Monthly Archives: April 2014

A remarkable debut

Miroslav Penkov’s “East of the West” is a collection of short stories written by the Bulgarian-born (1982) author that lives as an assistant professor of English in Denton/Texas. Penkov writes in English.

A grumpy old man (in ‘Makedonija’) in a nursing home in Communist Bulgaria, just outside of Sofia. He is taking care of his wife who is seriously handicapped after two strokes. Only the visits of his daughter and grandson give his life some structure beside the nursing home routine with its meager meals:

“Dear God, I remember eating better during the Balkan war.”

The radio – we write the year 1969 – reports the news that are sarcastically commented by the protagonist:

“The Communist Party is great again, more jobs for the people, less poverty. Our magnificent Bulgarian wrestlers have earned even more gold. Good night comrades, be safe in your sleep.”

What makes the story different and interesting from other stories of old people in similar circumstances is that the husband discovered recently that his wife was keeping a secret from him during all the years of their marriage. Hidden in a box she kept a diary in the form of love letters written by a young man whom she intended to marry in her youth. But the man perished in the fights of the Bulgarian komitatshi against the Ottoman Turks in the Macedonia of 1905.

The romance between this colorful war hero and the protagonist’s wife happened long before the narrator first met her. So technically there is no reason to be jealous. And yet – did she love him more than she loved her later husband (who blames himself to have always been a coward during his life)? An embarrassing question that even the young grandson raises once the protagonist decides to read the letters aloud to his wife. Yes, he is jealous and he wishes to be that other man who wrote such love letters to his wife while fighting so bravely against the Turks. The narrator feels a huge gap between himself and the war hero – he the peasant son always tried to avoid trouble, he who didn’t go to war (his brother went gladly), he who didn’t join the Communist fighters in 1923 that were preparing the so-called November uprising (his brother did and paid with his life for it), he who pretended not to recognize his dead brother and who forced his own mother to do the same because he was afraid of retributions if they did, he who stoically waited the regimes coming and going, just trying to protect his family from the cold hand of history.

But something strange happens to me as a reader here. While in the beginning I admire the war hero for his courage and devotion which seems to contrast very favorably with the alleged cowardice of the narrator, it dawns on me while the story is unfolding that protecting your loved ones, being there for them when they need advice or a strong shoulder to lean on (like the protagonists daughter whose marriage is falling apart), or taking care of your handicapped wife every minute of the day requires another kind of courage that maybe the war hero didn’t have. Sure, it is more glamorous to be a romantic war hero than to wipe your drooling wife’s mouth with a napkin when she tries to keep her food, or when you try to console your only child that is losing herself as a result of the failed marriage of hers with words and gestures that seem to be utterly inadequate but that as it turns out have nevertheless a soothing effect.

This first masterful story sets the tune in Penkov’s book. Many of the stories describe the life of Bulgarians in a time of transition. They make plans, like the young man in “East of the West” who grows up in a village on the Serbian border and who after he lost his whole family travels to Belgrade to finally marry the girl with whom he is in love since his youth. They learn English in order to provoke their communist grandfathers and use the first opportunity to run away to America (“Buying Lenin”). But their plans turn out to fail, or even worse: they can realize their (usually escapist) desires and end up as homesick emigrants in some small godforsaken town in rural Texas (“Devshirmeh”). None of them seems really happy, and when in one story everything seems to be fine for the protagonist and his Japanese wife (“A picture with Yuki“), fate is striking and from one moment to the next everything turns upside down.

There is a great sadness and melancholy in almost all these stories. A sadness and melancholy that is familiar to me and which seems so typical for many of my wonderful Bulgarian friends. But even in its sad stories, this book is not free of hope, a very nice humor, sometimes full of sarcasm but also of tenderness. And almost all stories teach you a lesson: sometimes you have to lose almost everything in your life – because this means that you also lose the ties that bind you to a place, to people, to situations that prevent you from being really free, from really embarking on to new horizons. Or as ‘Nose’, the hero of ‘East of the West’, the story that gave the book the title says after a terrible disappointment:

”I’ve never felt so good before,” I say, and mean it…I am no river, but I’m not made of clay.”

I very strongly recommend this wonderful book. If you want to get a flavor of Bulgaria, or just read a collection of touching, masterfully written stories, this is the book for you.

