Books read over the summer


  1. Books read over the summer

    November 25, 2010 by Christopher Buxton

    Alcohol by Kalin Terziski is a powerful autobiographical account of the causes and effects of addiction. Terziski enlivens the daily grind of addiction with lightning flashes of anecdote and powerful emotions, recollected in the tranquillity of his present day self imposed abstinence. His hero is driven by a furious rejection of the moral compromises of his parents’ generation. In a bravura passage he lambasts lives of passive compliance, where the only rewards participation in the banal charades of communism are a monthly visit to a restaurant to eat overcooked pork chops.

    Anyone seeking to understand the generation who spent their youth in the streaked sunset of communist rule, then had to endure its replacement by a kleptocracy, ought to read this book. Terziski casts an uncompromising light on himself, his fellow writers and the grim everyday hospital reality, where he worked as a trainee surgeon and then psychiatrist. For those readers who fear that this will be a depressing read, I can only say that the truth redeems, and the truth is often very funny.

    If Terziski’s condemnation of his parents’ generation seems unfair, Mausoleum by Ruzha Lazarova redresses the balance. In a book that cannot decide whether it is family memoir or novel, Lazarova who lives in France and writes in French has written the most compelling account of life under communism that I have read. Through the experiences of the author, her mother and her grandmother we can chart the evolution of communism through terror, then enforced co-operation, then absurd ritual.

    Shortly after the Russian invasion and “spontaneous” Communist revolution, Lazarova’s grandfather, a promising jazz musician was ordered to present himself at a Ministry Building. He joined unsuspecting fellow musicians and lawyers and was never seen again. Years later Lazarova’s grandmother received official notification that he had been executed as a Bourgeois parasite and enemy of the people.

    Twenty years later Gosho the String, former society violinist, was arrested taken to a labour camp, murdered by inmates and fed to the pigs. His crime was a joke suggesting that the difference between British and Bulgarian postage stamps was that Bulgarian spat on both sides of the stamp.

    The face on Bulgarian stamps at this time was that of Bulgaria’s first Communist leader, Georgi Dimitrov, who was by now embalmed and lying in state in a grandiose concrete bunker opposite the former royal palace in Sofia. Dimitrov had orchestrated the terror from Moscow, before returning to Sofia as an alcoholic, a flaccid instrument in the hands of Stalin’s KGB.

    The mythology of the heroic “Father of the Nation” was mostly based on one event – the 1933 Reichstag Fire trial. The new Nazi government had arrested Dimitrov with two other Bulgarian Communists and had tried to frame them. Dimitrov successfully defended himself and was shipped to Russia as part of a prisoner exchange. There he became head of the Comintern – active in the liquidation of European Communist leaders.

    The Mausoleum in which his body was housed from 1949 becomes the metaphor for Bulgaria under Communist rule. Lazarova evokes the changing attitudes reflected in the experiences of terrified grandmother, frustrated mother/engineer and rebellious daughter (herself).

    The father of the nation loved children of course and so generations of children were rallied by shouting teachers and marched in all weathers into the cold formaldehyde tomb where they had to shuffle past the dead body. The Mausoleum was also the focus of all the joyful time wasting demonstrations in which workers and children celebrated their good socialist fortune by waving flowers and flags at the current politburo and their foreign guests.

    As the years pass the emptiness of these charades becomes yet more apparent. There is a hopeless frustration felt by intelligent citizens forced to agree to lunatic decisions made by incompetent apparatchiks. But even in the 1980s as the failings of a corrupt regime are clear to all fear precludes any significant reaction beyond petty resistance.

    90 year old broadcaster, journalist and informer, Petko Bocharov has published memoirs. In Pictures from Three Bulgarias he provides a series of sharply realised memories from his childhood in Tsarist Bulgaria, his education in the American College, his imprisonment in a Dimitrovgrad mine, his impressions of Communism and post-communism, and his ashamed confession to being turned into an informer for State Security.

    What if on your first day in a Communist labour camp, labelled as a political, you are shown to a narrow bed, which you have to share with a thief/murderer, you leave your stuff including a hunk of bread on the bed as you have to visit the surprisingly clean latrine and when you return you find your bed-mate has eaten your bread?

    Intellectual middle class Bocharov had taken boxing lessons. Success in the fight brought the patronage of the cock of the prison. Bocharov was honoured with a nickname and became his bed-fellow.

    They don’t teach boxing in English schools.

