Author Archives: admin

About admin

"Origin, resume - all nonsense! We all come from some small town Jüterbog or Königsberg and in some Black Forest we will all end" (Gottfried Benn) Therefore just a stenogram: Thomas Huebner, born in Germany, studied Economics, Political Science, Sociology, German literature, European Law. Consulting firm in Bulgaria. Lived in Germany, Bulgaria, Albania, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Indonesia and Jordan. Now residing in Prishtina/Kosovo. Interested in books and all other aspects of human culture. Traveler. Main feature: intellectual curiosity

Fatherland

Ähnliches Foto

Counterfactual history, i.e. the question “what would have happened if …” the events would not have taken the well-known historical, but another conceivable path, has become in recent years – at least according to my impression – an increasingly popular narrative vehicle in literary fiction. The Nazi era in particular seems to be a prolific territory for this genre, just think of works as diverse as Philip Roth’s “Conspiracy against America”, Timur Vermes’ “Look Who’s Back” or Robert Harris’ “Fatherland”, the work I am reviewing here.

Harris, until then known as a journalist and non-fiction author, reported in detail for the press in the Anglo-Saxon countries about the “Hitler diaries”, which the German magazine “Stern” had “discovered” in the 80s. (These diaries proved of course to be a hoax, and it is difficult to understand how anyone could in all seriousness believe in the authenticity of these amateurishly made up “diaries”.) In the course of his preoccupation with this period, Harris wondered how Europe would have looked like if the Nazis would have achieved their war goals. The result was his first novel “Fatherland”, published in 1992.

Berlin, 1964: The Nazis have won WWII and have created a Europe dominated by the Greater German Reich. The borders of the Reich extend to the Urals, behind which the remains of the Soviet Union, with which there are still border skirmishes, has withdrawn. While 11 million Jews have been “resettled” and then disappeared without a trace (nobody dares to ask questions about this topic), and the Slavic population has been decimated and turned into slave laborers, millions of Germans have taken over the conquered territories in the framework of a huge resettlement program. In these newly conquered territories however, dissatisfaction is rising and partisan raids have reached an increasingly dangerous level. The European Union, a creation of Nazi Germany and of course dominated by it, has its headquarters in Berlin; its members are independent only by name but de facto satellite states of Nazi Germany; a separate peace was concluded with Great Britain and the USA; the only remaining free country on the European continent is Switzerland. Berlin, which has been fundamentally redesigned by Speer according to Hitler’s megalomanic plans, is preparing for the celebrations of the dictator’s 75th birthday (Harris follows in his novel until about 1942 the actual biographies of the Nazi elite and then switches on his “counterfactual mode”.). While some notable Nazi officials such as Goering or Himmler are already dead in the novel, others such as Goebbels – who still requires attractive actresses to come to him for an “audition” – or Heydrich, Hitler’s potential successor, who controls the Gestapo and SD apparatus, are still in office. 

This is the backdrop in front of which the plot unfolds, and in the beginning the reader seems to be in a classic detective novel. The corpse of an old man is pulled from a lake near Berlin. Both the identity of the man and the cause of death are initially unknown and it looks first like a routine case for the responsible investigator of the criminal police, detective Xavier March.

However, the peculiarities accumulate in the framework of the investigation, and the experienced March smells soon that there is something fishy about this case (I want to avoid spoilers and will therefore not convey too much of the plot). Having established the identity of the dead – it is a Nazi of the first hour – and March, thanks to the conspiratorial assistance of an old friend who now works in the gigantic party archives, discovers a startling parallel with the recent deaths of other prominent Nazis. The traces of all these deaths lead back to the year 1942, to a villa on the Wannsee, where the organization of the so-called “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was discussed. Could it be that Heydrich wants to cover up all traces and kill all surviving participants of this conference? And why is March suddenly crossing paths on more than one occasion with Odilo Globocnik, the sadistic and brutal bloodhound of Heydrich? Why is an important eyewitness suddenly dead? Is it all somehow connected with the planned meeting between Hitler and US President Joseph Kennedy (the anti-Semite and father of John F. Kennedy)? After all, since the announcement of a planned pact between Nazi Germany and the United States, the popularity of the US president in the polls has increased so much that his re-election seems certain. (The US Ambassador in Berlin, Charles Lindbergh, also a Nazi sympathizer, certainly is the right man in the right place in Harris’ novel.) Of course, the sudden emergence of documents that prove the full extent of the Holocaust, would be in such a sensitive situation diplomatically more than inconvenient.

The case is withdrawn from March, who is supposed to not uncover the truth; and he becomes a target of the State Police himself; nevertheless, March keeps on investigating in secret and discovers what is at the bottom of all these cases; the situation becomes increasingly dangerous for March, but he has no choice…

The plot is not all that matters in Fatherland. The protagonist of the book who is formally belonging to the SS, but who in the past has been plagued by doubts about the official party line and politics, is increasingly removing himself from the regime he has served for many years. The description of this process is almost as exciting and convincing as the thriller plot itself.

Fatherland is an absolute page turner; after I started reading, I could not put the book down until I had finished it. I do not want to say that this is a literary masterpiece, but it’s a very entertaining and exciting read and for some readers also the documents about the Wannsee conference in the novel may be something new.

The book has some weaknesses: first of all, the absolutely impossible name of the main character and the very clichéd female protagonist and love-interest of March, an American journalist (here Harris seems to have been already too much preoccupied regarding the later movie) are not convincing.

However, the book is really exciting and you can tell that the author has done his homework regarding the Nazi era and its ideology. The strongest part of the book for me is when Harris describes the leaden, nightmarish atmosphere in Berlin in 1964; the mistrust and fear in which people live in this totalitarian society; the instrumentalization of even the closest family ties (exemplified by the betrayal of March by his own son); the suppression of truth and historical facts and the self-censorship of thoughts. There is nothing great about the victorious Greater German Reich, beyond the dimensions of a deeply inhuman architecture, which aims at intimidation, the demonstration of absolute power, and the reduction of the masses to a mere ornament.

