuffing’s nice too,” Elitsa smacked her lips.

    “What are you dreaming about some leftovers, you lot!” Koina scolded them. “The pancake’s been turned over. Now the fascists will be eating the leftovers.”

    “And what about us?”

    We’ll eat in a canteen. First, second, third courses…And we won’t be washing dishes. We’ll just be taking them to the hatch. Do you know that the new government has ordered canteens to be opened in every factory?”

    The girls looked at each other in wonder.

    “Who’s going to let us in there?” whispered Stanka.

    “And why wouldn’t they let us? Whoever works, eats, whoever gazes at flies, will just lick the dirty plates. Read about it. You can do that much can’t you girls?” Koina banged the newspaper with her hand and nearly tore it. “Now, there are such opportunities for women opening up, beyond your wildest dreams.”

    The little maids began to pore over the pages.

    “Women unload barges in Lom,” Gunka read out loud.”

    “Go on!” Koina encouraged her.

    “With cheery jokes and songs a brigade of twelve women worked tirelessly shoulder to shoulder with the dockers,” Gunka read with a significant effort. “The women were engaged in unloading crates of 7-10 kilos of quarry explosive, which had had handles and could be carried. The handles of some of the crates were broken and the women swept them over their shoulders and carried them to the wagon that way…”

    “Well what’s the difference?” exclaimed Stanka. “I was dragging carpets before, now it’s crates. From the frying pan into the fire!”

    “Now you’re doing it for yourself!”  Koina snapped at her.

    “Yeah, yeah, for myself…”

    On the newspaper pages there were another ten articles with similar content. The girls read them with a mixture of amazement and respect, as they elbowed and shook their heads.


    “Engine oil has always attracted me more than lipstick and pomades,” stated Ivanka Andreeva, 42 years old from Pernik, previously an owner of a cosmetics shop but today the first female engine driver in Bulgaria. “As the child of a railway worker,   I was always more interested in locomotives, but unfortunately previously my route to this profession was blocked. From January this year however I got the chance to dedicate myself to the career I have chosen. I’ve already been appointed and I’ve had a few solo runs to Simitli and Gyueshevo.


    Eighty looms are working at full capacity. The wild music of work blares out. The female workers are fighting doggedly with difficult poor quality materials and are competing to be named the most efficient worker. And here she is, hemp worker Kristiana Ilieva. With an average of 96% , she’s achieved 105%  productivity. Hemp is difficult to work. Because this isn’t hemp, but hemp sweepings, the dust gets in your eyes, slows down the machines, and creates mountains of twigs and fibres. But the will to exemplary productivity is invincible.


    The Exemplary record breaking women’s group which works in the „Tsareva Krusha” mine won’t leave a single wagon empty. Especially outstanding were the members of the Workers Youth League:

    Nadka Boncheva and Danka Cherneva on the coal belt line;

    Kristanka Ivanova, Tsetska Stoyanova, Rositsa Beleva unloading the slag;

    At the First Eastern Field, Vyara Kozleva and Sonya Papancheva pulling the endless cables,

    At the 134th coalfaceMara Deyanova and Draginka Chukova, digging out the coal.

    Sika Racheva on the roller.

    Glory to our conscientious comrades! Worthy role models! Let all the shirkers take note!

    “Look, comrades,” Koina announced sternly. “The iron horse of progress ain’t gonna wait for us. Let’s mobilize and organize, while there’s time. Tomorrow even, we’ll leave for Pernik and sign up to work in the mines. You’re not going to tell me we’re thicker than the others?”

    “And are there canteens there?” Gunka was interested. “There’s nothing written here about canteens.”

    “What? Of course there are,” Koina answered nettled. “Can you be such a stuck up pig? We’re forming a brigade here, we’re rescuing industry, and she`s dragging up the cooking pot. First we meet the quota, then we eat!”

    “Hark at you, telling me what for!”

    “Who else’s going to tell you, girl? Ain’t I the commander?”

    “When did you become the commander?” Stanka threw in sarcastically.

    A belly laugh echoed from the basement.

    “Yeah, yeah! I’ll go and dig coal,” Radka sneered. ”Better to graze goats in the village. Or scrub spoons your whole life.”

    “Dirty saboteur!” Koina jumped up and slapped her with the newspaper.

    “Who are you hitting, bitch. Bloody troll!”

