Grand Tour #17 – Bulgaria. Street Without a Name / Kapka Kassabova

July 24, 2017

I didn’t set myself strict rules for choosing EU books, but I did make a conscious decision to avoid poetry where possible, poetry being (to my mind) the medium least susceptible to translation, and to favour fiction over non-fiction. So it was that I didn’t read a work of non-fiction until book sixteen (Cyprus); book seventeen (Bulgaria) is not merely non-fiction but also my first non-translated book, having been originally written in English, albeit by a Bulgarian writer and on the subject of Bulgaria. And I must admit, if the objective of this project was to understand what life is like in each book’s country of origin, this book has succeeded better than the preceding sixteen. The book is Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria by Kapka Kassabova.

Kassabova’s book is in two parts, as suggested by the title, the first a chronicle of her childhood in the Bulgaria of the ’70s and ’80s, the second a travelogue by the adult writer, now an émigrée living in Britain, returning to Bulgaria for more or less the first time since her childhood. Her mission in writing the book is to make Bulgaria personal, not just another ‘country without a face’. I’m certainly guilty of laziness in my own conception of Bulgaria. Dour, tough-tackling footballers, poor Georgi Markov and his poison-tipped umbrella, the lev, and, to a lesser extent, the stotinka.

But amazingly there is more to Bulgaria than this, and Kassabova’s observation of small details is telling right from the off, people-watching at Frankfurt Airport as she waits for her flight to Bulgaria, knowing instinctively from their bearing which passengers are Bulgarians and which aren’t. When they touch down in Sofia, the Bulgarians applaud. ‘Bulgarians know not to take anything for granted,’ she writes.

This is 2006, and Bulgaria is on the verge of joining the EU, though the deal hasn’t been sealed yet. Kassabova’s compatriots are understandably anxious. She takes a train journey.

The old man goes to the toilet and returns at once, scandalized.

‘Have you seen the toilet?’ he cries out in anguish. ‘It has to be seen to be believed. No toilet seat, all rusty, stuff all over, words fail me … How are we going to get into Europe with this toilet? Tell me, how!’

Theory: the state of any society’s public toilets is an indicator of its prosperity. (Not that it’s a watertight theory, as anyone who has visited the gents’ at Cambridge station will verify; the old ones, with their sticky floor and mirror walls, were gross, but it’s taken next to no time for the refurbished ones to go the same way. Please spend more of my tax money sorting this out, government. Though it’s the taxpayer’s fault they’re in such a state, isn’t it; incontinent male commuters. I accidentally went into the ladies’ once and it was like Narnia. Where was I.) When young Kapka’s mother accompanies her father on a work visit to Delft University, she is moved to tears by the cleanliness of the public toilets, and too embarrassed to explain why to her husband’s concerned colleague.

Although Kapka’s childhood appears by and large to be a tolerable one – freedom at home, piano lessons, humourless strictness at her state-controlled school with its attendant shadowy threats – it isn’t until her parents return from Delft that the poverty of her country is borne in on her.

They brought records of Western pop music you couldn’t buy in Bulgaria, like Barry Manilow and a two-record album The Best of the Beatles – finally, twenty years late, my father could listen to his favourite band. A pair of tiny wooden clogs, a gift from my father’s Dutch colleague, which took pride of place in our living-room. A tin of salted, peeled peanuts. We had peanuts, of course, but they were unprocessed and sold on street stalls. Someone in Holland had shelled, peeled and salted these peanuts especially for us. A giant packet of raisins. There were no raisins in Bulgaria, only grapes. Next, an electric blue T-shirt for me with a girl doing aerobics printed on it, and orange trousers with multiple pockets, in which I felt ultra-cool. In fact, wearing these clothes made me feel so obviously Western that I imagined the envious eyes of all Sofia were on me.

Western! To Kapka, even Libya seems a Western dreamland (the atlas confirms it), a place where lavish and exotic presents are brought from. Kapka turns sixteen in the momentous year of 1989 – the Berlin Wall comes down, the Ceaușescus are executed, and the Communist regime in Bulgaria ends. Before too long, she emancipates herself.

The toilets may not have improved in the post-Communist thaw, but how are other things on Kapka’s return? Well, the phrase plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose comes to mind. The arrival of Western accoutrements has not altered the character of the country or its people. Who would have guessed capitalism wasn’t the answer, that moderate monetary prosperity does not automatically translate into happiness.