All in all, and despite the weaknesses mentioned, a worthwhile and entertaining book that encourages the reader to learn more about the Nazi era and totalitarian dictatorships in general. 

Robert Harris: Fatherland, Arrow Books 2017

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

New Social Poetry: an interview with Vladimir Sabourin

“New Social Poetry” is a Bulgarian literary movement, created in 2016 in Sofia. The first publication of this group, the “Manifesto of the New Social Poetry” has caused a lot of controversial discussions due to the outspoken rhetoric of the text against the so-called “peaceful transition” in Bulgaria, a period after the official end of communism that can be characterized, among others, by a continuity of old elites and their representatives in the cultural sphere.

In an essay collection “Towards a New Social Poetry” by the group’s founder, Vladimir Sabourin, the author offers his analysis of the situation of Bulgarian poetry and the conditions in which it is created today; recent developments related to the prestigious “Literary Journal” (Literaturen Vestnik) were for him obviously the trigger to create this new poetic movement. In the short time since its foundation, the group has held many public readings all over Bulgaria, started a successful journal “New Social Poetry“, and has already a number of book publications in Bulgarian and in translation, of which beside the “Manifesto” and the essay book also an almanach (“New Social Poetry – the Anthology“) are available in English. Reason enough for me (TH) to conduct an interview with the group’s founder, Vladimir Sabourin (VS).

 

TH: Vladimir, you once said that you are not a Bulgarian poet, but a poet who writes in Bulgarian. What did you mean by that and why is this distinction important to you?

VS: I come from a mixed marriage, my mother is Bulgarian, my father Cuban of French origin. I grew up as non-accepted, as stranger, “nichtdazugehörig” as the Germans say, both on the part of the Bulgarians and on the part of the Cubans. Writing, poetry is a homeland that nobody can challenge. I write in a minor language, but I do not share the self-contemptuous image the Bulgarians have of themselves and their language. In the major literary languages, it is perfectly natural to write in a language to which you ethnically don’t belong. I consider the language in which I write a major literary language.

TH: My personal impression as a reader (and occasional translator) of Bulgarian poetry is that many – even well-known – Bulgarian poets write “naive” poetry. I do not mean that in a denigrating sense, but rather as an expression of the fact that it is often not clear to me if these poets are familiar with the spectrum and variety, the history and formal language of modern poetry. Compared to that, your poems left a very different impression on me. Looking at your poetic development, what were the main influences for you? In what tradition do you see yourself as a poet?

VS: Your impression corresponds to a reality, already commented by the first major Bulgarian modernist poet Pencho Slaveykov at the beginning of the last century. It is extremely important to understand however that this is today a reality nurtured by state institutions for both internal and external use. If you like, this can be described as a state-sponsored reality that aims at building a pseudo-identity, just like for exports such as yoghurt. The great modern poets are a problem for this country, they are either just murdered (Geo Milev, Nikola Vaptsarov) or hushed up. Does anyone outside of a small circle in Bulgaria – not to mention outside the country – know Zlatomir Zlatanov or Ani Ilkov? The image of Bulgarian poetry continues to be built on the “naive”, “natural”, even when it is just a marketing trick, adapted to foreign expectation. This expectation is disparaging, and the fitting to it is a testimony of a deep inferiority complex. – In the Bulgarian poetry my teachers are Ani Ilkov and Zlatomir Zlatanov, in the foreign-language poetry in the first place Bertolt Brecht.

TH: Your recent collection of poems “Trotsky’s Remains“, which has been compiling your poetic work since the early 1990s, has been self-published. Why?

VS: My first poetic book was self-published, 25 years later I am again in the position of having to release a collection of my poems myself. From an existential point of view, this is a stoic amor fati. Sociologically, it is a textbook example for the omerta, in which the “naivety” of Bulgarian literature flourishes in a publishing landscape, which is dependent on the initial accumulation of capital with – to say the least – dubious origin. The large publishers are an integral part of the state-capitalist oligarchic model, the small ones are dependent on state subsidies that nurture the ideology of “naivety”. At the end of the day, my conscience as author is clear and none of my books has been published within this framework. For this autonomy, without which there is no modern poetry, I have to thank my parents Jesús Sabourín and Margarita Drenska and my friend and literary brother-in-arms Ventsislav Arnaoudov.

TH: You are not only a poet, but also a congenial translator of poetry. Which poets have you translated and what does translation mean to you?

VS: When I can’t write poetry, I translate poetry. I see translations as an integral part of my own poetry, as Ezra Pound does. And with my translations I am facing the same kind of omerta as with my own poetry, but my personal blog is some sort of “collected translations-in-progress”, including Bertolt Brecht, Fernando Pessoa, Heiner Müller, Jorge Manrique, Nicanor Parra, Rainer Maria Rilke, Roberto Bolaño, Sarah Kirsch, Sylvia Plath, Vicente Huidobro, Virgilio Piñera, Archilochus, Velimir Chlebnikov, Joseph Brodsky, Hugo Ball, Ezra Pound…

Manifesto

TH: Some time ago you wrote a “Manifesto of the New Social Poetry” and a collection of essays “Towards a New Social Poetry: Aesthetico-political Theses”; almost at the same time, a literary group “New Social Poetry” has established itself and there is now also a literary magazine of the same name. What is the “Manifesto” about and what motivated you to write it?

