1. What I read in Bulgarian in April

    May 3, 2015 by Christopher Buxton

    Just last year, I posted my excitement at discovering a young new author on the Bg. literary scene, Jordan Svezhenov. With astonishing speed, he has a second book out: Anarchy on Three Seas -published by Siela. What I like about this writer is his positive portrayal of warts-and-all Bulgarian reality, with no trace of self pity or cynical loathing. As with his previous book, Arrhythmic Revolution, his heroes include abandoned old men from isolated villages, gypsies and  pole dancers. Again he does not hesitate to throw his canvas wider than the three seas of the title.   A self-centred womanising German based actor, the crew of a clapped out Russian warship, a lonely old Turkish businessman and a pair of startlingly dumb Ukrainian/Russian twins all converge on a Bulgaria which is threatened by a dastardly conspiracy conceived by naive semi-competent middle eastern terrorists.

    In Svezhenov’s absurdist mirror, Bulgaria is portrayed in all its deficiencies – corrupt officials, drug addled priests, brusque and cynical doctors, but the sheer pace of the narrative, the vigour of the main characters,and their colourful  language leave no time for depression or self pity. The result is a hilarious breakneck ride which never loses an essential sympathy  towards all his characters .

    I’ve included an excerpt in translation.

    From Anarchy on the Three Seas by Jordan Svezhenov Siela 2014

    Translation Christopher Buxton

    Dr Pandora Katastrova picked up the oily doughnut with two plump fingers and stuffed it into her mouth even before she’d swallowed the previous two, spraying powdered sugar and maple syrup all over her desk. Her routine was to treat her Kamenar village patients every Friday afternoon in her private surgery, but this did not include her starting on time.

    There was an urgent volley of knocks at the door.

    “Ye-e-s!” shouted the GP, her over-stuffed mouth adding another salvo of sticky crumbs to those already strewn across her desk.

    The office door creaked and a round face was framed in the opening.

    “Excuse me, when are going to see us because our kid’s got the runs and is throwing up, and just now he’s working up to do both?  It says that you start work at twelve, and now it’s twenty past!

    “Can’t you see I’m filling in forms?” yelled Katastrova through a cloud of powdered sugar and made a show of bashing a few keys on her computer.  “When I’m ready, I’ll call you!”

    As soon as the door closed, the doctor grabbed the remaining doughnuts from the box, stuffed them into her mouth and wiped her hands on an old diagnosis.

    “I don’t need that anymore,” she spluttered to herself. “He forgot to tell me he was allergic to laxatives. God rest his soul.  Do I have to think of everything?”

    Doctor Pandora Katastrova had an unwavering policy on the treatment of all her patients. According to her, all illnesses arose for three reasons – constipation, colds or stress.  And they were to be treated in three ways – laxatives, aspirin and tranquilizers.  Everything else was a world conspiracy on behalf of the drug companies. The Kamenar GP did not dispense prescriptions.  She opened a battered chest and sold medicine directly to the patients.  They called this chest “Pandora’s box”.

    Katastrova wiped her chin on the sleeve of her jacket, stood up puffing from her creaky chair, which had lost two of its five wheels, opened the door and looked out into the corridor. At her appearance the throng gathered outside her door thickened.

    “Who’s first?”

    “Me…” an old man barely croaked, squeezed among another twenty pensioners, four schoolkids, two sniffling women, eight mothers with small children and a worker with a bleeding hand.

    “But what happened to the child with diarrhoea and nausea?” the doctor knit her brows.

    “Couldn’t hold out,” someone called out.

    “Couldn’t hold out at the top or the bottom?”

    “Well looking at the puddle, I’d guess the top.”

    “Certainly from a nervous disposition,” Pandora concluded and nodded to the old man.  “Come in!”

    “Could I ask you something, just for a minute?”

    A snooty middle aged lady with chin lifted high and far too much lipstick applied to her fiercely pursed lips was elbowing her way through the crowd. She pushed her way to the very front, crushing the old man in her wake and waving a piece of paper. Katastrova looked her over and barked:

    “Just a question – four leva. Just a question and entering my office – six leva.  Just a question and following examination – fifteen leva. The Ministry of health doesn’t pay me for just a question.  It’s not within the clinical rule book.”

