Monthly Archives: February 2015

from/aus: Book of Silence / Buch der Stille

Книга на мълчанието


Какво говори философът?
Не е ли същото, което аз живея –
но без думи?

Навсякъде в небето примки и капани –
богослужебни знаци, псалми и бръмчене.
Навсякъде край нас спасителни камбани…
И ни една душа спасена.

Разхвърляно до хоризонта Време –
да ровим в него и с усърдието на клошари
да го събираме на мънички купчини,
които вятарат безмилостен отвява.

Оставени сме тук обърнати по гръб да драскаме
въпроси по небето и да си отговаряме сами –
докато някой ден Безкраят се смили
и подаде ръка да ни изправи.

Загърната в парцали от мъгли къде отива
сляпата тълпа, която се представя за човечество?…
Следи наоколо от хиляди посоки –
и ни следа от Пътя.



Book of Silence

What does the philosopher say?
Is it not the same as what I am living –
but without words?

Everywhere in the sky snares and wiles –
liturgical signs, psalms and buzzing.
Everywhere beside us, saving bells…
And not a single soul saved.


Time, scattered to the horizon –
to search in it and with the zeal of a vagrant
to gather it up in tiny heaps,
which the wind unmercifully blows away.


We are left here, turned to our backs, to scratch
questions on the sky and to answer them alone,
until one day Eternity deigns to stretch out a hand
and stands us upright.


Wrapped up in shreds of fog, where does the blind
mob go, which passes itself off as humanity?…
All around – tracks from a thousand directions,
but not one track from the Road.



Buch der Stille

Was sagt der philosoph?
Ist es nicht dasselbe, was ich lebe –
nur ohne worte?


Überall am himmel stricke und netze –
liturgische zeichen, psalmen und summen.
Überall um uns herum rettungsglocken…
Und nicht eine einzige seele gerettet.

Die zeit, verstreut am horizont –
in ihr suchend und mit dem eifer der landstreicher
sie in winzigen haufen sammelnd,
die der wind unbarmherzig verweht.

Zurückgelassen sind wir auf dem rücken liegend um
fragen in den himmel zu kratzen und sie uns selbst zu beantworten –
bis eines tages die Unendlichkeit sich unserer erbarmt
und uns die hand nach oben reicht.

Eingehüllt in fetzen aus nebel, wohin geht
der blinde mob, der sich selbst als menschheit ausgibt?…
umgeben von spuren aus tausenden richtungen
aber nicht eine spur vom Weg.


Boris Hristov

from: Boris Hristov: Book of Silence (Kniga za malchanieto), bi-lingual edition Bulgarian-English, transl. by John Hamilton, Riva, Sofia 2014 – Boris Christov: Buch der Stille

German translation: Thomas Hübner

© Boris Hristov and Издателство Riva, 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. 

Diary of a Country Prosecutor

Diary of a Country Prosecutor (also published under the title Maze of Justice) is a partly autobiographical short novel by Tawfik al-Hakim; it was first published in 1937. Al-Hakim based the book on his personal experiences as a Prosecutor.

The narrator is a young Public Prosecutor from Cairo that works in a small town in the Nile delta. He keeps a diary in which he describes his life and thoughts in this rather dull, boring place, surrounded by usually illiterate fellahin and a few a bit more wealthy traders and village dignitaries and state representatives, like the umdah, the local mayor, and the ma’mur, the officer in charge for the public order in the district. Some judges, ushers, legal assistants, and ghafirs (sentries) complete the cast of characters of this novel – almost. Because there are also two somehow elusive characters in the book: the beautiful peasant girl Rim and the mysterious and eccentric Sheikh Asfour who usually knows more about what’s going on than all representatives of the state together but who prefers usually to keep his knowledge for himself.

The book starts with a crime. Someone shot at Kamar al-Dawla Alwan, but there is no visible motif nor is there a suspect. The Public Prosecutor describes the investigation and it is soon obvious that the reader cannot expect a classical whodunit. In fact, the search for the perpetrator is not so much what drives the story, but the absurd way how the law is exercised.

It is revealing what the narrator says about the two judges with whom he is working. One is terribly slow and usually charges all defendants as guilty, the other is terribly fast (because he wants to catch the 11 a.m. train back to Cairo in time every day) and charges also all defendants as guilty. The law is based on the Code Napoleon, a foreign import completely alien to the fellahin who don’t understand anything about it.

