Monthly Archives: January 2015

Drei Gedichte von Kris Enchev



                                                            На Ели
очакваното неочаквано
в тесен коридор да просветне
нагоре по криви стълби
покрай прозорец с гълъби
така незабележимо от случайни слизащи
устремени към други нагоре
или други пропасти
                                                          Für Eli
das erwartete unerwartete
im dunkeln flur leuchtend
über krumme stufen hinaufsteigend
vorbei am fenster mit den tauben
so ununterscheidbar von zufällig herabsteigenden
strebend zu den anderen oben
oder zu anderen abgründen


                                        На Поли
убивам времето
за да не ме убие то
дъждът ми е свидетел
                                           Für Poli
ich schlage die zeit tot
damit sie mich nicht totschlägt
der regen ist mein zeuge


в тайна таванска стаичка
на които
те няма
които нямат лице
нито очертания
нито сенки
да очертаеш

ich sammle
im geheimen schrank auf dem dachboden
auf denen
du nicht bist
die weder gesicht
noch linien
noch schatten haben
ich warte
die abwesenheit
zu zeichnen

aus: Kris Enchev: Ochakvanoto neochakvano (Очакваното неочаквано), Scalino, Sofia 2014
Aus dem Bulgarischen von Thomas Hübner


© Kris Enchev and Scalino OOD, 2014.
© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-5. 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. 

Great Dream of Heaven

E.V. is the Remedy Man in the short story with this title that opens the collection Great Dream of Heaven. He is a kind of horse whisperer who is called by Mason, a farmer somewhere in the West of the U.S. when one of his particular wild horses cannot be tamed. E.V., a rather unassuming man, knows his trade and we readers witness how he is resolving the problem while chatting casually with Mason and inviting Mason’s son, who is also the narrator of the story to assist him. In the end we have learned a few things about horses and about life on an isolated farm in the West. So, what – you will maybe feel inclined to say.

But there is more to this story than just this. While usually the father, a well-meaning, but dominating figure is the one who sets the rules for the son (women are absent in this story), it is this one time E.V. who tells the son in a friendly, casual way what to do next in order to help him – while the father is a quite passive bystander, strangely skeptic about E.V.’s remedy man’s work that proves to be successful. For the son, this is a new experience: to see his father passive and another person being in charge. In the end, the narrator watches from a tree the evening and night sky:

“The whole ranch turned below me. I arched my head back and my mouth went open to the black sky. The giant splash of the Milky Way must have caused the high shrill squealing to burst out of me, just like someone had pulled a cord straight down my spine. My skin was laughing. I heard my dad come out on the screen porch and yell my name but I didn’t answer. I just hung there spinning in silence. I knew right then where I’d come from and how far I’d be going away.”

The heroes of these stories are frequently on the move, like the man who left his wife to live with his new love (in Coalinga ½ Way). He stops in some godforsaken place called Coalinga, halfway between the place he lived and the place he intends to live. It’s revealing that it is the perfect equidistance between the two important women in his life. When he calls his wife from there, she tries to convince him to come back, or at least meet somewhere to discuss what is wrong with their relationship in person. But even the fact that he is not only leaving his wife for good, but also his son who is still a little child, cannot make him change his mind.

“What about Spence? Are you going to tell him you’re not coming back?” – “Not right now.” – “When?” she says. – “I don’t know.” – “What am I supposed to tell him then?” – “Tell him I’ll call him.” – “When?” – “I’m not sure.” – Silence again. A high piercing shriek of a circling hawk. A Jeep roars past. A Jeep with no windows or doors, just the wind ripping across the wide-eyed face of the driver. – “Are you still there?”, he says to the phone. – “Where am I supposed to go?” she says. – “I don’t know.”

After he hangs up, he is calling his lover with whom he intends to live in the future. But this woman tells him not to come. It turns out she is moving to Indiana with her husband and considered the relationship with the narrator as a fling without much importance. The end mirrors the conversation he had just before with his wife, but with reversed roles:

“You’re flying out to Indiana to meet David?” – “Yes. I was just going out the door when the phone rang.” He hears the loud splash of the fat man hitting the pool outside. Then nothing. A distant siren. “Hello,” she says. “Are you still there?” – “Where am I supposed to go?” he says.

These two stories contain a lot of elements that are typical for this book. A man between two women, or a woman between two men. The physical distance, but also the rift between people in general, and the gulf that separates people from their true selves. The setting is usually in a small town, or somewhere on the road (like in Blinking Eye, where a young woman drives thousands of kilometers with the urn that contains the ashes of her mother). Men have problems with women and with themselves, frequently because they cannot find the right words to express their feelings or leave the important things unsaid. Paranoia is frequently just around the corner (The Company’s Interest), and when firearms come into the picture, things threaten to get out of control very fast (An Unfair Question).