    Radka who was pretty wiry and agile pulled the paper out of her hands and tore it to pieces.

    “Fascist!” shrieked Koina. “She’s tearing up “Workers Action”.

    “I’ll give you fascist!”

    Radka grabbed her by the greasy pony tail and started hauling her over. Koina twisted like a fox and bit her hand. Radka kicked her. The two girls got tangled in each other, as they pulled each other’s hair, spat and scratched. Buttons and scraps of clothing went flying.

    “Like master, like servant!” Koina didn’t stop through the spit. “Did he screw you in the cellar, the old fascist? Did he screw you?”

    “It’s you they’ve screwed, bitch!” Radka planted a fist into her nose. “There now there!”

    Blood spurted. The two of them rolled towards the fire.

    “Stop! Leave off!” The girls jumped up.

    Zlatka jumped in to break them up, and got thumped by both sides. Gunka and Mika ran to help. Finally with great difficulty they managed to untangle them and pull them away to a safe distance.

    “And if you want to know,” blurted Radka through gasps of breath, “My uncle’s been a partisan all the way back from 43! And your uncle was a keeper. All the keepers go and report to the police, Who’s the fascist eh?”

    “My uncle hid two partisans a whole week!” snarled Koina, as she wiped the blood from her nose with the bit of newspaper. “The whole village knows.”

    “Ey, well my auntie brought bread up the mountain,” Mika called out.

    “Well as for me then, Dobri Terpeshev turns out to be married to my aunt!” Mary dropped this in.

    The girls stared at her uncertainly. Most of them didn’t even know who the Prime Minister was at the moment, let alone Dobri Terpeshev, but the way Mary had pronounced his name, gave rise to the thought that he amounted to somebody important. Even Mary wasn’t entirely clear what post her Aunt’s husband had taken up in the new government, but she remembered that before he was arrested, Mushanov had mentioned his name often. To judge by Koina’s envious look, which was suitably informed, Uncle Dobri must have indeed become a great man, maybe even a minister!”

    “What you waiting for girl?” Stanka cried. “Go and get him to fix you up!”

    “Well…I didn’t think of it,” Mary winked and scratched behind her ear.

    “Oh my lord, I’m dying of hunger,” Zlatka jolted.

    She took out the tins and opened them with a rusty kitchen knife. Everyone stared at her hands. She cut up the grey contents into relatively equal shares, and took a cube. She chewed it carefully and narrowed her eyes.

    “Meat. Tasty.”

    Then she took another bit. “Go on, you treat yourselves,” she turned to the others.

    “Prostitute!” Koina gave a low growl. “I don’t want your leftovers!”

    Zlatka poked her finger at her forehead and twisted it like a corkscrew. Cuckoo! Ten little hands reached out and in a second only tins remained. The girls continued to chew through inertia, although there was now nothing in their mouths, apart from saliva and the aroma of pork fat.

    “Tasty but little,” Stanka licked her greasy fingers.

    “I’m leaving for Pernik tomorrow,” Koina announced. “Whoever wants to come, come along!”

    “If there’s a canteen, maybe,” Gunka called out suddenly.

    “Yes, yes! We’ll come,” the little voices broke out.

    “Good riddance!” Radka threw in. “Mary, why don’t you ask your auntie to find something for me? We’re friends aren’t we?”

    Mary straightened her back, pulled her golden plaits and straightened adjusted her cap. Her cheeks flamed, an unfamiliar feeling of pride reached her very ears. She looked down at the other girls from on high and nodded royally. “We’ll see what can be done.”

    Zlatka threw some bits of parquet on the fire and a thick polished table leg. Sparks flew up to the ceiling. The girls fell silent, sunk in thought about the unknown awaiting them. One of them started to sing something quietly, but no-one joined in. The whole song consisted of one single sound, endless and monotonous, as if hovering over some parched field. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeee…Eeeeeeee…

    “Miko, and what are going to do?” Elitsa whispered.

    “Hold hard,” her comrade answered. “I’ve got something in mind.”

    “Shall we go to the mines. They won’t find us there.”

    “Are you crazy girl! Who are hiding from?”

    “You know who from…”

    Elitsa gave her a scrap of the newspaper Radka had recently ripped up. She’d snaffled it up surreptitiously in the chaos. On the top right corner there was a photo of two girls with school berets. The headline was “Our heroes”. The photo wasn’t goodness knows how clear, but the caption underneath left no doubt. “The heroic Palaveevi sisters”.