VS: In the summer of 2016 something like “privatization”, in fact another theft of communal property with legal means happened, concerning the most important literary periodical after 1989 – the “Literary Journal” (Literaturen Vestnik). The current editorial team of the newspaper discarded its creators (who in the 1990’s had invited them as editors), ending a long-standing process of corporate academic and literary adhesion, destroying the radical political nature of the “Literary Journal”. As an author, I grew up in the “Literary Journal” during its radical-political phase. Its “privatization” by a corporation of university departments was the drop that made the glass overflow for me. What happened with the “Literary Journal” was another example of the misappropriation of communal property, which characterized the entire “peaceful transition” from socialism to capitalism in Bulgaria. The ongoing deterioration of “Literary Journal” is evident recently in the case of Julia Kristeva – after her unmasking as a former agent of the Bulgarian State Security*, the newspaper should have asked her to withdraw from the Editorial Board of the journal. But they did not. The “Manifesto” turns against this adhesion of unscrupulous academic power and literature.

New Social Poetry

TH: There were – as probably with every new group of poets – a few “faction fights” and splits or resignations within the “New Social Poetry” group. In the meantime, however, the group, according to my impression, is developing a lively activity, which is not limited to just the mentioned magazine. I am thinking of the readings and the book publications. Maybe you can say a few words about that?

VS: The central issue of the “Manifesto” is the revival of literary life after nearly two decades of literary “peaceful transition.” Since the autumn of 2016, when we founded the group “New Social Poetry,” there was a dynamic in the literary field that we had forgotten since the end of the period of political radicality of the 1990s. What’s happening inside our group is part of this dynamics. I like your analogy with the factional divisions and struggles typical of radical political movements. “New Social Poetry” is an avant-garde group that wants to bring back political radicalism to literary life, it is logical to apply this principle within the group as well. Not despite, but rather thanks to the “factional struggles”, we managed to make our first national tour with readings in Varna, Burgas, Plovdiv, Stara Zagora and Sofia in less than a year. At the same time, we issued two anthologies in English and French – at the self-publishing platform CreateSpace – New Social Poetry: The Anthology (translation by Christopher Buxton) and Nouvelle poésie sociale: L’Anthologie (translation by Krasimir Kavaldjiev).

TH: Who are your most important “comrades-in-arms” in the “New Social Poetry“? Are there any interesting young talents beside the established names?

VS: Unlike the predominant economic individualism in the Bulgarian literary circles, which is a reflection of the social misery of personal survival in the poorest country in the EU, we believe in the effectiveness of solidarity. There is no authentic avant-garde without joint action. The word “comrades-in-arms” is accurate – we are in war with the status quo of the “peaceful transition”. I’m mockingly referred to as a Latin American guerrillero, ok, that’s what I am. I am happy to work with Ventsislav Arnaoudov, Kiril Vassilev, Vania Valkova, Christina Vassileva, Alexander Nikolov, Nikolay Fenerski, Ivan Marinov. More recently, the young poet and editor of the magazine A. Nikolov, barely reaching the age of majority, published his debut poetic book “fairness.” Take a look also at his peer, Michaela Angelova, who debuted in our magazine, and whose poem “Time is a Man” is published in the anthologies.

TH: What are the plans for the near future? Your own and those of the group “New Social Poetry“?

VS: We are currently working on the Spanish translation of our anthology, I think in the summer I’m going to have her translated into German. My plan is to blow up the “peaceful transition” with the “New Social Poetry”.

TH: One last question: Which Bulgarian book with poetry would you like to see translated in English?

VS: Kiril Vassilev’s Provinces (Small Stations Press 2015)

TH: Vladimir, thank you for this interview.

 

All three titles (New Social Poetry – the Anthology, Towards a New Social Poetry, and Manifesto for a New Social Poetry are translated in English by Christopher Buxton and were published at CreateSpace in 2018)

*Julia Kristeva denies these allegations; according to her, the whole dossier with several hundred pages, which was published online by the Dossier Commission that deals with the State Security files, is a fabrication with the aim to tarnish her reputation.

Introduction, questions and translation of the interview from the German/Bulgarian original by Thomas Hübner.

This interview was first published at the blog of Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, June 13, 2018 for #BulgarianLiteratureMonth.

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 


Two Books on the Ottoman/Turkish Heritage in Bulgaria

The territory of what is today the Republic of Bulgaria was for more than five centuries part of the Ottoman Empire and I think it is fair to say that the fight for liberation from what Bulgarians call either the “Ottoman Yoke“ or “Ottoman Slavery” is until today a defining moment for the identity of most ethnic Bulgarians.

Nations are, as Benedict Anderson puts it in his famous book, “Imagined Communities”. And the community called “Bulgarians” is defined not so much by historical events as they really took place, or by what certain historical figures (such as Vasil Levski or Hristo Botev) really did, and by what it meant in a strictly historical perspective, but more by the image Bulgarians have of these events and personages, the narrative that they learn in school or via the media. Hence the trend to mythologize the fight for liberation in the 19th century, hence the permanent exaggeration and distortion of certain historical facts, and the glossing over of others that don’t fit in the narrative that is generally accepted, but that is maybe not factually accurate. This is of course nothing specific to Bulgaria, it could be said for the national identity of all nation states: they are based on these kind of “constructs”. I have at least read a dozen Bulgarian novels, starting from Ivan Vazov’s “Under the Yoke”, to Anton Donchev’s famous (many say infamous) “Time of Parting”, to the remarkable more recent novel by Milen Ruskov “Uprising”, that deal in one way or the other with the liberation fight, or the relation of Bulgarians and Turks in the time of the Ottoman Empire. And the same can be said of Bulgarian Cinema: three of the biggest Box Office hits of the last years had exactly the same topic – the Bulgarian liberation fight in the 19th century.