I, being me, was less interested in the places and people adult Kapka visits than in her own reactions to the remnants of her past. The pang of nostalgia on returning to Plovdiv to find her beloved semolina cake restaurant closed, or to the coastal town of Balchik, scene of idyllic childhood holidays, to find it eroded away, irrevocably changed. The bittersweet experience of returning to a childhood home, something one once thought one’s own property, now modified beyond recognition.

At the end of the book, Kassabova quotes the 19th-century travel writer Felix Kanitz, who observed that a journey through Bulgaria is ‘marked at each turn by the catacombs of disappeared peoples and eras’. That comes across strongly during the travelogue section of Kassabova’s book. She writes apologetically at the start that the portrait she will sketch of modern Bulgaria is ‘almost never flattering’, but it is at any rate honest and sympathetic, and enlightening.

Grand Tour #16 – Cyprus. Immoral Tales / Andreas Karayan

July 7, 2017

To Cyprus. My choices were limited: either a book of short stories I had read an indifferent review of (£15) or an erotic memoir (£4). Naturally I went for the latter, thinking that if it wasn’t very good I might at least get an erection out of it. On that front, mission very much not accomplished. (Not that I’d tell you if it had been, my attitude being that I will take every opportunity to talk of erections in the abstract, but will decline to discuss my own under any circumstances.)

Where was I? Oh yes, I read a book. The ungainlily titled Immoral Tales: London – Alexandria: A Coming of Age Erotic Odyssey by Andreas Karayan, edited by Peter Archer and translated by Antoine Bohdjalian. Karayan writes in Greek, I believe, but is of Armenian extraction, as (judging by the name) might be his translator. The book, though, takes place in Greece and Cyprus and (mainly) London and Alexandria. A chronicle of a peripatetic existence.

From the title (and the cover, which I suspect is by Karayan himself, an artist by profession) you might expect a torrid, shameful trawl through illicit basement-room bonks I have known. Banish this image from your mind. It’s an altogether more circumspect and tender book than that.

The first part takes place mainly (to my delight) against the backdrop of cultural London in the late 1960s and early 1970s, where young Andreas and his wife Eleonora, a promising pianist, are living. She is studying with Rose Inlander-Gover, a grande dame of London pianism, and they encounter people like the young Kiri Te Kanawa, David Hockney and the like. Andreas is studying art and spends a lot of time in museums, and his method of storytelling has perhaps a parallel with something like Seurat’s ‘Bathers at Asnières’, one of the paintings he loves to contemplate in the National Gallery. The picture of his life is built up from pointillistic portraits of people, moments, disagreements, affairs. One friend, Martin:

I noticed him at the college – rather scruffy, slim and wiry. His chest showed beneath his unbuttoned shirt. With his dark blond hair, he looked like The Little Prince. We met one Friday and, after I found myself penniless and unable to get home, he immediately gave me all the change he had for his evening meals. He came from another world, the world of Public Schools, which we knew about only from television. His father was the Queen’s secretary and, as a boy, he went with his parents to tea parties at the Palace. Around him, people stood to attention in uniforms decorated with gold. Protocol dictated all.

Andreas and Eleonora grow gradually apart as he comes to accept his attraction to men. His witnessing of a kiss between James Laurenson and Ian McKellen as Gaveston and Edward in a BBC adaptation of Edward II is one of a number of significant moments in his ‘odyssey’ of self-discovery.

After a brief excursion into Germany and Cyprus, for part of which the author appears to assume the persona of his own lover, the second half of the book is devoted to Alexandria, a love letter to a changing city inspired partly by Karayan’s adoration of Lawrence Durrell and C.P. Cavafy (whose poems he has translated). This section reads as the work of a maturer writer than the first, the erotic episodes more assured, more taken for granted, though still full of wonder. I like the unfloridity of Karayan’s writing about sex. Not that sex is the point. Alexandria is the point, the place his life has been leading towards. Again, a picture of the place is built up through vignettes, some Karayan’s own, some the stories of his friend and/or lover Adham, told to Karayan and preserved here.

This book is a ragbag, incoherent and lacking structure. So far, so lifelike. There were a couple of things that impressed me particularly: one was the organic feeling of Karayan’s frequent allusions to art. Art is his passion, his obsession, and he sees it everywhere. Too often in other authors I see artistic, literary and musical allusions that feel tacked on, mere status symbols. (Michael Cunningham, I may be talking about you.) That’s not the case here. The other was the translation, which reads as naturally as if the book had been originally written in English. Antoine Bohdjalian, I salute you.