    In an unequal fight with the savage ranks of the gendarmerie, Yara Palaveeva fell. Her sister, Kara managed to escape to Sofia, but here she met with dirty treachery. Fallen into the hands of the police, she stood up for her ideals with head raised up. The inquisitors were left helpless before this beautiful intelligent individual – it was though her piercing blue eyes foretold their imminent end. And in order to hide the traces of their sickening act, the fascist beasts lied shamelessly that Kara had died in the allied bombing. But we know the real killers. Tremble, traitors!

    “And now?” Elitsa burst into tears. “They’ll bury us in Radomir.”

    “Give over, you!” Mika poked her. “What proof have they got?  Have you taken cash in hand? Have you signed a receipt?’

    “What cash? They conned us, didn’t they, bastard fascists!”

    “Right. And I didn’t get anything. Whoever got something, they’re the ones who have to watch out.”

    “But she could have told someone.”

    “And if she did, she can’t repeat it in court. If they ask we’ll say that we hid her, but then Mr. Chokmanov found out, and he called the police and betrayed her. And not for money but for politics.”

    But they’ll kill him, sis. Mr. Chokmanov got me a job.”

    “Oh don’t get your knickers in a twist! Whose idea was it to hand her to the cops? You see what things are like now. Anyway they’ll have killed him by now. What’s more to say? They can’t kill him twice.”

    “Eh, if they’ve killed him already…”

    “Everything’ll work out, sis,” Mika gave her a hug.

    Elitsa rested her head on her shoulder.

    “I’ll tell you something, but keep it quiet,” her friend whispered in her ear. “The other day I was passing by the Chokmanovs and I saw the tape had been removed. I think Wow, they haven’t come back? Fat chance. They’ve installed one of the new guys. The porter told me that they’re looking for a girl. Fingers crossed! A big house. Can’t do without a servant? If they take me, I’ll fix you up somewhere, depend upon it.”

    “Oh you’re so good. Mika!”

    The would-be brigadiers had gathered around Koina and were discussing the most pressing organizational issues. The others pretended that this had nothing to do with them, but they listened out with half an ear so as not to miss out on some significant titbit, from which they could unexpectedly profit. After a short argument it was decided that Koina should be the commander, as she was best informed.

    “We have to have a name for the brigade,” she said.

    “Georgi Dimitrov, it’s obvious.” Cried Gunka.

    “There are already ten of those!”

    “Well…So there can be another one.”

    “There can’t!” Koina interrupted. “We’re girls. We need a female name.”

    She cast a look over each of the girls sitting round her, but they all shrugged their shoulders. She smiled patronizingly.

    “Cat got your tongues, eh? Because you don’t read newspapers. How are you going to know the names of the heroes? Have you heard of the Palaveevi sisters? In the newspaper they’ve written that they became partisans at the age of 17 even. They rejected their father, mother, home…Their father was rich. But they didn’t want to think of money!  Only the struggle, machine guns and bombs in their heads. Burning Marxists. Fearless, crazy. They killed one in Yugoslavia. The other was snuffed out by the police. Some monsters betrayed her, they’ll pay for that now!”

    “Hey you Elitsa,’ Zlatka called out. “Weren’t you a servant – I mean a slave,” she hastily corrected herself, “at those Palaveevi?”

    “Slaved…” murmured Elitsa, paralyzed in terror, “just a little while.”

    “20 tons of slag passes through the hands of the strike force, the ‘Palaveevi Sisters’ youth brigade!” Koina declaimed dreamily and nodded her head in satisfaction. We’ll be called the “Palveevi sisters”.










  2. Jochan Devletyan

    November 20, 2015 by Christopher Buxton

    On the 25th of November at 7 pm, next week, Annie and I will be on stage at the BCI London supporting Bulgarian writer Jochan Devletyan in his presentation of his collection of short stories: Man and a Half, published by Janet 45.

    Anyone conversant with the history of Bulgarian writing will know that the best classical and contemporary authors excel in the short story format. Perhaps this is down to a natural Bulgarian story telling talent, which reveals itself round every table where a company gathers to eat and drink. This is Jochan’s first published book of fiction, but he has learned his craft well – from his father, whom he describes as the best raconteur he has met and from his encounters with so many writers when he was working as Cultural Director in Plovdiv.