There is also a dry humor in many stories (like in It Wasn’t Proust, or in The Door to Women). The dialogues (Betty’s Cats consists exclusively of dialogues) conceal the experienced playwright and film scenarist and seem to be written with an effortless ease. These are real people talking, and their loneliness is always present, just like in the paintings of Edward Hopper, of which they reminded me sometimes. Or as in the movie Paris, Texas by Wim Wenders. And that’s no coincidence, because Shepard wrote the script of that film. (He is also a remarkable actor – The Right Stuff, Fool for Love, Homo Faber, Don’t Come Knocking come to mind.)

I enjoyed these wonderful stories very much. My favorite piece is the title story Great Dream of Heaven. But they are all very good, without exception.

Great Dream of Heaven

Sam Shepard: Great Dream of Heaven, Vintage, London 2003

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-5. 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.

Isaac Babel meets King Kong

If you love Russian literature as much as I do, then Elif Batuman’s book The Possessed is a treat for you. The title refers to Dostoevsky’s novel (also published under the title The Demons) but also to the possessive love of many readers and scholars to the Russian literature in general. And of course to the Russian writers and many of their literary heroes as well.

Elif Batuman is of Turkish origin but grew up in an obviously wealthy upper middle class family in the U.S.. She fell in love with literature and more specifically with Russian literature at an early age. And when she took violin lessons later, her teacher was an enigmatic and somehow secretive Russian – this first Russian she met in real life left a mark on her. When she decided to study linguistics (in the vague hope to become a novelist later), she took up Russian lessons as well. And while linguistics proved to be a real disappointment, Russian language was not, although it took her a long time to learn it well.

When I started The Possessed, I had the expectation to read a book about Russian writers and literature. But it is first of all an autobiographical book by Elif Batuman on her intellectual coming-of-age. That was unexpected – I came across this book by chance in an antiquarian bookstore in Sofia, and since the good hard cover cost only about 5 Euro, I thought I give it a try. Despite my slight momentary disappointment (I had simply wrong expectations), I enjoyed this book very much because it is overall so well-written, funny, interesting, fresh. And it is also a travelogue, kind of.

Batuman describes her time in Stanford and her participation in some international conferences with a lot of (self-)irony and humor. How two well-known Babel scholars “give each other the finger” in a parking lot over a dispute regarding the last free parking space is hilarious. The Babel family (widow and two daughters of the great Isaac Babel) prove to be not easy to handle when they participate in an international conference to Babel’s honor. And also the Tolstoy conference in Jasnaya Polyana turns almost into a disaster because Aeroflot loses her luggage and she has to spend a week in her flip-flops, T-shirt and jeans – not because she is a “Tolstoyan” who prefers the most simple outfit, as most participants seem to assume. Also how she successfully collects travel grants on rather dubious scientific projects, or how the famous New Yorker magazine sends her to Sankt Petersburg without willing to pay her travel expenses, but expecting that she spends a night in the Ice Palace – a real palace made of ice, built according to an old design – these and other stories make for a very entertaining read.

On a more serious note, Batuman provides interesting background information on the writers and works she is covering: mainly Isaac Babel, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Pushkin. I didn’t know Ivan Lazhechnikov before, but her extremely interesting chapter on The Ice House, his book published in 1835 makes me curious to read this work (Batuman makes excessive use of her New Yorker reportage in that chapter).

Another part of the book that I found extremely interesting, was the description of her time in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. While she studied Uzbek language and literature there, she gives very interesting insights into the history and everyday life of people in this now independent country with an ancient literature of high level (especially the works of Mir Ali Nevai, sometimes also referred to as Alisher Navoi).

As I mentioned, this is also an autobiographical work. The author is also the main character, and it describes her changing private life as well. Boyfriends come and go, also interests shift somehow, but the love for literature and the wish to write are the interests which give the authors’ intellectual journey such a strength and continuity.

I enjoyed this book very much. It could have been almost a masterpiece. I say almost, because there are a few things that irritated me a bit and that could have been easily avoided.

Batuman mentions somewhere the fact that Tolstoy introduces in Anna Karenina many characters without a name, or he is using the same name (such as Andrey) several times. That can be a bit confusing when you don’t read Anna Karenina very focused. As if to make an allusion to Tolstoy, she is introducing a certain Matej, a co-student and friend from Croatia in an early chapter. In a much later chapter, a Matej, co-student from Croatia is introduced to the reader again, this time he is the boyfriend of the author. I suppose this is the same person, but then why to introduce him twice? The second time it was very confusing because unless it is an oversight by the author (and the editor), it doesn’t make sense to introduce him again. (I suppose that the two chapters were published before the book edition separately in some journal, and later it was forgotten to remove the double introduction of this person) Or did I miss something completely? I am still confused, and that distracted me a bit from the beautiful prose Batuman writes.