But while these events that are formative to the Bulgarian identity seem to be part of the distant past, Bulgarians and Turks live still together in today’s Bulgaria. The material heritage of the Ottoman Empire, in the form of the remaining buildings from that time, as well as the people of Turkic origins (Turks, Gagauz, Tatars) that are living in comparatively peaceful coexistence with their ethnically Bulgarian neighbors in the country, are present, not past. When I say “comparatively peaceful” it means that there have been conflicts, especially in the time of communism when a ruthless policy of forced assimilation was introduced: Muslims (including Roma and Pomaks), as well as the non-Muslim Gagauz had to change their names, celebration of religious feasts was banned as well as the speaking of Turkish, and hundreds of thousands of Bulgarian citizens of Turkish origin were forced to leave Bulgaria and were stripped of their citizenship in 1989, just a few months before the (formal) end of communism rule in Bulgaria. A wave of terrorist acts (at least some of them perpetrated by the communist State Security) and self-immolations took place in the 1980’s, and while after the changes in the 1990’s these people were at least given back their citizenship and their own names, the relation between ethnic Bulgarians and Turks remains still strained and is frequently used by different political groups to incite ethnic unrest or even hatred.

As a country with great religious and ethnic diversity, Bulgaria should consider its material heritage from the Ottoman times as well as the diversity of people, ethnicities and religions that live in the country and are Bulgarian citizens as a treasure, not as a threat to some old-fashioned concept of nationalism.

For English-speaking readers I can heartily recommend two books that deal with the Turkish/Ottoman heritage of Bulgaria. A Guide to Ottoman Bulgaria by Dimana Trankova, Anthony Georgieff and Hristo Matanov (Vagabond Media 2012) takes the reader on a journey all over Bulgaria that leads to the mosques in Sofia, Samokov, Shumen, Plovdiv, Razgrad and Stara Zagora, but also to lesser known Ottoman buildings and traces in Gotse Delchev, Vidin, Ruse, Silistra, Belogradchik, Varna, Suvorovo and Uzundzhovo. A special chapter deals with Ottoman bridges (bridges similar to those described in Ivo Andric’s Bridge over the Drina or Ismail Kadare’s Three-Arched Bridge), and also with Ottoman fountains and abandoned mosques. The combination of highly knowledgeable text and beautiful photographs makes this book much more than another coffee table book. I am quite sure that most readers of this book will feel tempted to immediately undertake a tour to some of these buildings. The cover shows the so-called Devil’s Bridge at the Arda River in the Rhodopes.) Some photos from the book can be found here.

Turks of Bulgaria

While the previous book deals with the material heritage of the Ottomans, The Turks of Bulgaria (2012) is about the non-material heritage of the Ottomans in Bulgaria, the people and their history and culture. Chapters on history, including the forcible Bulgarisation campaigns against Turks already mentioned above; culture; folklore; religion; cuisine; music and dance; language. There is a detailed chapter on Pomaks (Bulgarophone Muslims) and Gagauz (Christian Turks), and the book is like the first one richly illustrated.

Vagabond Media is doing a terrific job in documenting the immense cultural heritage of Bulgaria in beautiful editions that combine high-quality photography with excellent essays that guide the reader. Titles like “A Guide to Jewish Bulgaria”, “The Bulgarians” (a book that I reviewed some time ago here), “A Guide to Thracian Bulgaria”, or “A Guide to Communist Bulgaria” , to mention just a few, make people aware what an incredible cultural richness Bulgaria represents, but they also document buildings that are frequently endangered and in disrepair. And in some cases, like with many of the buildings from Communist Bulgaria, it is rather obvious that in a few years’ time, all that will remain from them will be photos and books.

In any case, the books of Vagabond Media (and the high-end journal Vagabond too) are an excellent source for anyone with an interest in Bulgarian culture and architectural heritage. 

This review was first published at Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, 12 June, 2018 for #BulgarianLiteratureMonth.

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The White Coast

Balchik is a small coastal town at the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, approximately 30 kilometers north of Varna. A century ago, it was not much more than a fishing village, but its natural location at a small bay, its Mediterranean climate and its picturesque houses and small streets made it a magnet for the Romanian aristocracy and also for many artists – there was even a rather famous “Balchik School of Painting”. The painters came here during the long summer, hunting for motives and enjoying a carefree and relaxed lifestyle at this small Black Sea town.

Wait a moment, did I say “Romanian aristocracy”? Yes, indeed – some parts of North Eastern Bulgaria belonged to Romania in the period between 1913 and 1940, and therefore Balchik was for a few decades the most popular destination in Romania for these people in summer. Visitors who come to Balchik today – and you should visit the place once you come to the Bulgarian Black Sea coast – will see the impact this Romanian period had on the town until today.

Balchik

Balchik is a popular tourist destination because of the Palace of the Romanian Queen Maria (this Palace is indeed more like a small summer residence), and the small number of buildings attached to it, amongst which a minaret stands out that gives the place a bit of an “oriental” atmosphere. There is also a marble throne on the beach in front of the Palace, a favorite spot of the Queen from which she could look out at the Black Sea, waiting for a particular guest who would come by ship…

It was also the Queen, who – with the assistance of two Italian architects and a Swiss landscape gardener – arranged the whole plot of land as a mix of traditional, Moldovan and Oriental architecture with antique references, and who integrated a wonderful botanical garden (after years of neglect now taken care of by Sofia University); this botanical garden alone is worth a visit, and the part that is reserved for the different varieties of cacti is said to be the second biggest in Europe.

The biographical novel “The White Coast” by Marina Konstantinova (Largo City 2013, tr. Svetoslav Bogdanov) tells the story of Queen Maria and her “Quiet Nest” in Balchik, as she used to call it. Born Marie of Edinburgh as the daughter of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh (later Duke of Saxe-Coburg) and his wife, Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, she got married to Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania, the heir apparent of King Carol I. in 1892 (he became King of Romania in 1914); she had six children.