  2. Headaches for Nationalists. Karbovski licks his lips.

    November 19, 2010 by Christopher Buxton

    The week so far: Former Chief Procurator is accused on TV of ordering the successful murders of a judge and prominent lawyer (Procurator angrily denies this from his son’s home in Switzerland); A National Security Boss is nabbed with wads of banknotes (these are bribes paid by international fraudsters in return for inside information, keeping them ahead of police investigation); residents in the ancient city of Nessebur defy police and bulldozers to stop the demolition of their unsightly illegal commercial premises; they collect signatures for the withdrawal of their walled and churched city from the UNESCO list of outstanding historical sites so they will no longer have to suffer irksome restrictions; a group of them even burnt tires scorching the ancient town walls.

    It seems an ideal week for some Bulgarian commentators to dust off all the stereotype adjectives, similes and metaphors of self loathing and revisit the “execrable tribe” version of their peoples’ history.

    Always to be relied upon, Martin Karbovski, that doyen of overheated moral outrage, responded to the Nessebur events by declaring the Bulgarian nation to be unique in its moral turpitude. He imagines future archaeologists digging through piles of rotting chipboard to find the skeleton of a granny with one arm round a broken toilet bowl clutching the Euros extracted from former tourists in need of a pee.

    Karbovski seems to nurture a particular hatred of Grannies. Perhaps in his childhood, he was clawed, spanked and robbed by avaricious old ladies in sinister black robes. Perhaps he was enraged by TV clips of these wizened capitalists weeping over the prospect of losing their livelihoods. And for anyone except Karbovski they do deserve some sympathy. They are hardly big time gangsters. They haven’t polluted the Black Sea coast with hotels resembling railway stations or Disney castles. A chaotic state has allowed them to build tatty stalls and jerry built extensions onto historic houses to attract the tourists that turn Nessebur streets into a heaving logjam each summer. Yes of course these Grannies are after a quick buck and as they collect signatures against UNESCO’s perceived unwarranted interference, they and their grandchildren show scant respect for one of Bulgaria’s few remaining sites of outstanding beauty and historical significance. But ultimately it is the chaotic state that has allowed this situation to develop.

    Negative news seem to pose fewer problems for the extreme nationalist/patriotic press. Desant and SKAT journalists need to reassure their readership that Bulgaria is still a magical country inhabited by a heroic people. So loathing is directed at groups of people that threaten this vision. Western commentators – including the American Ambassador are easily dismissed. They should be too busy killing their children, killing their parents, indulging in homosexual orgies, digging up their dead. How dare the representatives of such decadent cultures dare to offer advice to Bulgaria.

    Politicians, Criminals, Gypsies and Turks are easily identified as enemies of pure Bulgarians. Bai Stoyo has spotted an international multi-cultural conspiracy to “gypsify” the glorious heritage of Ivan Rilski with a flood of chalga.

    What about journalists like Karbovski? Well Desant has splashed a grotesque picture of Martin’s bespectacled face addressing the torso and tits of some headless naked cutie. Readers are told Martin’s friends are homosexuals and take drugs. He rubs shoulders with “gangster” politicians. The fact that these politicians are trying to put gangsters behind bars – albeit ineffectively – is conveniently ignored. Martin Karbovski’s strictures on the actions of Bulgarians are dismissed as the pornographic rantings of a Bulgarophobe. Patriotic journalist feel no need to offer solutions. They have to live with their readership in a country which they scarcely understand.

    So that’s all right then!

  3. Peter and the Wolf

    November 15, 2010 by Christopher Buxton

    An interview on Bulgarian National TV with honourable dissident and former Radio Free Europe correspondent Peter Boyadzhiev has provided an explanation for the puzzling proliferation of nobodies in the 2009 election.

    In Spring 2009, we arrived in Bulgaria by car with fairly well defined hopes and fears for the upcoming election. The ruling Triple Coalition, made up of a seemingly absurd alliance of the Socialists, Tsar’s Party and Turkish Party were being challenged by established opposition parties – extreme Nationalist Party, ATAKA, the flawed Blue Coalition party of Kostov and GERB, a Centre-Right pro-European party put together by the populist Mayor of Sofia, Boyko Borisov.