    The stories in Man and a Half  have masculinity as their common theme, with the Bulgarian contexts ranging from the Turkish subjugation  through the Communist period to the present day. They share a poignancy, a sometimes humorous, but more often tragic reflection of patriarchy under threat. The male characters are often isolated, obsessed, filled with remorse and seeking redemption for misunderstandings and lost opportunities. The dramas are played out most often in small tight knit communities where the individual is pitted against the locals. In his story “To murder a Forest” a misanthropic ex-forestry manager is at war with the local Communist Women’s committee – he refers to them as “slipper slappers” , not just because of the sound they make as they walk around block entrances, but also the way they slap down on your soul. For extract, follow link.

    The stories encompass a rich variety of mood. “Inheritance” gives us a larger-than-life portrait of an Armenian whose plan to emigrate to America is thwarted and delayed by encounters with fraudsters, a brothel madame, a band of vigilantes, and finally by the sight of a female ankle in Plovdiv. “The Double Girl” is a disquisition on the wonder and absurdity of human love – with an ending that might remind readers of a similar reflection on love by Philip Larkin in his poem “An Arundel Tomb”. In “Mercy”, a young soldier awaiting court martial and inevitable execution is horrified to witness  a young boy killing a white dove through the bars of his cell.

    Importantly in the context of recently fanned racist prejudice, the stories celebrate Bulgaria’s diverse ethnic population – a genuine respect for the culture of Bulgarians, Jews, Armenians, Turks and Roma is conveyed in the richness of the language.

    Annie and I are looking forward to Wednesday, where interested Bulgarians and non-Bulgarians will meet Jochan who will talk about his stories and also reflect on his time as a Cultural manager for over 30 years from the time of  Lyudmilla Zhivkova to that of Vezhdi Rashidov.