As for her literary likes: they are excellent, and I share most of them. Isaac Babel is one of my biggest heroes in the literary world. And as everyone, she has her idiosyncrasies, which is fine. Still, I would have liked to understand what exactly is so boring about Orhan Pamuk. She doesn’t explain it.

Abdulla Qodiry, the author of Past Days, the most important Uzbek novel of the 20th century might be a great author, world class – but when she writes that he is writing on a thousand times higher level than Cechov, I simply have to believe it as a reader because she doesn’t explain what’s so terrible about Cechov’s writing, or so great about Qodiry’s abilities as an author. (I love Cechov very much and simply cannot believe her.)

The same goes for her rejection of any literature from the “periphery” – come on, you just told us how great Abdulla Qodiry is – and doesn’t he come exactly from the periphery: Uzbekistan?. Or her strong dislike of Creative Writing courses. What exactly is so terrible about them? I didn’t get it – beside the fact that the weather was better in California than in New England where the course she fled from was to take place.

My point here is the following: these opinions – which I don’t share – are all fine, but when the author is not explaining me (or at least not in a way that a reader would consider somehow enlightening or satisfactory) WHY she has these opinions, I get the impression that these are just resentments. Probably it’s more, but it is a pity she didn’t put more effort in explaining her strong opinions on (some) literature. 

Another aspect of the book that I found a bit difficult was the way, scholars or experts that teach outside Stanford are described: the Babel scholar that teaches in Tashkent and makes his own research in Odessa and Moscow is considered a moron: the whole truth is in the American archives, and who wastes his time to interview people who knew Babel or find documents in former Soviet archives is simply a poor idiot. The same goes for the Babel family, three monsters, driven by paranoia and maliciousness. (By the way, Babel was shot on the 27 January 1940, not on the 26th. Who is so strict in his judgement of others should have his facts correct.)

And I could have also done without the anecdote about the poor old Tolstoy scholar, his “accident”, and the resulting bad smelling underwear – Batuman doesn’t give his name, but I am sure for insiders he is easy to identify. Why to embarrass a person by dwelling on his incontinence, a medical condition, not a character deficit? That put me a bit off.

I see my complaints about the book are rather longish. But don’t be deceived: this is despite my ranting in the last paragraphs a book I enjoyed, partly travelogue, partly autobiography, partly literature study. It’s the first book of this author, and I will gladly read what she publishes in the future. It’s just the fact that with a bit of editing, this would have been really a masterpiece. As it is now, it is still a good book.

And Babel and King Kong? There is an almost uncanny connection between the great writer from Odessa and the famous 1933 movie. I am not going to spoil the fun of future readers, so if you want to know about it: read this book.




Elif Batuman: The Possessed, Granta Books, London 2011


© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-5. 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.

Deafening Silence

What does the deafening silence of the biggest part of our media, politicians, and citizens about the massacres in Nigeria and the Central African Republic – that is in stark contrast to the reactions after the murders in Paris – reveal about us?

I am afraid nothing good…



© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-5. 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. 

Ein Gedicht von Neli Dobrinova


упражнения за ляв бял дроб
бащите идват, слушат новините, гледат спорта
и си тръгват
преди прогнозата за времето
реша още влажните коси на дъщеря си
почукай на дъжда
и ще ти отвори вятърът, с когото винаги сме доверчиви
като долната и горна устни
зад костения порцелан на зъбите
езикът чака да бъде подарен –
прегънат на фуния, през която да издишваш воя
на стадо единаци,
или да го превърнеш в звук от върбова пищялка –
прабабата на флейтитe
току-що събудена муха изпъква
между стъклото
и книгата уникат
вълшебства на инстинкта


übungen für den linken lungenflügel

die väter kommen, hören die nachrichten, schauen sport
und gehen
vor der wettervorhersage
ich bürste das noch nasse haar der tochter
der regen klopft
und ich werde dir öffnen wind, der uns immer vertraut war
wie die unter- und oberlippe

hinterm porzellan der zähne
wartet die zunge darauf, sich zu zeigen –
zum trichter gefaltet durch den man ausatmet heulen
der einsamen herde,
oder umgeschaltet auf den ton der weidenpfeife –
die urgroßmutter der flöten

die gerade erwachte fliege steht
zwischen dem glas
und dem einzigartigen buch
magie des instinkts


Neli Dobrinova: Malki mazhki igri (Нели Добринова: Малки мъжки игри), Pergament Press, Sofia 2014
Aus dem Bulgarischen von Thomas Hübner


© Neli Dobrinova and Издателство Пергамент Прес, 2014.
© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-5. 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 Violins of Saint-Jacques – the fantasy of an Orientalist

Patrick Leigh Fermor was one of the greatest – if not the greatest – travel writers of the 20th century. The Violins of Saint-Jacques, the book I am reviewing here, is his only novel.