Marriages within the royal families in Europe were dynastic affairs, and love was not necessarily part of the marriage arrangement. In Maria’s (or Missy’s, as she was called by almost everyone) case, there was a mutual affection that lasted over the decades, but husband Ferdinand was a very different character than his wife, and a process of estrangement triggered by the King’s frequent affairs led to an arrangement that allowed the Queen to lead a comparatively independent life, in which she was allowed to pursue her own interests that were mainly in the field of beauty and art.

Maria was a talented painter and musician, she wrote poetry and published several books of literary value. Apart from that, she took care of her surviving children (her youngest son died at the age of three) and in the building of her “Quiet Nest” in Balchik. The novel describes this period in Balchik, which was the happiest in Maria’s life. The story is told by two narrators, one of them is the Queen herself – the author has of course made use of Missy’s own writings -, the other one is the author. This switching between perspectives is easy to follow (the book is using bold script for Missy’s chapters), and the picture of the main character in the book is gaining more depth by this little “trick” of the author.

The Queen Maria we get to know in the novel, was a romantic, someone who occupied herself with her inner life, with beauty in art and nature, and with spiritual questions. But she took also very practical part in the creation of her small paradise, and took interest in the lives of her neighbors in Balchik. The building of a small port, the incoming guests, the money earned by the construction of the Palace and the garden, it all had a positive impact on the life and economic situation of the people in Balchik, and – if we can believe Missy’s writings – therefore the Queen was genuinely liked by the local people.

The book is also – and probably this is the most important part – the story of a great love. I mentioned the marble throne at the beach in Balchik. Here, Missy would wait after her husband’s death for the arrival of a man whom she had met only once; the enigmatic Arab sailor Ali, who fell in love with the Queen at first sight in Egypt when they were once introduced to each other on one occasion. After their meeting, Ali started to write her letters, and it was the letters that raised the interest of the Queen, who had never met a man who really loved her. I will not give away more, but the love story between Missy and Ali is the true center of the book and the author of the novel has done a remarkable job to tell this story in comparatively simple words but without false clichés.

I enjoyed this small and unassuming book; for later editions a few typos and minor translation errors should be corrected, but these small issues didn’t affect my reading much. If you want to get to know the story behind this truly unique place, reading “The White Coast” is a nice way to inform yourself, especially for those who visited Balchik.

The White Coast” can be bought at the Palace in Balchik, but you could also contact the publisher directly (Email: alfa3@abv.bg). Apart from the Bulgarian and English version, the book is also translated in Romanian and Russian.

Marina Konstantinova: The White Coast, Largo City 2013, translated by Svetoslav Bogdanov

Photo credit: Stefka Vasileva/Creative Commons

This review was first published at Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, 9 June, 2018 for #BulgarianLiteratureMonth.

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 


Bulgarian Poetry in English Translation (III/3): the period 1944-1989 – Danila Stoianova

Unfortunately, Danila Stoianova didn’t have much time to fully develop her talent as a poet. She died 1984 at the young age of 23 after a long battle with leukemia. This disease, and a series of deaths in her family left a deep mark on her and one can not read her poems without thinking of her tragic fate.

Ivy Press Princeton published the major part of her small oeuvre in an excellent translation years ago (Memory of a Dream, 2003). You can find some samples of Stoianova’s poems here. Love poems, verses about her suffering, but also about solitude and nature give her poetry a rather wide spectre.

The grand old lady of Bulgarian poetry, Blaga Dimitrova said about Danila Stoianova’s verses:

“The poetry of Danila Stoianova broke open a long-walled-off window on the world. It resonates with early spring and brings the memory of the long harsh winter Bulgaria lived through. It speaks of life and death, of rebirth through the miracle of poetry.”

The translation of Ludmilla Popova- Wightman is congenial and very close to the original. Another gem coming from this small publisher that focuses exclusively on Bulgarian literature in English translation. The edition is bilingual and I can recommend it highly to poetry lovers.

This review was first published at Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, 18 June, 2018 for #BulgarianLiteratureMonth.

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Bulgarian Poetry in English Translation (III/2): the period 1944-1989 – Blaga Dimitrova

In John Updike’s short story “The Bulgarian Poetess” the narrator reports the following short dialogue with the eponymous Bulgarian Poetess:

“Your poems. Are they difficult?”

She smiled and, unaccustomed to speaking English, answered carefully, drawing a line in the air with two delicately pinched fingers holding an imaginary pen: “They are difficult—to write.”

He laughed, startled and charmed. “But not to read?”

She seemed puzzled by his laugh, but did not withdraw her smile, though its corners deepened in a defensive, feminine way. “I think,” she said, “not so very.”

Yes, the poems of Blaga Dimitrova, the inspiration for this short story, are not so very difficult to read. Her poetry is about universal human experiences from a female point of view: love, motherhood, death are important topics in her verses. Forbidden Sea for example was written in a time when the author had to face a long battle with cancer. Her close encounter with death brought life into sharp focus, awoke in her eternal questions about the meaning of human existence, the magnetism of love, the mysteries and vicissitudes of human fate. The sea is present not only like a magnificent view, but also like a spontaneous rhythm, like a myth, a symbol of life, love, infinity and freedom. Freedom was lacking in Bulgaria, a totalitarian dictatorship with an iron censorship, a country where not only the sea was “forbidden,” but also “words!”

Dimitrova Forbidden Sea

As the introduction to one of her two available collections with poetry in English (Forbidden Sea, translated by Ludmilla G. Popova-Wightman and Elizabeth A. Socolow, Ivy Press Princeton 2000, and Scars, translated by Ludmilla G. Popova-Wightman, Ivy Press Princeton 2003) states correctly, her poems sublimate her conflicts in life she was facing as an independent and sometimes rebellious spirit in a dictatorship. Blaga Dimitrova, who was also an accomplished author of prose, has often been compared with some of the other great female poets of the 20th century: Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Gabriela Mistral, Wislawa Szymborska, Desanka Maksimovich and, above all her compatriots Elisaveta Bagryana and Dora Gabe.