  3. Are You –Phile or –Phobe? That is the Bulgarian defining question.

    October 27, 2015 by Christopher Buxton

    Let us imagine that back in the seventies I had two pupils who shared a desk – Ruska Filova and Rilka Russofobska. Ruska Filova studied Bulgarian philology at University and came to appreciate the superiority of the Slavic soul. Inflamed by her love of Russian culture, she became a teacher in a provincial town. She now endures low pay and complains that her pupils no longer behave. Rilka Russofobska studied English philology and now lives and works in the big city. They are both my friends on Facebook, and both now are engaged in a relentless war of words. Their sniping is reflected in myriad exchanges and shares by their similarly divided compatriots. Ruska Filova writes in capital letters. Rilka Russofobska relies more on patronising wit. As recipients of an exceptional education, both base all their positions on “incontrovertible facts”.
    To understand these positions, we have to examine the narratives that lie behind them. Ruska Filova repeats the narrative she learnt at school in the 1970s. Bulgaria – the oldest civilization in the world – was doomed to fall under the “Ottoman yoke” for 500 horrible years. They were rescued from barbaric slavery and “genocide” by the heroic self-sacrifice of the Russians. And in 1944, Russia again had to step in to rescue Bulgaria from an oppressive pro German “fascist” government and usher in a period of socialist stability with jobs for all, free health care and education, and pensions that guaranteed dignity in old age. Imprinted on her memory is the poster of Brezhnev clasping the Bulgarian premier Zhivkov in his armsBrejnev_Jivkov-2 and the slogan Eternal Comradeship from century to century. (Or at least up to Zhivkov’s fall in 1989)
    This narrative then helps form Ruska’s explanation of events following 1989. First the malignant west with the help of the “traitor” Gorbachov finally succeeded in undermining the Communist bastion. Then a succession of corrupt “democratic” politicians and criminal oligarchs, interested only in filling their pockets, destroyed the Bulgarian economy. As a result of closing factories, the nation is being fatally weakened by the mass emigration of the young and most talented. Meanwhile the west continues to exert its malign influence. Bulgarian Orthodox culture is under constant attack from NGOs espousing “western values” of multi-culturalism, gay rights etc. Bulgaria was sleepwalked into NATO and the EU, organizations that are intent on completing Bulgaria’s destruction. Attacks on the traditional Bulgarian family means that it is only a matter of time before gypsy and Muslim populations become the majority. The CIA dream of a friendly Muslim power stretching from Diyarbakir to Tirana will have been realised.
    Ruska Filova is keen to remind us that from the Crusades onwards the West has always been anti-Bulgarian. In the 1870s, the western powers supported the Ottoman Empire in their “genocidal” oppression. Some of her friends go so far as to suggest an infernal Jewish conspiracy, linking Disraeli with Suleiman Pasha, the perpetrator of the Stara Zagora massacre. On the anniversaries of the April revolution and the Battle of Shipka, Ruska posts that the Ottoman Bashibazouks represent “western values”. For her “western values” are unchanging through the centuries and are essentially hostile.
    This special hatred for Bulgaria applies to more recent events, particularly the Treaty of Neuilly following the end of the WW1. Then the Allied bombing of Bulgaria during the Second World War is denounced as a war crime and explained by Churchill’s legendary “hatred” of Bulgaria. Some of Ruska’s friends, who while being pro Putin do not share her enthusiasm for communism, blame Churchill for allowing Stalin to take over Bulgaria.
    It comes as no surprise then that for Ruska, Vladimir Putin is a hero and she readily reflects the Putin view of the world. She is horrified that Bulgarian politicians have showed such ingratitude to Russia by joining the anti-Russian NATO and that as a result Bulgaria will be dragged into World War 3 on the wrong side. (Even the “fascist” Tsar Boris did not allow Bulgarian soldiers to fight against Russia.) She applauds Putin’s bold stand against western influences. She points out that with his fearless involvement in Syria once again Russia will save Europe from the barbarians. She holds Western meddling entirely responsible for every crisis in the world – she will offer facts to prove that American provocateurs were responsible for the unrest in Ukraine. She will post pictures of the eviscerated bodies of East Ukrainian children and accuse the western press of hypocrisy in ignoring the “war crimes” of Ukraine’s “fascist” government.
    On the other hand, Rilka Russofobska routinely describes Ruska and her friends as brainwashed red rubbish. Of course she has a different set of facts and this forms a new narrative, which directly contradicts most of what she and Ruska learnt at school. For her the outstanding catastrophe in Bulgaria’s history (far worse than either the Ottoman “presence” or the WW1 settlement) was the illegal invasion by the Soviet Union in 1944 and the subsequent imposition of an alien communist system that resulted in the extermination of Bulgaria’s intellectual and entrepreneur class and the demolition of a thriving agricultural and industrial economy.
    Rilka even questions whether Russia has ever been a true friend of Bulgaria. Didn’t the Russian invasion in the tenth century lead to the fall of the first Bulgarian kingdom? Wasn’t the Russian Tsar’s “liberation” of Bulgaria just a move to gain Russian access to the Mediterranean? Great figures from Bulgarian history, Rakovski, Levski, Botev and Stambolov had all forewarned the Bulgarian people of the dangers of the anti-democratic Russian bear. Rilka is fond of repeating the story of the oppressed Russian peasants in the Tsar’s army in 1887, how they were amazed at the freedom and prosperity of their Bulgarian counterparts. And the Russians proved to be capricious. In the years following 1878 Russia shifted its friendship first to Serbia and then to Yugoslavia, thus preventing Bulgarians’ desire to re-unite with their “brother Macedonians”.
    Despite the catastrophe of WW1 Rilka puts a positive gloss on Bulgaria between the wars. She vehemently denies that Bulgaria was ever a Fascist society and praises the statesmanship of Tsar Boris III. She paints a golden picture of selfless politicians and civically minded Generals, steering a principled path despite Communist terrorists and peasant demagogy. Why then did the Tsar ally himself with Hitler? Rilka maintains it was because he had no choice. In the deteriorating Balkan situation, with Germany in the ascendant he had to put the safety and interests of Bulgaria first. But he was no pawn in Hitler’s hands. He refused to declare war on Russia, in spite of Russia’s murderous terrorist campaign. Rilka goes on to insist that it was down to Tsar Boris alone that Bulgaria’s Jewish population were not dispatched to Nazi extermination camps. This has led to some memory conflicts with prominent Jewish writers. Facts are exchanged like machine gun bullets.
    Jumping to the present day, how does Rilka explain the current state of Bulgaria to her former classmate Ruska? Well of course it’s the Communists to blame. Those far-sighted scoundrels had foreseen the fall of the Berlin Wall and had infiltrated every so called opposition party, so that whoever won the elections, Bulgaria would be asset stripped for the benefit of Communist children and grandchildren. Rilka also blames the Bulgarian people for being so easily hoodwinked particularly by demagogues and pseudo-patriots.
    She is alarmed at the rise in Vladimir Putin’s popularity. She calls Putin Putler and adorns his photo with a moustache. She periodically laments the weakness of the west’s response. Her heroes are Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher.
    Of course Rilka and Ruska are extreme stereotypes, but their debate on Facebook involves a thousand divided voices, each accusing the other of being in the pay of the CIA or the KGB. Meanwhile, as one of my more neutral ex-pupils pointed out, Bulgaria is 75% Russophile yet it continues to vote for moderately Russophobe politicians.