The narrator of the book spends part of his holiday on an Aegean island. He gets acquainted with Berthe, an elderly French lady who lives permanently on the island and who is a very respected figure there.

While dining at her home, the narrator gets interested in one of Berthe’s paintings, a landscape of the Caribbean island of Saint-Jacques. Since the narrator visited this region not long ago, an interesting conversation starts during which Berthe begins to tell the story of her life that is closely connected to Saint-Jacques. She has lived during the most happy and exciting years of her life in this tropical paradise.

Having lost her parents in France at the age of twenty, young Berthe has practically nothing except her good education. An invitation from a relative in Saint-Jacques to work as a governess for his children is accepted by the penniless young woman immediately. The reception by her cousin, Count Serindan, and his family is warm and friendly and the children, just a few years younger as Berthe get soon very attached to the new arrival.

Count Serindan is the richest landowner of Saint-Jacques and also its mayor. Although in his political opinions a monarchist and reactionary, the Count is a charming and warm person who governs his estate (like his family) as a well-meaning father; his black workers – some are actually not so dark as a result of generations of extramarital activities of the Serindans – are treated well and are genuinly fond of the Count; he is also adored by his children and Berthe. (The mother is a somewhat absent person, ill in a vague manner and either on holidays in Europe or withdrawn to her study room.)

The Count is not only a womanizer and philanderer, he is also a man of pleasure in a wider sense. He loves to organize house concerts – he plays several instruments very well -, he is an avid amateur actor, playwright and theater director; he also takes a strong interest in the newest literature from Europe. A kind of well-meaning renaissance ruler, transferred in time and space to the fin-de-siècle Saint-Jacques.

But even on a tropical island paradise not all is well. The count’s oldest daughter falls in love with a do-no-good whose identity is only revealed later; the oldest son falls in love with Berthe; and the arrival of a new Governor of Saint-Jacques from France, a man with considerably different views on politics and a few other things as the Count, trigger the threat of some serious trouble brewing on the island. All is overshadowed by the increasing activities of the volcano towering over Saint-Jacques…

In order to calm down the political tension and reconcile with his opponent, the new Governor, the Count invites for a big carneval celebration that is meticulously planned. And indeed, in the light of the relaxed atmosphere of the Mardi gras, both opponents seem to admit that maybe they thought wrong about their rival; but during the feast, things are happening that put more than one serious threat to the island and the well-being of the Serindan family. (I don’t want to spoil the story by telling too much.)

I have mixed feelings about the book. Leigh Fermor is one of my favorite writers of travel books. Also in this book he shows his excellent craftsmanship on many pages and in many details. The story is exciting, interesting and lively. The characters, especially Berthe and the Count will stay a long time with the reader. The setting on a tropical island and the description of a culture with which most readers will not be familiar, adds to the reader’s entertainment.

Nevertheless, I had two problems with the book.

First – and this is the smaller problem – it was a bit too much for me: political crisis; threatening duel; secret love affair with kidnapping; suicide threat because of unhappy love; the lepers that turn up during the feast and almost provoke a disaster; the threatening volcano. I would have gladly done without one or two of these crisis that all culminate at exactly the same moment – and I bet that would have considerably added to the credibility of the story. Sometimes less is more and this seems also to include the writing of novels.

Second – and this is the bigger problem -: Leigh Fermor presents us the island as a kind of paradise, a world that is in the state of harmony, where more or less everything is in the right place (at least until the arrival of the new Governor).

But let us have a look at the real society of the Creole Caribbean islands at the beginning of the 20th century. The huge majority of the population was excluded from any rights to master their fate and to participate in the nominally democratic elections. Although de jure abolished, de facto the situation of the negro workers was a kind of slavery; and they lived usually in great misery. The picture that Leigh Fermor is presenting us is that of a reactionary imperialist: the paternalistic landowner provides entertainment and alcohol to his black subjects – and they are happy and adore him. For Leigh Fermor this is how life should look like and it is with obvious nostalghia with which he is describing this orientalist fantasy (interracial sex by mutual agreement included – the reality usually looked very different).

Having an oppressor who shows some human decency, reads books, loves music and is a theater addict, like the Count, doesn’t make an oppressive imperialist society any better. Leigh Fermor was a man with conservative, if not reactionary ideas about society. It shows fortunately not (or not much) in his travel books. But it flaws his otherwise very entertaining novel considerably.


Patrick Leigh Fermor: The Violins of Saint-Jacques, John Murray 2008

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-5. 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.