You can find additional information on the author’s website:

East of the West

Miroslav Penkov: East of the West, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2011

Other reviews:
Fiction Writers Review 
Electric Literature 
Full Stop
BYT Book Club 
largehearted boy

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Living abroad and its impact

Working and living abroad can transform you into someone a bit more humble, especially when you come from a country where things usually work like they should – ok, let’s not talk about the comedy of errors at the new Berlin-Brandenburg Airport…

When you survived over the years unhealthy drinking habits, a confusing… body language (nodding means “no” and shaking your head means “yes”), the worst drivers in the world, and a mafia war (Bulgaria), temperatures above 45 degrees in summer (Jordan), one of the highest lead and dust congestions in the air worldwide (Cairo/Egypt), temporary lack of water (Jordan, Kosovo), government officials with the manners of cattle thieves (Turkey), blood feuds, “sworn” virgins, and disastrous consequences of a change in the government (Albania – after the tenant living upstairs became an EX-Prime Minister, the new government decided wisely that all inhabitants of this building should become EX-clients of the water and electricity company for about 23 hours each day), and natural disasters like earthquakes and volcano eruptions you can watch from your window as long as the dust doesn’t force you to move to another place (Indonesia) – after all these experiences and a few others I am not mentioning here you are either a case for a mental institution or you have successfully learned to enjoy life even more when minor things don’t work as you would have expected it in your previous life.

And hey, after all I had and have a lot of fun in all these places!

Therefore the two days without water in Prishtina are just a minor nuisance – but ask me again tomorrow when I start to smell like a badger 😉

(originally published on my FB page on June 13, 2013 – but since I had the same experience again very recently, I decided to post it here again)

© Thomas Hübner and, 2013/4. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Descent of the Lyre

When you are in Bulgaria right now, you should not miss the book launch of the Bulgarian translation of “The Descent of the Lyre”, a well-crafted historical novel about a musician from the Rhodopi mountains in Bulgaria, by Will Buckingham.

Buckingham, who is also a reader in Writing and Creativity, has a very nice blog that gives an overview about his wide range of interests:

The book launch in Sofia takes place on April, 8, 18.30, at Greenwich Book Centre, Vitosha Blvd. 37.

There will be also two events with the author in Varna on April 10, and 12, organized by Lecti Agency:

Will Buckingham: The Descent of the Lyre, Roman Books, Kolkata London 2012TheDescentOfTheLyre TheDescentOfTheLyreBg

Уил Бъкингам: Произходът на лирата, Enthusiast, Sofia 2014

A detailed review of the novel will follow later.

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

My ten favorite opening lines of books

“Edith loves him. More on this later.” (Robert Walser, The Robber)

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” (Samuel Beckett, Murphy)

“Call me Ishmael.” (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)

“I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had… they duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost:—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.” (Lawrence Sterne, Tristram Shandy)

“All this happened, more or less.” (Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5)

“Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution.” (Günter Grass, The Tin Drum)

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” (Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis)

“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” (Franz Kafka, The Trial)

“Justice?—You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” (William Gaddis, A Frolic of His own)

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Lev Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)

Feel free to share yours! 

 © Thomas Hübner and, 2014. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

About the author

“Origin, resume – – it is all a nonsense! From Jüterbog or Königsberg
originate most, and in some Black Forest you end up ever since. (Gottfried Benn)

Therefore just a stenogram: Thomas Hübner, born in Germany, studied economics, philosophy, 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 and Sofia/Bulgaria. Interested in books and all other aspects of human culture. Traveler. Main feature: intellectual curiosity.

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Last Days of Immanuel Kant

Thomas De Quincey who wrote arguably the best English prose of the 19th century is known nowadays mainly for his “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater”. But this author that had so manifold interests was writing also about philosophy, history, archaeology, theology, and economics, authored an essay  “On Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts” and a series of articles “Gallery of the German Prose Classics”, in which he presented among others Jean Paul for the first time to an English-speaking public. Another skillful article of this series is on “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant”. This essay was republished in Italy and Germany a few years ago in a nice little volume together with an instructive preface by Giorgio Manganelli and other material. (I read it in the German version, by Matthes & Seitz publishers)