  4. Some thoughts on Poetry in translation provoked by an exciting new development the publication of translations of two contemporary American poets into Bulgarian by Rumyana Emanuilidu’s Znatsi.

    August 6, 2015 by Christopher Buxton

    The moon and the sea, the forest and the mountain mark time with chasms and deserted ruined houses. They form a backdrop to a hundred synonyms for loss and grief and alienation, rendered in rhyme. This is romantic poetry at its extreme, heavy in symbolism, leading to an unwieldy abstraction. What it lacks is the everyday.
    This kind of poetry is difficult to translate.
    American poetry is grounded from Whitman onwards in the democracy of objects and the sense that even round the corner of the supermarket aisle between the tins of tomatoes and the frozen peas there is a sudden awareness of an almost impalpable truth. American poetry at its best is lucid – its evocation of experience is grounded on the positioning of images on the page. Words are objects. Sentences pin experience. And what emerges is a disarming lack of pretention. Read me, invite me into your mind, make of me what you will.
    In classic Bulgarian poetry, Vaptsarov achieves this objectivity in his evocation of Spring entering a factory. Hristo Fotev stands in the sea in Burgas and for a moment feels cleansed. Atanas Dalchev conveys the desolation of an abandoned house through his selection of key objects. Margarita Petkova conveys the ironies of human passion through everyday occurrences – jumping on a tram or shredding the petals of a flower. These poets translate.
    Katerina Stoykova Klemer, Manol Peykov, Kristina Keranova are at the forefront of translators bringing the best American poetry to Bulgaria. Klemer actually brought two American poets with her on her now annual visit: Cecilia Woloch and Clint Margrave. Audiences across Bulgaria had the opportunity to hear these poets read in English and were captured by their Bulgarian translation. Katerina Klemer is both a formidable poet working in both languages and an accomplished translator. Her achievement in publicizing and publishing contemporary Bulgarian poets in America is to be celebrated. Manol Peykov has recently published his excellent translations of e e cummings. It’s a really rewarding labour of love.
    And the publication of Kristina Keranova’s translations of two contemporary American poets, Billy Collins and Stephen Dunn, is an exciting new development in Bulgarian poetry publishing. Rumyana Emanuilidu’s new venture Znatsi publishing house has produced bilingual editions, giving any reader versed in both languages the chance to enjoy the original, feast on the wonderful translations and bask in that no-man’s land of possibilities that exists on the border between languages.
    Both Billy Collins and Stephen Dunn are grounded in the every day. Lucid exquisitely formed lines lead the reader towards a sudden awareness that discovery is possible. As Billy Collins defines the difference between the “houseguest” novelist and the poet: The poet is more someone who appears. You know a door opens and there’s the poet. He says something …closes the door and is gone….”
    In the words of William Carlos Williams – “no ideas but in things.”

  5. In memoriam Vladimira Zhivkova

    July 27, 2015 by Christopher Buxton

    Last month an extremely talented young writer with an  inestimable future died when the car in which she was traveling hit a wall of water, on the cruelly deceptive Sofia Burgas motorway.

    Vladimira Zhivkova was one year into a degree course in Journalism at the University of Sofia but her writing talent had already been noted by prominent editors.  Her fluency in English and German her voracious reading and  her irrepressible curiosity led her into easy contact with the widest range of people and environments.

    The following is my translation of an early piece published in Pod Mosta.

    My Grannie’s cuckoo clock

    by Vladimira Zhivkova

    In my Granny’s village house, there always hung in the entrance hall an old cuckoo clock. This cuckoo clock was the noisiest, most tedious and irritating contraption imaginable. Because it was a genuine antique, passed down to my grandmother from her grandmother, who’d surely bought it in the middle of the last century but one, it either speeded time up or slowed it down. We’d sometimes hear the cuckoo sing three times in an hour or not sing at all for four hours. This clock was an extraordinary item, it had its own opinion about what constituted time and allowed no repair. Sometimes it ticked slowly, counting three seconds for its one, and sometimes – so fast that it was as if the day was passing two frames faster than it should.