Her poetry (samples can be found here and here), available in two volumes in excellent translation, is worth to be discovered!

This review was first published at Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, 11 June, 2018 for #BulgarianLiteratureMonth.

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 


Bulgarian Poetry in English Translation (III/1): the period 1944-1989 – Konstantin Pavlov

Konstantin Pavlov was one of the most important and gifted Bulgarian poets of the period after 1944. His immense talent and poetic imagination, and his independent personality brought him in frequent conflict with the Communist regime. Fortunately, two of his poetry collections are available in English: Cry of a Former Dog (translated by Ludmilla G. Popova-Wightman, Ivy Press Princeton 2000) and Capriccio for Goya (also translated by Ludmilla G. Popova-Wightman, Ivy Press Princeton 2003). Pavlov’s first books were confiscated before they could reach bookstores and readers. After that, he was officially sentenced to silence for his courageous depiction of the terror in his country.

Pavlov’s poetry, stylistically innovative, is a moral protest against the totalitarian dictatorship in Bulgaria from 1944 to 1989. Many of Pavlov’s poems contain also satirical elements, irony and humor, despite the serious conditions in which he lived and the suffocating intellectual atmosphere from which authors like him suffered a lot. Some samples from the two books can be found here and here.

Pavlov Cry of a Former Dog

About the English editions of Pavlov, Paul Auster writes:

“Ludmilla Popova-Wightman’s translations of Pavlov have a lovely open-hearted vernacular feel to them. They have truly been rendered into American English.”

Don’t miss the chance to discover a truly great poet in excellent translations!

This review was first published at Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, 10 June, 2018 for #BulgarianLiteratureMonth.

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 


Bulgarian Poetry in English Translation (II) – Available Titles From the Pre-1944 Period

In this second part of my short series about Bulgarian Poetry collections available in English translation, I will cover the period until 1944, the year of the Communist takeover in Bulgaria. While in the last blog post I was presenting anthologies, I will focus in this post on books that present the (selected) poems of a single author.

The years before 1944 were a rich period for Bulgaria’s poetry. And quite a lot of it has been translated at one point in English: in the Communist era, the state-owned publisher Sofia Press made most of the “classic” Bulgarian poets available in English (and some other languages). These books are of course out-of-print since a long time, but due to the lack of any later editions in English for many of the most relevant authors, they are still worth to be searched in antiquarian bookstores or internet platforms. I would particularly recommend – if you can find them – the volumes with Hristo Botev’s Poems, and Ivan Vazov’s Selected Poems. Both of them can be considered as founding fathers of Bulgarian literature. Other editions by Sofia Press include Selected Poetry and Prose by Hristo Smirnensky and The Road to Freedom by Geo Milev.

The good news is that in the last years three important Bulgarian poets from this period are again present with a book in English language.

Confidentially

Peyo Yavorov (b. 1878, Chirpan – d. 1914, Sofia) was, especially in his more mature years as a poet, a protagonist of the symbolist movement in Bulgaria. But at the same time, the man who wrote highly introspective poems, and verses that show great empathy for the lives of refugees from Macedonia and Armenia, was a man of action: just like Botev a few decades earlier, he joined the struggle for liberation from the Ottoman domination, in his case in Macedonia; the poet-partisan was – after his first big love died from tuberculosis – married to Lora Karavelova, the daughter of the former Prime Minister Petko Karavelov. But the marriage didn’t last long: in a bout of jealousy, Lora shot herself in front of Yavorov, and the poet committed suicide one year later, after a first attempt to take his life had left him blind, and a press campaign against him, even suggesting that he had murdered his wife, had made him a broken man. A collection of his poems (Confidentially, Black Sea Oleander Press 2018), skilfully translated by Christopher Buxton, gives the Anglophone reader an opportunity to get an idea of Yavorov’s remarkable gifts as a poet (more is not possible in any translation of poetry).

Debelyanov To return

Dimcho Debelyanov was a few years younger than Yavorov, but also his life was – like the lives of so many Bulgarian poets – cut short, in his case by WWI: he was killed in battle in 1916. Debelyanov, only 29 years old at the time of his death had moved from the symbolism of his youth to a more realistic style of poetry. Debelyanov is considered a master of the elegy, but in many of his poems there are also satirical elements. He was also a gifted translator from English and French. As in the case of Yavorov, Christopher Buxton is also here the translator, editor and publisher of a collection of Debelyanov’s poems (To return to your father’s house, Black Sea Oleander Press 2017), and to me this work seems similarly congenial as his Yavorov translations. I can recommend both books warmly, in any case these are two very welcome additions to the Bulgarian poetry shelf, and I hope there will be even more from this source in the future. The book cover shows a portrait of the poet and his birthplace, now a museum, in Koprivshtitsa, one of the most well-preserved old towns in Bulgaria and in any case worth a visit.

Vaptsarov Kino

Nikola Vaptsarov (b. 1909, Bansko – d. 1942, Sofia) was a trained naval engineer, who after years on ships in the Mediterranean, worked as an engineer in various factories and at the Bulgarian Railroad. He got involved with the Communist Party for whose military faction he secretly supplied arms for the resistance fight against the Germans; a dangerous activity, and Vaptsarov was finally arrested and executed by firing squad. During his lifetime, he published only one book, Motor Songs (1940) (under pseudonym). The concrete, colloquial poetry of Vaptsarov that includes reference to cinema, radio, technology, and modern culture, is widely unknown outside Bulgaria (although he was translated in 98 languages). Yannis Ritsos, the great Greek poet said about him:

“I consider Vaptsarov my brother in poetry and struggle.”

A slender volume, edited and introduced by Georgi Gospodinov, competently translated by Kalina Filipova, Bilyana Kourtasheva, and Evgenia Pancheva is available under the title “Kino” (Smokestack Books, 2014), and it is very much worth to be discovered by a wider readership. (The cover shows a mug shot of Vaptsarov, taken after his arrest.)