“The usher went on calling out names. The type of charge had begun to vary and we were entering a different world, for the judge was now saying to the accused, ‘You are charged with having washed your clothes in the canal!’ – ‘Your honor – may God exalt your station – are you going to fine me just because I washed my clothes?’ – ‘It’s for washing them in the canal.’ – ‘Well, where else could I wash them?’ – The judge hesitated, deep in thought, and could give no answer. He knew very well that these poor wretches had no wash basins in their village, filled with fresh flowing water from the tap. They were left to live like cattle all their lives and were yet required to submit to a modern legal system imported from abroad. – The judge turned to me and said, ‘The Legal Officer! Opinion, please.’ – ‘The state is not concerned to inquire where this man should wash his clothes. Its only interest is the application of the law.’ – The judge turned his glance away from me, lowered his head, shook it and then spoke swiftly like a man rolling a weight off his shoulders: ‘Fined twenty piastres. Next case.’”

Even more outrageous is a case in which the ‘speedy’ judge is in charge:

“A decrepit bent-backed man with a white beard came forward, hobbling on a stick. The judge pounced on him with a question: ‘You expended reserved wheat?’ – ‘it was my wheat, your honor, and I ate it with my family.’ – ‘Pleads guilty. One month with hard labour!’ – ‘A month! Do you hear, Muslims! My own wheat, my own crop, my own property…!’ – The policeman dragged him away. As he went, he stared at those in court with goggling eyes as though he could not believe that he had heard the sentence aright. Surely his ears must have deceived him and the spectators must have heard the truth. For he had stolen no man’s wheat. It is true that the usher had visited him and ‘reserved’ his wheat, appointing him as a trustee until such time as he paid the government tax. But the pangs of hunger had seized him violently – him and his family; so he had eaten his own wheat. But who could possibly regard him as a thief on that account and punish him for stealing? It was impossible for this old fellow to understand a law which called him a thief for eating his own harvest, sown by his own hands. These were crimes invented by the law to protect the money of the government or of private creditors; but they were not natural crimes in the eyes of the poor farmer, whose simple instinct could not find any sin in them. He knows well enough that assault is a crime, and murder is a crime, and theft is a crime; for all these involve an obvious aggression against somebody else and reveal clear and evident moral turpitude. But ‘expending reserved property’ – and this was something whose principle and definition he could not grasp. For him it was purely a formal, legalistic crime, whose impact he must go on enduring without believing in it at all.”

Tawfik al-Hakim’s book is first of all a powerful attack on the state of the legal system in his home country, which didn’t even try to establish justice – but ‘the law’. It shows the situation in its full absurdity and frequently with a savage humor that borders the macabre: there is a scene where the town barber, under the supervision of the Public Prosecutor and a pathologist, is dragging corpse after corpse out of first one grave and then another in a muddled attempt to locate the body of a woman who has been murdered. ‘The comedy is grim, but comedy it is’, as Booker Prize Winner P.H. Newby says in his foreword to the edition I read. That someone is arrested for the murder that is clearly innocent, is just adding to the picture.

Al-Hakim was a liberal; he studied law in France in the 1920s and started a career as a Public Prosecutor in Egypt but got quickly very disappointed and pessimistic. He is today considered a classic of modern Arabic literature. He was the Arab world’s leading dramatist, as well as a major writer of novels and short stories. Diary of a Country Prosecutor (elegantly translated by the young Abba Eban, later to become a famous Israeli diplomat and politician) is a brilliant book in the tradition of Gogol and Kafka; and I am afraid that it hasn’t lost its relevance even today.



Tawfik al-Hakim: Diary of a Country Prosecutor, transl. by Abba Eban, Saqi Books, London 2005

© 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 Judgement

A few days ago, during my last visit in Sofia, I had an opportunity to watch an interesting Bulgarian feature film (co-produced by Germany, Croatia and Macedonia); therefore today a film, not a book review.

Borders are a sad reality for many people; especially for those who want to cross them and can’t – but frequently also for those who protect them or live near a border. It is one of the twisted ironies of recent European history that just when we all thought that with the fall of the Iron Curtain barriers that prevent people from traveling freely (and where you are shot at or even killed just because you want to exercise an elementary human right) are a thing of the past, new obstacles are being erected and sometimes even in the same places where the old borders were.

But now, the direction from which people want to cross to another country is frequently reverse: while the Southern border of Bulgaria to Greece and Turkey was heavily protected in the time of communism in order to prevent people from leaving the Eastern block via the Rhodopi mountains, the same area is now guarded and fenced against refugees from Syria and other Mediterranean and African countries who desperately try to come to Bulgaria and the European Union.