    “Well I…” the woman froze on the spot.

    “Make up your mind!” The doctor waited a few seconds and then as she’d got no reaction, she grabbed the old man by the collar and barked, “Come in and sit down!”

    As soon as the old man was settled on the couch and the chubby Pandora on her long suffering chair, the questions began.

    “What brings you here, Grandpa?”

    “Well, for you to measure my blood pressure, Doctor.”

    “It’s all down to nerves.  I’ll give you a tranquiliser to calm you down for now.” The doctor bent down towards her chest.

    “But I mean, you haven’t even checked. Is it high or low?”

    “What am I supposed to check?” Katastrova raised her eyes to the ceiling in frustration. “Whether it’s high or low, it all comes down to nerves.”

    “Well but what if it’s normal?”

    “You, how old are you?”

    “I’m 92” the old man announced proudly but with a trembling voice.

    “Well, how could it be normal at your age, are you normal? Are you constipated?”

    “No. How could I be when I haven’t got anything to put in my tummy. I practically don’t eat.”

    “Why?”

    “My pension’s not enough.”

    “Well how do you expect to have normal blood pressure, then? Do take aspirin for your heart?”

    “No.”

    “Well now you’ll take it and everything will be as right as rain.”  Pandora opened her chest. “Here’s a blister. Seven leva forty stotinki.”

    “That’s a lot, Doctor!” the old man’s eyes bulged. “At the chemist near us they’ve got them for stotinki.”

    “They’re no good. They’re for pickles. Don’t experiment, you’d pickle yourself with that fakery, you’ll get constipated, you’ll be stuck in the toilet and you’ll get a heart attack brought on by nerves alone.  Give me Seven leva sixty and off with you – alive and well!”

    “Wasn’t it forty?”

    “No.”

    The old man sighed deeply, pulled out a hankie in which he’d wrapped his meagre funds, counted out the exact sum, pocketed the blister and made his perplexed way to the door.

    He still hadn’t reached it when an indescribable din broke out in the corridor. You could hear shouting, strange booming music and women screaming.

    As soon as the old man pulled the door open, the cacophony burst like a wave into the room, and the second patient whose turn it was to enter, was swept aside by a dozen local swarthy gypsies, yelling unintelligibly and carrying some kind of white bundle. When they dumped the moaning package on the couch the astonished Pandora managed to identify under the many layers of white a young gypsy bride with the dimensions of a medium size whale. The whale emitted an intolerable howl – something in the middle between “gonnadieegonnadieegonnadiee” and an air raid siren. Pushed to one side, there was a creature, looking like a walking rake, in a light grey suit and spiky hair smothered in gel, joining his voice to the chorus calling for divine aid from at least half the world’s religions. This was obviously the bridegroom. At his back, mothers, stepmothers, aunties, in-laws and another thirty relatives seethed and screamed in horror, while the men who’d carried in the victim, stood in front of Pandora and belched out a barrage of conflicting information in three languages, from which The GP understood nothing.

    “Hey wait a minute!” Katastrova tried to out-shout the travelling circus and almost succeeded.

    At that moment the gypsy wedding band turned up playing a wild dance and began to push their way in to join the others in the room, but the drummer and the fat tuba player the got stuck in the door frame, so the musical accompaniment was left to blare in the corridor. This didn’t help reduce the noise, as in the corridor the reverberating Balkan pop became even more deafening.

    “She’s having a baby! A baby! Help Doctor! You’re father and mother!” Katastrova at last managed to make out something comprehensible from the screams, yells and billowing waves of belly dance music from the band.

    Pandora pushed through the relatives who were squashed against each other in the tight space like bus passengers at rush hour, she reached the unfortunate bride, whose extremities overlapped all four sides of the couch, and she pressed her stomach lightly.

    “Now let me see if you’ve got contractions! Does it hurt here?”

    “It hurts everywhere, Doctor, gonnadieegonnadieegonnadiee, Lord, Lord! Vasil, I‘ll bite your head off, putting this baby into me, without me knowing, fuck your dirty mother!”