De Quincey who was very interested in German literature and philosophy, started about 20 years after Kant’s death to collect all surviving reports and information related to Kant’s last phase of life. At that time, Kant’s philosophy was not yet very well known outside the German-speaking countries, since he had published almost everything he wrote in German, a language that had until then no tradition as a language of science and that was therefore not very well known in academic circles outside the German-speaking countries. (Leibniz had still published exclusively in Latin or French)

The Kant we meet in De Quincey’s essay – and that is based mainly on the work “Kant in seinen letzten Lebensjahren” (Kant in the last years of his life) of Kant’s pupil and administrator of his household during the last years of his life, Ehrengott Andreas Wasianski – is at the beginning a man at the height of its intellectual abilities and health, a man whose meticulously regulated everyday routine was legendary already at his time, but also a man that liked to socialize at his lunch table with other men from diverse backgrounds.

Kant, who skipped all meals except lunch also invited young people to his table and was thanks to the diverse and ever-changing participants of these meals a man who was always very well-informed about any sphere of life that was interesting to him – and he was a person with a very wide range of interests and a great curiosity. The lunch was taken in a rather informal manner that kept everyone at ease and all participants helped themselves to refill their wine glasses on their own as frequently as they wished. (Women were not admitted at these occasions.) De Quincey’s Kant is a charming and witty host who knows always how to refuel an interesting debate and keep the relaxed but always focused discussions going.

We get to know Kant as a very modest person that secretly took a great interest in the fate of his former students and who used a big part of his income to help poor relatives or other people in need. Altogether we meet a very kind and attractive personality here. But also someone that shows us in some moments that the permanent working on philosophical theories and the publication and revision of his own works and the works of others took a toll on him. Some of Kant’s actions show us that he was not free of some “tics” that were maybe still harmless, but already bordering the pathological. Kant kept himself very busy to invent an extremely complicated device that would keep his socks in place without having a negative impact on his blood circulation and he could only work properly when he was sitting in his study and could see the tip of a nearby tower. When after some years, some trees in a neighbor’s garden had grown so much that Kant had difficulties to see the tower, he was suffering a major crisis and writer’s block – that ended swiftly after his friendly neighbor agreed to cut the tree tops that had such a negative impact on Professor Kant’s creativity.

During the last years in the life of the philosopher, symptoms of physical and mental decline are getting evident, first in a hidden form, then more and more open. Wasianski, since years part of Kant’s household, is the first to remark it: his master is telling the same stories several times on the same day without remembering the fact that he already told them before, his short-term memory is getting worse and worse and the notes he starts to make for these cases, he is losing regularly. The philosopher who is slowly drifting toward dementia is aware of this process and it is very touching to see the slow extinction of this great mind. His arguing with the servants – so untypical for him, but a result of his growing inability to make himself understood properly – his declining interest in the lunch conversations, finally his inability to read or to write his own name – there is not a single painful symptom that De Quincey (and his source Wasianski) spares the reader. We readers of the 21th century may be grateful for the fact that Kant was not bothered very much by his contemporaries and mostly left alone in his suffering. In our times, knowing almost no privacy anymore, we can be almost sure that sensationalist reports about his health and state of mind would be reported in the voyeuristic media on a daily basis, if he would be our contemporary. A kind fate saved Kant (despite Wasianski) at least from these experiences.

The last pages of the essay have something agonizing: every time the reader thinks (and hopes it for Kant’s sake) that it is all over now, a further deterioration is happening, until the poor man can finally die. His wish, voiced in one of his last clear moments before the end, to be kissed one last time by his sister and the loyal Wasianski, is touching even for the cool Englishman De Quincey (who makes it very clear in his meandering annotations that he usually finds the over-exaggerated display of feelings he remarks frequently among Germans as being not appropriate and a sign of weakness – Kant, the descendant of a Scotsman was more to De Quincey’s liking also because he usually abstained from such “French” habits).

Leaving the fact aside that it is always a great pleasure to read the prose of such a master as De Quincey, we learn in this essay a lot about the man Kant (not so much about his philosophy), things that are usually not very well known. But beside from that this essay is particularly moving because we all know that one way or the other we will not evade from the topic ‘dementia’ during our own lifetime – either because we might suffer it ourselves in the future or because someone close to us is spending the last part of his or her journey to the end of night with this diagnosis. That even a great mind like Kant was no exception to this is deeply disturbing but in a strange way also comforting. We cannot run away from our own fate, we can just use the bit of time we have in the best possible way. In this respect Kant set a good example for all of us.