Stephan Komandarev, a Bulgarian film director best known for his adaptation of Ilija Trojanow’s novel Die Welt ist gross und Rettung lauert überall (The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner) tells in his new movie The Judgement (Съдилището) the story of a man whose life is virtually destroyed by the border.

Mityo (Assen Blatechki), a widower in his 40s, lives alone with his son, 18-year old Vasko (Ovanes Torosian) in a small village in the Bulgarian Rhodopes, near the Greek and Turkish border. Fanka, Mityo’s wife died after years of illness, and the relationship between father and son is strained for various reasons which become clear while the story unfolds.

The film takes its time to show Mityo, Vesko, and the other villagers in their daily life. The village is poor, and when the local dairy factory for which Mityo is collecting the milk from the local farmers with his cistern truck is closing and leaving him jobless, the situation becomes pretty desperate for him. That the electricity is switched off because of his unpaid bills is a very small problem – but how he is supposed to pay back the mortgage on the small house where he is living with his son which he took years ago to pay for Fanka’s unsuccessful medical treatment, is something about which he has no idea. An attempt to sell his truck fails and when someone turns up to prepare the house to be auctioned off in a few weeks time for the bank, it is obvious that Mityo is in dire straits. Finally he gives in reluctantly to work for a man that everyone knows as The Captain (Miki Manojlovic), since he is a former commanding officer of the border troops in that area during the time of Communism.

The work Mityo has to do is to help to bring illegal immigrants over the mountains to Bulgaria, a work for which he is paid well because it is rather dangerous. Not only because of the danger to be spotted by the border guards, but also because the path through the mountains is rather challenging, especially the area near by a dangerous cliff that is also known as The Judgement.

As the story advances, Vesko finds out that his father was as a young man not only serving in the border troop unit of the Captain, but also that he is hiding a dark secret. Once, in 1988, he killed a young East German couple that tried to flee over the mountains, exactly at the spot called The Judgement.

The movie focuses strongly on the father-son conflict and I found it psychologically very interesting how Mityo tries to come to terms with his past. The Captain forced him at gunpoint to shoot at the refugees and to toss the bodies over the cliff (while the girl was probably still alive). After this traumatic experience, Mityo had a mental breakdown but was saved as he describes it by his future wife Fanka.

Finally, when his son presents him the evidence of his involvement in the killing of the young couple, Mityo reveals everything to his son and it seems a kind of relief for him. When he is going on a last dangerous assignment, things go terribly wrong in the moment when the group (this time with the Captain and also Vesko, who was called for help by his father) arrives at The Judgement cliff.

I liked about the movie that it starts comparatively slow-paced. Although the father-son conflict and later the conflict between Mityo and the Captain are the most important lines of the story, there are also some other credible and interesting characters that add to the flavor of this movie. Vesko develops a close relationship with Maria, a girl in his class. There is also the old doctor, a friend of Mityo who plays a small but somehow important role. There is Kera, a lonely woman living next door to Mityo and his son who tries to get closer to the very distanced Mityo. And there is Zhoro, another mountain guide, who provides the refugees with tea and wafers and who is smart enough to get out of this dangerous business with the Captain in time.

The Captain, Mityo’s nemesis, is a typical product of the times: he was a fanatic in the time of communism who took pride in “defending” his country by shooting those who tried to flee, and now he is a “businessman” with a big brand new car and an impressive fortress of a house. For him, the refugees that he is smuggling across the border are a source of income only. He is without respect for these people he calls contemptuously “garbage” (боклуци), and when the last group reaches The Judgement while fleeing from the border guards, he asks Mityo to throw a sick child down the cliff because it slows down the group too much. But times have changed now, Mityo is not the same person he used to be as a young recruit…

Shooting Stefan Komandarev’s the Judgment Photo BGNES

Actors and dialogues in this movie are excellent (I hope also the translation/dubbing will be very good). You will see also breathtaking panoramas of the Rhodopi mountains, a truly magical place.

The movie asks very interesting questions about – not only – Bulgaria’s past and shows how ordinary people are burdened by it (even the generation that was born after the changes); how to come to terms with personal guilt and how to learn to talk about the most haunting experiences in life with those who are closest to you. A deeply human story that you shouldn’t miss when you have the opportunity to watch it. I can strongly recommend it without reservations.

The Judgement starts in 60 movie theaters in Germany (the biggest number of copies ever for a Bulgarian movie in Germany) under the title The Judgement – Grenze der Hoffnung on April 23. The film will be distributed hopefully also in your country. It was recently also screened on many international film festivals, so chances you can watch it soon are probably not so bad.

I watched the movie in Bulgarian without subtitles – and I had the whole cinema for myself, there were no other people. Quite an interesting experience.