Grand Tour #15 – Greece. Kassandra and the Wolf / Margarita Karapanou

June 28, 2017

‘I’ll tell you the one about the Birdman,’ I said. ‘The Birdman lived on a high mountain and loved the Fishwoman very much. But they could never manage to meet each other, you see, because he couldn’t get in the water and she couldn’t fly. That’s why the Bird always flew over the sea, and the Fish always followed in the waves, until, finally, the Bird covered it and became its Shadow. Before that none of us had a Shadow. We walked about quite plain and we were cold too. But from that time on, the Shadow was born, and now we all have one to keep us company.’

I’ll be honest, I hadn’t been looking forward especially to this stretch of the journey. Just because modern Greek writers aren’t widely read down my way, I’d probably assumed the place had been a cultural wasteland for the past two and a half millennia. It turns out I was wrong: there is at least one book written in Greece during that period that is worth reading, and it is Margarita Karapanou’s Kassandra and the Wolf (Η Κασσάνδρα και ο Λύκος), which I read in the translation by N.C. Germanacos. I fell head over heels in love with it.

Karapanou’s book dates from 1974, when she was 28. It consists of a series of 56 short chapters, vignettes in the life of a six-year-old girl, Kassandra. A picture is built up of Kassandra’s life, which mainly takes place in Greece where she is cared for by her grandparents, her mother being in Paris and her father absent. It feels in some ways like a privileged childhood. ‘Grandmother strolls around the parlor, showing me the ancestors,’ says Kassandra. The servants and visiting grandees put me in mind of a favourite film of mine, Carlos Saura’s Cría cuervos, also about a young girl’s interior life.

From a chapter about Christmas:

On Saturday nights, Miss Benbridge tells me the miracles in order. Last night it was the turn of the bread rolls and fish. Which is why I am now swallowing the bread and melting with sweetness. I make little girls and seat them around the table to keep me company. I put myself among them too, and we look at each other. I make compliments to them so that they’ll love me. We all stare at the snow together, our hair is freshly brushed and drawn back, we’re wearing pink ribbons, and we smell of soap.

Although the tone is always that of a child, the chapters vary widely in subject matter, ranging from the quotidian (a trip to the cinema to watch The Red Shoes, an elocution lesson to cure Kassandra’s silence) to the fantastical. A game of hide-and-seek with a boy, Zakoúlis, ends after three days when Zakoúlis is belatedly discovered, having shrunk to the size of an olive. Later, after being read The Turn of the Screw as a bedtime story, Kassandra is visited by its characters.

At night, Flora and Miles come to my room. Bending over, the Governess covers me with her wet hair. I’ve made friends with them.

It’s impossible to write about the book without at some point confronting its great darkness (Karapanou herself called it ‘a scary monster of a book’), and The Turn of the Screw may be a useful reference point, as another book with a menace whose precise nature is obscure. The main antagonist of Kassandra and the Wolf (as with The Turn of the Screw) is a Peter, in this case Kassandra’s grandmother’s servant. Peter is an unpindownable presence, at times a playmate of Kassandra, his gender fluidity the conduit for a game in which she plays at being a lady, at others a sexual threat. Sex is a frequent theme, occasional as innocent sex play or as childish misunderstanding of sex (Kassandra finds Peter having sex with the maid Faní but doesn’t comprehend what she sees), but more often as something that can only be read as sexual abuse. As Miles identifies Peter Quint as the devil, so Kassandra identifies Peter to her uncle as the son of the Devil.

It is at the times she talks about sex that Kassandra relies most heavily on the language of metaphor and fantasy. That’s the way it has to be, perhaps: children’s ignorance of sex means they do not have the words to describe it. I remembered Claude Barras’s marvellous animated film My Life as a Courgette (Ma vie de Courgette), which I saw a few weeks ago, in which the children’s incomplete concept of sex is manifested in their talk of exploding willies: ‘Tu t’es fait exploser le zizi!’

What is the wolf of the title? There are wolves in the book, but the wolf might just as easily be a metaphorical one, like the opoponax in Monique Wittig’s book of that name. Perhaps the wolf is a personification of sexuality. Although Kassandra is not so traumatised by her abuse that she cannot talk about it (however obliquely), it may be the root of her disturbing behaviour elsewhere. There is a chapter in which she looks after with great care a kitten she has been lent but, confronted with the prospect of losing it at the end of the week, she begins to torture it systematically, and finally kills it. I felt quite desolate on reading it. Could it be just another fantasy?

This morning I woke up in bed and ran off to Grandmother to tell her the nice dream I’d had, but then I remembered that Grandmother had forbidden me to dream the dreams I like, so I’m keeping it secret.