    What took us by surprise as we drove down Bulgaria’s badly maintained highways were the proliferation of posters urging us to vote for parties and people we had never heard of. WE WANT CHANGE – a suitably empty slogan, deemed by some PR firm to speak directly to the Bulgarian soul – was the brainchild of a couple of businessmen who had formed a party called LEADER. It screamed at us every twenty yards. Who on earth – I wondered – would vote for a couple of nobodies who kept their proposed programme a complete secret? And where on earth or Hell did all the money come from to pay for this meaningless publicity? Slightly more specific were the one issue parties – Yani Yanev of the ORDER, LAW, JUSTICE party was the Martin Bell of the election campaigning against corruption. (It was difficult to find anyone who was not campaigning against corruption.) But at least Yani’s campaign was enlivened by ATAKA trying to smear his whiter than white image with accusations of homosexuality. Then there was a plethora of parties all featuring guns and claiming to be more Patriotic or Militaristic or Macedonian than ATAKA.

    On a local level, known criminals discovered they could be released or have their court cases indefinitely postponed if they stood as independent candidates. I was particularly struck by a poster of an indignant man poking a finger at me with the slogan: STOP THE SHAME. By the time I’d found out he was an ex-football boss whose case of causing death by drunk driving has been put off now for ten years, I’d received an open letter from him, demanding a meeting with the main parties in return for his withdrawal from the election. As if that was going to change anything.

    Well the proof of the pudding is in the eating. None of these independent candidates got elected. Only one of the spanking new parties won enough votes to enter parliament – though LEADER came astonishingly close. ORDER, LAW, JUSTICE did break through – though almost immediately they broke up after a mud fight. Currently Yani Yanev is cosying up to former head of National Security and alleged “Octopus”crime boss Alexei Petrov. So much – some might feel – for the fight against corruption!

    Of the main parties, the Tsar’s party was ousted from Parliament. Thanks to the nostalgia vote, the Socialists became the main opposition party, followed by the Turkish party – always sure of its electorate. ATAKA did less well than expected – especially in its stronghold of Burgas. Since the election the party has split, amid accusations that its leader is a) a traitor; b) a money-grubbing nest-featherer or c) a madman. How sad for the leader whose posters showed him being mobbed by old ladies!

    The Blue Coalition seems to have a new leader – I say “seems” because really there is little doubt that Ivan Kostov is still in charge – desperately trying to appear statesmanlike despite allegations that he has always been a Communist stooge.

    But for the moment none of these parties are of any significance as – for the first time in years – the election delivered a clear-cut winner with an absolute majority. Boyko Borisov is inhibited now only by his fear of losing popularity. This Achilles heel may prove fatal.

    So what light did Peter Boyadzhiev cast on the election? He claims on good authority that all elections since 1990 have been controlled by the old Communist elite. It was the Communists working through their State Security agents who, realising the inevitability of democracy, formed opposition parties and made sure that the leadership of each party was made up of reliable people. According to Boyadzhiev, since 1990 there have been only three governments that did not go according to plan – Philip Dimitrov’s, Jan Videnov’s and now Boyko Borisov’s. Boyko Borisov was not meant to have obtained an outright majority. The money that poured into obscure parties like LEADER was meant to produce a hung parliament.

    What the Communists had relied on – a low turnout in an atmosphere of apathy – was torpedoed by the leader of the Turkish Party Ahmed Dogan. His perceived arrogance brought out the voters and resulted in a GERB landslide.

    And so onto the next development! The popular Home Secretary has been locking horns with the slow, ineffective and some say corrupt legal system in his attempt to see significant criminals punished. He has found a surprising opponent in Yani Yanev, who is trying to undermine him with allegations of petty property fraud. If these allegations prove to be false it will be clear to some that Yanev is simply mud-slinging to the orders of the criminal elite. But the cynicism of a large number of Bulgarians will be confirmed.

    Meanwhile that most groomed of politicians, President Purvanov has announced the setting up of a new party of the Left – one to sideline pursed-lipped former Prime Minister, Stanishev and appeal to younger voters.

    Boyadzhiev claims Purvanov is old-guard Communist through and through and pulls all the State Security strings.

  4. Nikolai Krustev international gentle man

    November 13, 2010 by Christopher Buxton

    Sometime I’ll come into your dreams
    Like an uninvited, unlooked for guest.
    Don’t leave me outside on the street –
    Don’t bolt the doors against me.

    I’ll enter on tip-toe. I’ll approach so gently
    I’ll narrow my eyes to see you in the dark
    And when gorged with gazing at you –
    I’ll kiss you and then be gone.

    Nikola Vaptsarov

  5. How to create your UNESCO status of great albeit largely unread world-class writer and thrive in the heart of the Communist State

    October 25, 2010 by Christopher Buxton

    Historical fiction – a great hiding place for Emilian Stanev

    What would you do? You’re an ambitious erudite writer, you’ve got progressive ideas. You have a quick sympathetic imagination. Just as your short stories are beginning to make an impact, the Communists take over your country.