Die letzten Tage des Immanuel Kant

Thomas de Quincey: The Last Days of Immanuel Kant – Die letzten Tage des Immanuel Kant
Aus dem Englischen übersetzt und herausgegeben von Cornelia Langendorf. Mit Beiträgen von Fleur Jaeggy, Giorgio Manganelli und Albert Caraco, Matthes & Seitz

Other interesting reviews:
Justin Erik Halldor Smith


© Thomas Hübner and, 2014. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Two marginal remarks after re-reading ‘1984’

Recently I re-read George Orwell’s ‘1984’ again. After a first reading when I was still at school, and a second one in my late 20s, I came across the book again after a long break. I am not going to details to describe what the book is about because most of the readers of this blog will know this famous dystopian novel.


There are just one or two marginal remarks I want to make here.

One is: it’s always interesting to see how a book changes over the years. The ‘1984’ I read as a teen is different from the one I read in my late twenties, and both differ considerably from the copy I read now. And yet it is exactly the same book. What has changed is not the book, it is the reader. Some aspects of the book which were very important to me in my younger years seem to have faded (like the love story between Winston and Julia), other aspects have grown more important with the passing of time. That might simply reflect the fact that the reader has become more mature (hopefully!) but also that certain aspects of Orwell’s novel have come much closer to their realization as it seemed to me 20, 30 years ago. The disappearing privacy of our times, the almost ever-present state control over all our movements, the execution of people because of “thought crimes”, not of real crimes they have actually committed, the deafening everyday propaganda that tries to make us believe things that are obviously not true, the euphemisms in the language we use or to which we are exposed permanently. “Newspeak”, “thoughtcrime” and “doublethink” are concepts with which we are all more or less quite familiar today if we still have eyes to see, ears to hear and a brain to think and reflect about things. Having read Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel “We” in the meantime, I think a little bit less of Orwell’s literary originality than before, but it is in the description of the concept of “newspeak” and “doublethink” where he is really impressive.

A second very small remark which seems to be detached from the above (but wait and see): while re-arranging my library not only Orwell’s book went through my hands again but (amongst many others) also my chess book collection changed places. Yes, I admit it: collecting chess books (thousands of them) is one of the weirder features of my personality. Maybe later I will write a bit more about my collection, but this is a kind of private obsession that is not shared by very many people and therefore maybe interesting from a pathological point of view only. Be it as it may, I treasure those books in my collection that have not only an interesting content, but also those that tell me a story. For example books with book plates, exlibris or owner stamps of the previous owners, personal dedications, books with annotations by the previous owner, or books which are for a special reason interesting beyond the content. I have one of the very few surviving copies of a specific chess problem book – almost the whole edition sank on board of a ship that was sunk by a German U-Boot in 1917; a very rare copy of Marcel Duchamp’s and Vitaly Halberstadt’s “L’Opposition et les Cases Conjuguées sont Réconciliées, tracked down after a long hunt in an antiquarian book store in Antwerpes, Belgium for a small fortune (and with all errata slips!); several books inscribed with dedications by former world champion Botvinnik; a bulletin of a tournament in Moscow 1991, signed by my chess idol Mikhail Tal after our personal game. One the most treasured books in my collection is a tournament book of the Moscow International Tournament 1935, won by Salo Flohr and Mikhail Botvinnik ex-aequo, with 66-year old chess legend Emanuel Lasker half a point behind (he was undefeated and demolished the “invincible” Capablanca). Now this is one of the great tournament books every collector would like to possess – but I remember that I got a faster heartbeat when I discovered the book in an antiquarian book store in Heidelberg for another reason: the book had what almost all copies of that edition were missing – the preface by Nikolay Krylenko.

Krylenko was one of the early Bolsheviks that with great energy and extreme ruthlessness helped to establish the dictatorship of Lenin and later Stalin. He was a very efficient henchman of the system, who – since he was an expert in “revolutionary law” – always asked indiscriminately for the death penalty of those who came under his fingers. One of his most infamous remarks: ”We must not only execute the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the mass even more.” As People’s Commissar for Justice and Prosecutor General of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic he had plenty of opportunity to get “enemies of the people” (real and invented one’s) executed for the good of the Soviet Union.