    “Who are you calling dirty you slut!” yelled the bridegroom’s mother and leant forward to slap the expectant mother.

    But in all the confusion she struck the bride’s father on the back of his neck. He roared like a branded bull and began punching all about him. His frenzied reaction dragged the thirty squashed gypsies into an uncontrolled melee. Everyone tried to thump someone else while at the same time avoiding the whizzing fists, slaps and bottles. Only the restricted space, which did not allow for much mobility, saved the participants from serious injury. And the band provided enthusiastic backing to the scrap with a fine galloping tune.

    “Stop this minute, before I don’t whack the lot of you!” Pandora’s voice rose above the chaos. “I think that the contractions have started. Has the water broken?”

    “What idiot brings water to a wedding, hey!” yelled the bridegroom’s father. “Pour the Doctor a glass of rakia! I’m going to be a Granddaddy!”

    “He’ll be a boy, a bo-o-o-y! If it’s hurting that much, it means it must be a boy coming out. We’ll call him….” The Bridegroom’s mother looked hastily about her, read a product label and made her decision, “Rivanol.”

    “Long live Rivanol,” shouted the best man and, to the booming drum out in the corridor, led a spontaneous line dance, which got a little stuck in the crowded room.

    Goodness knows how but a live cockerel appeared in the hand of the best man.  In his drunken devil-may-care state, the youth waved the bird madly over the crowded relatives. In a second the poor creature suffered a massive shock and a rain of feathers and droppings poured over their heads.

    “Here, grab this knife, Horatio! Kill the cock for the baby’s health!” came the encouraging yell and in the next second a sharp blade cut through the bird’s shrieking throat.

    Hot drops of blood joined the feathers and shit flying through the air. The agonizing headless bird, slipped out of the hands of the unreliable best man and jumped spiralling over the heads of the guests, increasing their screams, which even drowned out the drum beating out a belly dance out in the corridor.

    It took all of Doctor Katastrova’s strength to suppress this spontaneous outbreak, and turn back to concentrate on the suffering mother-to-be.

    “Help us to push this baby out! If it gets stuck, it’ll suffocate!” she yelled at the crazy crowd and began to squeeze the gypsy bride’s tummy.

    The bridegroom’s mother and two aunties joined in pummelling the folds of flesh, as if they were kneading an enormous cheese loaf, and a small bridesmaid, jumped with both feet straight onto her big sister.

    “One!… Two!… Three!…” the doctor ordered and the band took up her beat.

    The gypsy bride, gave a powerful push, and her face got as red as an Easter egg. She was convulsed in pain, but felt that relief was close at hand. Just one more heave, and yet another, and…

    Suddenly from beneath the layers of white cloth and folds of fat, came a continuous roll of thunder, a mixture of non-stop machine gun fire caught in a cheese tin and an erupting volcano, and the air was filled with the sharp smell of fermented beans and sour cabbage.

    The musicians choked and their instruments quickly fell silent, as the crowd of relatives attempted a panic evacuation from the surgery, almost demolishing a wall in the process. Only the terrified bridegroom walked in circles and asked in a high pitched voice:

    “What’s going on? What’s going on? Is there a baby? Is there a baby?

    “No baby!”  Katastrova’s replied, coughing with relief. “Just gases!”

     

     

     


  2. Masochism

    January 4, 2015 by Christopher Buxton

    We’re not a nation

    by Petko Slaveikov translated by Christopher Buxton

     

    We’re not a nation, not a nation, but carrion,

    people who refuse occupation.

    Everything’s heavy, everything hurts us

    “I don’t know! I can’t do it!” sung in one voice.

    We don’t know and we can’t and we’ll not

    work for ourselves in time’s allotment.

    We only know and we can and we will

    Eat each other to our spiteful fill.

    Amongst ourselves we’re bad, rude, irascible

    With others we’re docile, quiet, pliable.

    They still walk over us, whoever comes

    Because we’re inept, all fingers and thumbs.

    Everyone shouts “Curses on our plight!”

    And every ambition is  squashed flat.

     

    We’re not a nation, not a nation, but carrion

    Again I say it, and end my oration.


  3. 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.


  4. 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


  5. 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

    .


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