Yavorov, Debelyanov, Vaptsarov (and one could add Botev and Milev as well): all died young and not of natural causes. It’s a rather sad thought to imagine what they could have achieved, if their lives had not been cut short…

This review was first published at Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, 08 June, 2018 for #BulgarianLiteratureMonth.

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Bulgarian Poetry in English Translation – Some Anthologies

Poetry is very popular in Bulgaria; I am still very much surprised about the sheer amount of new poetry collections that are published on the small Bulgarian market every year by „regular” publishers, but also by authors themselves (self-published, or “Samizdat” as they say in Bulgaria – an expression that hints at the subversive tradition of “self-publishing” in the Eastern European countries). And if we add the countless number of frequently very young people who publish their poems in Facebook, on blogs, or who read their poems in public – poetry readings are also a phenomenon that has emerged mainly in the last years, and many of them are well-visited -, you can imagine that Bulgaria is a country where there is no shortage of poets – or of people who would like to be called “poet”, in this part of the world still a very prestigious epithet.

But poetry needs also readers, and English-speaking readers face a problem here: it is difficult to orient yourself, if you are not already familiar with Bulgarian literature/poetry. In a series of four blog posts, I will try to provide a little orientation regarding Bulgarian poetry in English translation. What is available in English, where can you start, and what are the most interesting poetry books by Bulgarian authors in English – I hope you will find some useful answers regarding these questions in my small series.

The first part is devoted to anthologies; they are frequently the best way to get an overview about a certain literary genre or literary period since they cover a number of authors.

Flowers

Flowers don’t grow singly (CreateSpace 2016) is the name of a collection of classic Bulgarian poems selected and translated by Christopher Buxton, an author and translator that lives in Bulgaria since a long time. The earliest poems in the book are folk songs collected by the Miladinov brothers, and starting from Hristo Botev, Pencho and Petko Slaveykov, all the major authors of the pre-1944 period are represented; names like Mara Belcheva, Peyo Javorov, Geo Milev, Hristo Smirnenski, Dora Gabe, Dimcho Debelyanov, Elisaveta Bagryana, Nikola Vaptsarov, and others. A comparatively small collection that gives a representative overview over this “classic” period of Bulgarian poetry. As a “teaser” you could have a look at the website of Christopher Buxton with some samples of his translations.

 

End of the World

At the End of the World: Contemporary Poetry from Bulgaria (Shearsman 2012) is an anthology of seventeen Bulgarian poets writing and publishing from the middle of the twentieth century to today. Editor Tsvetanka Elenkova – herself an accomplished poet – and the translator Jonathan Dunne, her husband cover in this bilingual anthology the period that chronologically follows the covered period of the previous anthology; therefore a useful addition to your library, especially considering the excellent translations and interesting choice of authors: among them many of the most important names of the period covered by this book, such as Ivan Teofilov, Lubomir Levchev, Nikolay Kanchev, Ekaterina Yosifova, Ilko Dimitrov, Silvia Choleva, Peter Tchouchov, Kristin Dimitrova, Iana Boukova, Marin Bodakov, Yordan Eftimov, Nadya Radulova. Recommended for all with an interest in the post-1944 and contemporary Bulgarian poetry. A sample from the book can be found here.

 

Season of Delicate Hunger

The Season of Delicate Hunger (Accents Publishing 2013) is a 334-page collection of contemporary Bulgarian poetry, containing 197 translations of works by 32 Bulgarian authors, a titanic work by the editor Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, who translated almost all the poems in the collection herself. All authors of this anthology are alive, writing and actively participating in the Bulgarian poetry scene. They represent a diversity of talent, ranging in age from 72 to 21, with each at a unique stage of his or her career. The edition is bilingual and profits from the fact that Stoykova is a remarkable poet herself. Highly recommended! (You can find more information on the book here)

 

New Social Poetry

The literary scene in Bulgaria is quite diversified, and that’s particularly true for poetry. A new, fresh – and for some a bit provocative – poetic movement is New Social Poetry, a group of poets that has developed quite an impressive presence since its creation, with regular readings in various Bulgarian cities, a literary journal, and a number of books. New Social Poetry – The Anthology (CreateSpace 2018, translator Christopher Buxton) gives an overview about the variety of authors that are part of this movement or associated with it. (The anthology is also available in French – translator Krassimir Kavaldjiev -, and a Spanish and German translation are in preparation.) While some of the authors in this collection belong to the older and middle generation of Bulgarian poets, there is also a considerable number of young and very talented authors represented in this bilingual anthology, which makes this book a welcome enrichment to the previously published anthologies.

 

Some Bulgarian Poems

While I am editing this blog post, I found out that there is at least a fifth anthology that belongs here: Some Bulgarian Poems & A Play (edited by Zheny Bozhilova-Haytova, translated by Kevin and Dona Ireland; Altera 2014). This is an anthology containing samples of Bulgarian poetry from the late Revival period (1860’s) until the 1960’s. I haven’t seen it yet and it will be probably a bit difficult to order it outside Bulgaria, but this is a book I will look up in the near future.

This review was first published at Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, 07 June, 2018 for #BulgarianLiteratureMonth.

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

John Atanasoff – The Electronic Prometheus

John Vincent Atanasoff (1903-1995) was an important American computer pioneer; his father was born in Bulgaria and came to the United States as a young boy. Due to his Bulgarian origin and some factors about which I will speak in this review, Atanasoff had a special relationship to the home country of his father, where he is held in high esteem – sometimes enthusiastically, but factually incorrect referred to as “the Bulgarian who invented the computer”.