But this bastard had also another side that made him (almost) human. When he was not busy getting people tortured in the ‘konveyer’ (the equivalent to room 101 in Orwell’s novel, or of Guantanamo in the 21th century) and executed after a “fair trial” that lasted rarely longer than five minutes, he was an avid mountaineer and participated in several of the early German-Russian Pamir expeditions. And he was an excellent chess player of master strength that did more for the popularization of the game than probably any other person in history. Chess, the favorite pastime of men like Lenin and Trotsky (both excellent players) was a game played by a very small number of people in Russia before the October Revolution. With a powerful man like Krylenko who was pushing the right buttons for the administration to provide comparatively big resources for the establishment of what was later to be known as the “Russian Chess School” and that dominated the chess world until the rise of Bobby Fischer, it was just a matter of time until the new talents with Botvinnik as the chosen No. 1 would develop to a strength that was not to be surpassed for several decades by any player outside the Soviet Union. Krylenko was also the first to organize international tournaments in the Soviet Union with the strongest masters from abroad. It was these tournaments where the Russian masters could finally test their growing strength.

Like most of the early Bolsheviks, Krylenko met his fate when he seemed at the top of his career. During the great purge he was arrested under the same absurd accusations like most people that became a victim of the great witch hunt. His was tortured for several weeks, convicted in a 20-minute trial and immediately shot. His interrogator was to fall victim to the great purge himself just a few months later.

As most of you will recall, Winston Smith is working in the Ministry of Truth. His task it is to permanently change the past. Newspapers and other past texts have to be changed all the time. People who have disappeared or were “vaporized” (nowadays this is done with the technical support of drones) have to disappear also from the record. After the respective changes, the old papers are deposed of. No trace of the real past will remain in the records, just as no trace will remain of the disappeared and vaporized. Big Brother is always right. The same fate waited for Krylenko. After he was executed, his name was removed from all records of the Soviet Chess Federation and all other records. The preface of the Moscow Tournament Book 1935 which was written by him was removed from almost all copies diligently with a razor blade. Only a very small number of advance copies were already distributed. And one of them is now in my possession. It’s one of these small ironic coincidences that I laid my hands on it again just by chance after I had finished my re-reading of ‘1984’.

George Orwell: 1984, Penguin Classics
Yevgeny Zamyatin: We, Penguin Classics
Robert Braune: Apôtre de la Symétrie, L’Esprit 1913
Vitaly Halberstadt / Marcel Duchamp: L’Opposition et les Cases Conjuguées sont Réconciliées, Paris-Bruxelles 1932
Anon.: Bulletin Moscow International Chess Tournament 1991, Moscow 1991
Vtoroj mezdunarodniy shakhmatniy turnir Moskva 1935, Moscow/Leningrad, 1936
Arkady Vaksberg: The Prosecutor and the Prey, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1990

The blog of Grandmaster Kevin Spraggett contains very interesting details about “the bastard who re-shaped the chess world” which I partly used for my article:


© Thomas Hübner and, 2014. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.




Hello world!

“One blog more that the world doesn’t need…”

That’s probably what most of you will think when they come here for the first time. And yes, it’s not that you really need it.

Alas, I hope that for some of my friends and some people who come here just by chance “my two stotinki” will from time to time offer something interesting, something worth reading – and even better: worth commenting.

This blog will be simply about anything that might be interesting to me, but mainly it will deal with the books that I am reading. But I will take the liberty to also cover other subjects on which I feel the urge to give my “two stotinki”.

I am not a professional blogger. This is my first attempt and I am still learning about how to do it properly. So, patience, dear reader. It will take me a while to really come up with a less amateurish layout.

Most posts here will be in English which is not my native language. So forgive my sometimes a bit shoddy English. From time to time I might also post something in German, my native language. I hope you don’t mind the somehow “hybrid” form of this blog.

Finally, I should explain the title: since I have a very special connection with Bulgaria (which will be also a topic of this blog) I changed the well-known expression of the “two cents” to the – for me – more appropriate currency…

I hope you enjoy this blog and come back from time to time.


© Thomas Hübner and, 2014. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.