    You’re not a party member, but someone likes your work. You are not dispatched to break rocks like Dimitur Talev. You’re invited to join the Party. You’re given a dream job managing a hunting estate for privileged comrades who enjoy shooting animals. You like hunting. Why not? It must beat your previous job working for the Sofia Town Hall.

    Your short story The Peach Thief is turned into a film designed to boost Bulgaria’s reputation. It wins enthusiastic plaudits throughout international film festivals. It’s comfortably historical. It is set at the time of the First World War. It is the moving story of a love affair between a Serbian Prisoner of War and the repressed Bulgarian wife of the camp commandant – it establishes your broad internationalist humanist principles. It carries appropriate messages about the evils of imperialist war and the hierarchical sexist class system. The Bulgarian government is keen to bask in your success and you are rewarded. You are made a hero of Socialist Labour.

    You become a Representative in the Communist parliament. It’s expected of you. You represent Dimitrovgrad – ironically the birthplace of the suicidal alcoholic Communist poet, Penyo Penev. You try to take the job seriously, but complain privately of its absurdity, joining in unanimous vote after unanimous vote as required by the Party hierarchy. Anyway you’ve now written Ivan Kondarev – a novel about the 1923 uprising of Peasants against the right wing Tsar’s government. You’ve paid your dues, re-representing recent history to order. You get the Georgi Dimitrov award.

    You’re now over sixty. It’s me-time – time to express all your insights; time to write the great Bulgarian novel. You could be the Bulgaria’s first Nobel laureate. Hell, in neighbouring Greece, Kazantsakis showed you the way. You’ve read Nietzsche too. You’ve got something to say about living in a Godless Universe. But can you get it past the Bulgarian censor?

    Talev has given you the answer. Go deep – back into Bulgarian history. Set your novel in the Middle Ages. Pick a period! The fall of Bulgaria under “the Ottoman Yoke” is a promisingly tragic context for your startling novel about the human condition in extremity. You can get in lots of references to “brave suffering folk”, “duplicitous Boyars” and “dirty barbaric unbelievers”. Your novel’s called “Antichrist”. It sounds reassuringly atheist. That should make the Censor happy.

    But you’ve got to consider your international audience too. So you create a screwed up persona – an anguished monk, caught between God and Devil, celestial light and sexual darkness.

    The Bulgarian alphabet marks the intense episodes in our handsome humourless hero’s journey. It starts with an improbable childhood romance with our hero writing poetry to his school desk-mate, a Turnovo Princess. Inevitably disappointed, he enters a monastery and tries to ignore the attentions of Sodomites. Here he encounters the future Patriarch Evtimi. As a test of his faith he is told to serve a troublesome old monk who does much to heighten our hero’s angst. Even hesychism affords him no solace. He closes his eyes and mouth and finds celestial light. It’s all too easy. It is an irresponsible escape from the real world. Frustrated he joins a community of Bogomils. They’ve got the right idea. The world in all its beauty is Satan’s creation. The hierarchy of Church and State is evil. He settles to a life of earthly pleasures with a woman whose beauty is fatal – he kills two men because of it. Arrested in a purge of heretics and Jews, he witnesses tongues and ears being torn out and is himself flogged and branded and cast out into the wider world. In a somewhat rushed conclusion he finds his purpose in life in a kind of anachronistic patriotism. He kills Turks and treacherous Boyars.

    So that’s all right then. The Censor scratches his hairy stomach and sighs. He has had to wade through a lot of archaic language, misogyny, theological controversy and existential angst to get to the progressive patriotic bit. It’s not an easy read – but that’s what you have to expect from great writers. OK there’s a lot of references to God, the Devil and Jesus – but it is a historical novel. He supposes that most people will buy it, put it on their shelves and then not read it.

    And Communists identify with Bogomils. Communists like their attack on social hierarchy. They don’t realise that in Bogomil eyes, they would appear as much as Pharisees and hypocrites as the Kings, Boyars and Patriarchs of the Middle Ages. The harsh treatment meted out by the powerful mirrors the show trials, executions and labour camps of Communist Bulgaria.

    Well done Emilian! A closer look at your novel reveals an acute critique of life under Communism – especially your account of Monastic life where in a silent world everyone is spying on his brother.

    You didn’t get the Nobel Prize though. Then neither did Kazantzakis. He got pipped to the post by another purveyor of Existential angst – Camus.