    One day I was waiting for Granny to come back from the shop and I was just lying on the sofa in the hall, reading the latest boring book from the school summer reading list. I was around seven or eight and I remember that it was about ribbons and sparrows.  It was odd, I suppose it still is quite odd, but I had one of those Grannies who insisted on their grandkids reading the whole school list.  Well anyway. So I was lying and “reading” – just listening to the ticking of the old wreck on the wall. Tick tock, tick tock, it ticked quickly, it ticked slowly, then three times quickly, four times slowly. Well what a botched job! But I took to thinking. This clock perhaps marks a person’s life time more accurately than the most expensive Cartier, Rolex or whatever other Swiss watch. Time is the most subjective concept in existence.  It’s divided between productive and unproductive, as we define unproductive as wasted or lost time.  We associate lost time with activities that do not answer to the productive stereotype.  For example if you’re going to work or school, you’re dashing round getting stuff done, running after buses or trains or even running to keep fit, this means you’re productive, in other words your time is not being wasted. So what that while you’re doing all these things, you’d rather shoot yourself than be pleased at how much you’re achieving. On the other hand if you spend the whole afternoon in carefree schlepping around the shopping mall, or slouching with a hot coffee or cold beer in front of the TV, or eating or sleeping, in other words with things that bring you the most pleasure, your time has been irretrievably wasted on trivia. So, if you and I have successfully followed my train of thought, we’ll arrive together at the conclusion, that things which we find tedious and boring, are things which require our attention and dedication, because they’re productive. But things that provide us with pleasure are a waste of time, because they are unproductive.

    But hang on a minute… So does this mean that so as not to waste my time I have to be unhappy and bored to death? I’ll save time on this quandary and shamelessly proclaim. There is not (or at least there ought not to be) any such thing as “time to lose”. Time to lose, spent in pleasure is never lost time.

    The world exists in such a speeded up turnover, that the measuring of time really resembles Granny’s clock. If I must be scientifically accurate: time is at once subjective and objective. Objective because it’s a linear progression of universal change.  Subjective because the speed of turnover depends on the awareness of the change, the sacred accumulation of everything.  The higher the awareness, the faster time flies by. The lower the awareness the slower time flows. When you are happy, time flies.  When you’re depressed it’s as though time drags by forever. Because higher levels of awareness bring a finer (lighter and quicker) energy to work on your experiences. Thus, when we are at a higher level, we deal with our experiences more quickly, and when we are at a lower level we deal with our experiences more slowly.

    Nowadays people’s level of awareness is always high.  And not because they are happy. In their conscious lives everyone uses a finer energy, because they force time to pass more quickly. More and more often we direct our attention to reading our watches, rather than the clouds in the sky. Everything has to keep to an accurate schedule, with every second accounted for.  From getting up in the morning to closing your eyes at night. Because time is money, time is a resource, time is valuable and should not be wasted. It seems as though time is all these things but there is never time enough for ourselves.  We’re not a train or the metro are we?! We’re not pizza delivery kids to have our lives controlled by various hands on some clock dials?!  It’s true that everyone has a biological clock, but even so it doesn’t wind us up everyday. Time cannot stop but we can stop it. We can for a second forget our step, hang back, slow down our tempo.  The clock hands aren’t going to turn backwards but we can.  We can go back and drink our morning coffee, hug our kids and wish them a nice day at school, spend those fifteen or more minutes in fixing our hair or putting on that expensive lipstick, kiss your man and as in the films rearrange his tie.  Let’s go out and breathe the cold morning air filled with lime tree blossom, gaze at the clouds playing tag,  smile stupidly,  laugh maniacally,  cry inconsolably. Because a life lived to the full is not counted a thousand times every sixty seconds, but in the several thousand moments and memories which fill the film strip which will play before our eyes in our last minutes.

    Yes my small seven or eight year old brain managed to give birth to this deep meditation, I turned out a child genius. At the same moment Granny came home with a bag full of shopping and quickly fell to scolding me for wasting my time staring at the old clock, instead of reading the book from the list.

    copyright Vladimira K Zhivkova

    Translated by Christopher Buxton

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