A disturbing book, then, but one whose blurring of fantasy and reality felt to me as accurate a representation of the non-representational nature of memory as anything I’ve read. It really blew my mind.

For those who have read and loved it, or for those whose interest is piqued by what I’ve written, I must recommend this fascinating round-table discussion of the book and of Karapanou’s work more widely. One of the panel is Nick Germanacos, the translator of this volume.

Grand Tour #14 – Croatia. Baba Yaga Laid an Egg / Dubravka Ugrešić

June 21, 2017

What do we, i.e. I, know of Baba Yaga? Well, this.

And only this. (The image on the video shows Viktor Hartmann’s illustration of Baba Yaga’s hut, which was Mussorgsky’s inspiration.) But not any more! Now I know all sorts of things about her, thanks to Dubravka Ugrešić’s book Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (Baba Jaga je snijela jaje), translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać, Celia Hawkesworth and Mark Thompson.

The book is in three parts, the first of which is told by a woman looking after her elderly mother in Zagreb and amounts to a sort of comedy of obstinacy, and the second of which is a longer narrative about three women (of whom one, Pupa, may be the friend of the aged mother in the first story) descending on a spa hotel and getting up to various mischiefs. The third part is a commentary on the first two written by an Eastern European academic, Dr Aba Bagay (aha! tricks), looking at the Baba Yaga myth in some depth and its use in the two narratives specifically.

What happens is easy enough to follow, but the directionlessness of the plot, particularly in the first part, means it’s difficult to make sense of, and for that reason I found it a frustrating book to read. That’s in spite of its lively humour, which is abundant in the second part and translates excellently into English.

Example: Kukla, one of the trio of women, is taken golfing by an American gentleman, Mr Shaker, but inadvertently kills him by hitting him in the mouth with a golf ball.

‘Heart attack!’ announced Dr Topolanek.

And then, smoothing his hair, ruffled by an invisible fan, he turned to Kukla and added:

‘I do hope that this disagreeable incident will not have put you off golf forever. Golf is an exceptionally fine sport.’

The spa’s resident masseur is the sweet-natured Mevlo, a young man who as a result of an injury sustained in the Yugoslav Wars has a permanent erection. ‘Just look at it, it’s stuck and it won’t go down,’ he says to no one in particular. When, following several years of rigidity, he goes soft, you can sense it is the result of some kind of magic.

But just what kind of magic, and what it means, isn’t clear, and so I leapt on the commentary section with something approaching ardour. It begins excellently, and informatively.

Baba Yaga lives in a forest, or on the edge of a forest, in a cramped little hut that stands on hen’s legs and turns around on the spot. She has one skeleton-leg (‘Baba Yaga, bony leg!’), dangling breasts that she dumps on the stove or hangs over a pole, a long sharp nose that knocks against the ceiling (nos v potolok ros), and she flies around in a mortar, rowing herself through the air with a pestle, wiping away her traces with a broom.

Increasingly, though, I got tired of the folklore too. I felt like the first section’s narrator, who rails, ‘If there was something I could not abide, it was folklore and the people who studied folklore. Folklorists were inane, they were academic infants.’ Dr Bagay, summing up at the end of the book, writes, ‘In some places you sighed with boredom.’ You got that right, I thought.

To what extent, I wondered, is the reader meant to take the commentary at face value? I thought of my beloved Pale Fire, where the reader is constantly conscious that games are being played and that the commentary is unreliable. With the commentary here, even the far-fetched claims about world mythology, for instance that ‘The Empusa is a female demon with one leg of iron and the other made of donkey excrement’, check out. Does it clarify or illuminate the stories? Not really. At the end it turns suddenly into a feminist rallying cry, which is something I am always glad to get behind, but that doesn’t quite excuse the mixture of bafflement and boredom that has preceded it. Is it really credible that the book is a satire on the demonisation of women? I’ve probably missed the point as usual.

The weirdness sometimes saves it, the diversions provided by an impromptu disquisition on depictions of women and parrots in art, or Beba’s fevered dream in which she is besieged by eggs, ‘arrogant high-protein bastards’. Still, it’s not a book I can imagine wanting to read again.

14 countries down, 14 to go, and still on schedule. If you’ve been reading these write-ups, thank you for your indulgence. I tell myself I’m not writing them for an audience, but that’s just to console myself in the event of there not being one. And so far, so good. Germany and Austria especially successful, and there is some good-looking stuff coming up shortly. Grotesquerie, fairytales, sexy sex books. Something for everyone.