The official website of the film:

© 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. © photo BGNES

The Case of the General’s Thumb

“Kiev, night of 20th-21st May, 1997
Sergeant Voronko of the State Vehicle Inspectorate loved his snug little glass booth on Independence Square in the heart of Kiev, and never more than in the small hours, when Khreshchatik Street was free of traffic, and nipping out for a smoke was to experience a vibrant, blanketing silence very different from the fragile night stillness of his home village.”

But on that particular late evening, things turn out to be very different from usual for Sergeant Voronko. First he gets a call to go urgently to another post due to an emergency there, and when he has almost arrived there with his old Zhiguli car, he gets another call to go back again to his glass booth at Khreshchatik Street because his presence at the other post is no longer needed. When he is arriving back at his usual workplace, a corpse is hanging attached to an advertising balloon. The deceased is not only a distinguished general but also a presidential advisor and the circumstances hint at a crime with a political background. And, strangely enough, one of the general’s thumbs is missing. (At the end of the book we will know why.)

It is clear from the very beginning of the book that this is not an ordinary crime. The general’s connections, his links to the Ukrainian and also Russian Intelligence networks are uncovered step by step by the young investigator lieutenant Viktor Slutsky. Slutsky, and not one of his more experienced colleagues is dealing with the case – maybe someone thinks the rookie Slutsky will get (conveniently for certain people) lost in this complicated, entangled and twisted network of relations between all the players involved; or maybe he can be easily directed by someone who is pulling the strings behind the scenes? Both is very probable, and indeed Slutsky gets permanently calls on his mobile phone by a mysterious voice that is always strangely very well informed and tells the lieutenant what to do next. But when Slutsky meets Refat, a mysterious Tartar who works for the Russian Intelligence, he starts to be for the first time keeping a few secrets from the voice on the phone…

The other main line of the story follows Nik, an ethnic Russian that was recently expelled from Tajikistan with his family. Nik, with a background in police/intelligence work and a sound knowledge of German, is trying to get a job in Ukraine where he was born and where he intends to relocate his family too. Luck seems to be on his side when he is offered a job where exactly his abilities and experiences are needed. But he soon realizes, just like lieutenant Slutsky that he is mainly a pawn in a political chess game. He and Sakhno, the other agent he is joining to do some unclear business – including tossing fish over a garden gate, or carting a parrot around – in not exactly exciting German cities like Koblenz, Euskirchen or Trier, are always told what to do without any explanation – and they are also not supposed to ask too many questions.

It would spoil the fun if I would retell the story here in detail, so I better stop here with the synopsis.

You can read Kurkov’s novel like you would read any fast-paced crime/espionage genre novel. It is a real page-turner and I read it in one evening. There is a lot of action, good dialogues, very credible characters and an interesting story. All ingredients you need to enjoy a book of this genre.

But there is also a second, less obvious layer of the story. Kurkov is a master of intertextuality. The book is full of allusions to other works and writers of the genre but also to Russian literature. Ian Fleming, Eric Ambler, John Le Carre, but also Michail Bulgakov, Ilf & Petrov, Yevgeniy Zamyatin, to name just the few references which I have discovered – and I am sure there are much more in the book. If you are well-read, you will enjoy this book therefore even more.

Additionally, there is a dry humor in many scenes, for example in an early chapter when Slutsky goes home after work to his family:

“Now, up to the eigth floor, and supper. The lift had yet to be installed, a fact for which the tenants, except perhaps the elderly couple on the twelfth floor, were physically the fitter.”

And, although on the surface this is not the main topic of the book, the strained relations between Russia and Ukraine cast already their long shadows over the story:

“RUSSIA AND UKRAINE – NEITHER PEACE NOR WAR? Ran the eye-catching Izvestiya headline. It was a question, it appeared, of determining the frontier, or, more exactly, of the two sides being able to agree where it ran.”

In this novel, things are rarely as they seem to be at a first glance. Even an innocent turtle keeps a dark secret.

Kurkov is a compassionate author. Viktor Slutsky and Nik Tsensky, the two main characters in this book share the same dream: to have a normal life in a decent flat with their families. And when Kurkov is granting almost all surviving characters in the story a happy end, it is like he is winking at us readers. They might be pawns in a political chess game, but they keep their dignity, and as a reward deserve a fairy tale-like ending.

Andrey Kurkov was a new discovery for me: it was the first book by him I read, but it will be definitely not the last.


Andrey Kurkov: The Case of the General’s Thumb, transl. by George Bird, Melville House, New York 2012

© 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.