The book John Atanasoff – The Electronic Prometheus by Blagovest Sendov (St. Kliment Ohridski University Press, Sofia 2003, translated by Maya Pencheva and Todor Shopov) is focusing on the “Bulgarian connection” of Atanasoff; while it is not a biography, it makes for the first time many documents and private letters of Atanasoff available, mainly the correspondence with the author of the book, a Bulgarian mathematician and computer scientist. In the last part, the book publishes Atanasoff’s own paper Advent of electronic digital computing, an account of his personal development and achievements as an engineer and scientist, a report that documents in detail not only the fascinating story of the ABC (Atanasoff-Berry Computer), but also the extremely long and difficult patent litigation that followed and that ended with an almost complete success for Atanasoff.

Atanasoff was a professor of physics and mathematics at the Iowa State College in the 1930’s, and one of his scientific interests was the solution of complex systems of up to 30 linear equations. Since these complicated systems of equations couldn’t be resolved in acceptable time by humans, and the existing calculators were also not able to process such complicated operations, it became clear to Atanasoff that he had to build a fast calculator himself if he wanted to get the job done. Together with Clifford Berry, a very talented graduate student, he worked in his free time on the development of such an engine. The two breakthroughs on the way to finally make the ABC operational were the decision to use binary code (with 2 instead of 10 as a base of the number system used), and to introduce electronic tubes instead of mechanic or electro-technical solutions.

Atanasoff started his work on the computer in 1937, first alone and later with Berry; in 1942, the ABC was operational. (Konrad Zuse’s Z3, a digital computer also on binary, but on electro-technical basis was already operational in 1941, more than one year before the ABC – a fact that was unknown to Atanasoff and Berry. Zuse’s computer was – contrary to the ABC – also Turing-complete. Strangely, Zuse is mentioned only once in Sendov’s book: “During WWII Conrad(sic!) Zuse built in Germany a computer too perfect for its time, which used switches.”)

In the period when Atanasoff and Berry were working on the ABC, a young professional, John Mauchley, got in touch with them; Atanasoff and Berry shared the basic concepts and the blueprints of the ABC with him during a visit of Mauchley that lasted several days; later it turned out that Mauchley used the design of the ABC as a basis of a computer he would build together with John Eckert: the ENIAC. In the patent documents they submitted, there was no mentioning of the fact that the basic concepts of ENIAC were indeed Atanasoff’s (and Berry’s), and not those of Mauchley and Eckert.

Atanasoff was for a long time unaware of this patent fraud, but an IBM patent expert visited him in the 1954 and promised him “If you will help us, we will break the Mauchley-Eckert computer patent; it was derived from you.” Considering his previous bad experience with IBM, Atanasoff declined, but in 1967 Sperry Rand Corporation started a law suit regarding the ENIAC patents, followed by a second one in 1971 (Honeywell vs. Sperry Rand). In both cases, Atanasoff – Berry had allegedly committed suicide, although the circumstances were somehow fishy – and his counterparts were heard as witnesses over extended periods. In 1973, a federal court in Minneapolis ruled that indeed the patent on ENIAC was void and that Atanasoff and Berry had built the first digital electronic computer and that the patented idea was Atanasoff’s.

In 1970, when Atanasoff’s role in the development of the modern digital computer was not widely known even in the scientific community, he was contacted by Sendov, then a professor at Sofia University. What started as a rather formal correspondence between colleagues who share similar research interests, grew into a close personal exchange that included several meetings in the United States and also two visits of Atanasoff in Bulgaria.

For Atanasoff, it must have been an emotionally extremely touching and uplifting experience that his achievements were not only recognized by his Bulgarian colleagues – he was even made a member of the Bulgarian Academy of Science, a rather rare achievement for a scientist from a capitalist country, who had on top of it a long track record in working in the development of the nuclear and conventional arms industry of the United States. Particularly his 1970 visit in his father’s home village Boyajik near Yambol (his grandfather had been killed by the Turks in 1876), the Bulgarian hospitality, the opportunity to connect with his unknown relatives and an old colleague from his time as a student, the personal friendship he made with Sendov and a few other scientists not only from the field of computer science – it is all reflected in the later very warm and personal correspondence of Atanasoff.

The engineer and scientist comes across in this correspondence as a good-natured, friendly and open man with a variety of interests that included beside his family such different fields as agriculture – he grew his own fruits and vegetables, something for which he “blamed” his Bulgarian heritage – or the plan for the development of a new universal phonetic alphabet, an issue he liked to discuss with a Bulgarian linguist as well. His Bulgarian friends even lobbied in Stockholm for him, when he was proposed as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Physics, and Todor Zhivkov, the Head of State and Chairman of the Communist Party of Bulgaria wrote a support letter to get him the Marconi International Fellowship (both applications failed). The decades of battle in and out of court regarding the recognition of his and Berry’s invention in the United States were probably very disappointing for Atanasoff, and that the country of his father offered recognition, support and friendship meant for sure a lot to him.

I was of course wondering, if Atanasoff and Sendov had maybe second thoughts when they started their personal acquaintance that lead to such a close friendship, including also the families of both men. After all, it was the time of the Cold War, and it is difficult to imagine that the two of them moved completely out of the orbit of the intelligence services of both countries, for whom these meetings must have been extremely interesting. Therefore I wouldn’t be too surprised if one day documents related to that question would emerge from some archive. And I also wouldn’t be too surprised if the “Atanasoff story” would make it sooner or later into a Hollywood movie: it has all the ingredients a successful film needs.

Fazit: Atanasoff was a colorful person with a strong Bulgarian connection. Sendov’s book is the ultimate work on this topic (so far). Atanasoff was a very important computer pioneer, but not the inventor of the computer.

Blagovest Sendov: John Atanasoff – The Electronic Prometheus, St. Kliment Ohridski University Press, Sofia 2003, translated by Maya Pencheva and Todor Shopov

This review was first published at Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, 05 June, 2018 for #BulgarianLiteratureMonth.

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.