Swans Commentary » swans.com June 3, 2013  



Sofia And The Bulgaria Of Ivan Vazov


by Peter Byrne


Literary Travelogue



(Swans - June 3, 2013)   Bulgarians have always had one foot in plowed fields. When the Turkish era ended in the 1870s they put their other boot down in a big new house, Sofia, the capital that was going to be all theirs at last. They scraped their soles and turned their minds to more than growing cabbages and stringing red peppers to dry. They embraced a peasant's idea of art for art's sake and made the city into a garden of the strictly inedible. Its paths wouldn't lead to cowsheds but to ever more trees and flowers. The city would be an ornamental pond dug for ducks that would never understand how they managed to escape the cooking pot.

Sofia would have no model but this forbidden dream of ignoring the practical. The city couldn't develop in the traces of a royal pleasure ground like Paris or London. The nation had no nobility, the Turks having seen to that in the fifteenth century. The capital would be a promenade for a farmhand's Sunday. The National Opera House might boast ten muscular columns straight from Greco-Roman Never-never land, but note well who stands flat-footed before them, the national gardener, Alexsandar Stamboliiski of the Bulgarian Agrarian Party. He's inhumanly large even for a statue. He wears his go-to-market suit.

This capital city is like a country seat. Its glories have been put carefully in place, as in a parlor window. The neoclassical façades are hung on the wall like framed pictures. The Alex Nevski Square is the proudest bay window of all. The cathedral on its pedestal of cobble-stoned space shows itself off in a fine crisscrossing of perspectives making any approach a delight. Centerpiece is the word. You can almost hear the carts rolling up the several slopes and the admiring oohs and ahs of country folk.

Buildings bulbous and self-confident, 1900 exercises in national pride, hold their own on all sides. Like dealers straight from the cattle market, they talk loud at street level, demanding room for their big bellies. The mode came from Central Europe. You can imagine a cry going out from Sofia under construction: "Send us a couple of dozen straight off! We're caught here without a style." Where else but in Bulgaria do inflated bullfrogs, looking sly, recall a golden age? No one dares suggest they leave their prime sites and abdicate their reign. Their wannabe opulence gives the city its savor.

The make-believe gone into building a capital has produced a mix of the sacred, profane and downright trivial. One recognizes the hand of the paysan parvenu. Classy is classy and its own reward. The big and imposing regularly overshadows what's inside. The Sheraton Hotel encircles the Second Century Church of St. George. For years a department store shared the same roof with the Council of Ministers. St. Petka of the Saddlers' tiny church is a fertile seed planted too deep. Its fifteenth century frescoes can't get through the concrete wrappings of an overpass and a kitsch-heavy bazaar.

Statues once rooted in this peasant garden carry on with a life of their own. Diana the Huntress gives birth to bronze descendants in business suits and slouch hats. Where she spoke with her haunches, they claim integrity by the no-nonsense positioning of their high shoes. Pity is due anyone enrolled in the monument to the Soviet Army. This encumbers a good-sized piece of parkland on Ruski Boulevard. The Russian soldier deserves our sympathy. He has to stand guard over a Bulgarian mother and child for the rest of his metallic life although the couple is now nestled in the arms of the European Union. Not much can be done to relieve the blushes of these fraternizing Russians and Bulgarians. Students only gingerly applied bright paint in respectful vandalism. The wind can change direction quickly in these parts. Lenin's statue has gone but the square it stood in is still there.

The City Garden, a tiny park in the center of Sofia, dates from Ottoman times. Then there was a pavilion where an orchestra played and a wooden shanty housed a café. A canon signaled high noon daily. Later, in the war against the Turks, Russian soldiers stopped to be wined and dined to the sound of a brass band before going off to battle. Later still, a municipal casino was built. In 1944, with the advent of innocence and Marxist-Leninism, the gambling house became an art gallery full of bad painting. In the same spirit, one end of the rectangle was adorned with a jewel box mausoleum whose treasure was the embalmed body of Georgi Dimitrov. When the regime fell, the weary corpse like so much else was spirited away. The role of tutelary deity over this patch of green reverted to another immortal by government decree, the author Ivan Vazov.

The National Academic Theater bearing his name lords it nearby, threatening the grass that remains with an avalanche of red-brick culture. Wild animals cast in metal wonder how they can get down from the roof. This wheezing, overfed piece of German turn-of-the century classicism only makes sense in culinary terms. Imagine a wurst and sauerkraut eater who decides on a night out and a foray into haute cuisine. He has his best suit sponged down and squeezes into it. Pouches, knobs, and laps appear. But he believes his tasteful Grecian necktie will make up for them. A gold-plated fountain pen goes into his breast pocket and a yard of clanking watch chain girdles his expectant paunch. He feels he's not overloaded but simply declarative. You have to admire the old boy for his good humor and because he's so pleased with himself. You want to count his red bricks with him one by one as he snorts with satisfaction.

Vazov not only has his theatre by the City Garden, he spreads himself over the whole neighborhood. He sits foursquare in bronze on the other side of the Russian Church. There's a book between his legs and a full shelf of mustache beneath his nose. The sculptor caught him in the very posed pose of a nervous somebody having his first photo taken by a freshman photographer. Vazov's grave is also nearby, beside St. Sofia Church, brushed by a weeping willow and covered by a boulder from Mt. Vitosha, the city's granite witness, ex-People's Mountain, 1944-1989. The Patriarch of Bulgarian letters or the People's Poet, depending on your regime, lived around the corner until 1921. You can visit the two-story house and drink tea to the shade of the writer who, one guidebook says, "is close to the heart of every Bulgarian." Another guidebook notes more memorably that Vazov often sojourned in the country at Berkovitsa. The townsfolk there built him no monument. Twice a week, however, they caught a young Turkish girl, tied her up in a sack, and threw it over his garden wall. With no more readers like that around, no wonder the novel is a dying genre.

Vazov's national glory is based on his novel Under the Yoke. The title refers to what Bulgarians consider the central fact of their history, their five hundred years of Turkish domination. The centuries of stifled national spirit made Under the Yoke into something like a founding epic when it appeared in 1888. Save for folksongs, there hadn't been much in the way of usable Bulgarian literature for Vazov to work with. He had to launch a tradition rather than insert himself into one. He would manage to forge a modern literary language for his country.

To grasp just how on his own Vazov found himself, we have only to consider what was going on in Europe at the time. In France J.-K. Huysmans had already shed naturalism and worked in a modern solipsistic vein. In England George Gissing viewed the complexity of British society with an eye that looked to both Freud and Marx. Vazov had of course read foreign novelists and traveled, at least to Romania and Russia. He recognized how far Bulgaria trailed behind. One of his characters sees life through the eyes of Dostoyevsky. The saturnine young man had been a student in Russia where he espoused utopian socialism. Vazov says of him: "Living in Bulgaria a short time would be enough to bring him to his senses."

Vazov felt there was a unique Bulgarian reality and determined to depict it. He would put together a coherent picture of village and country life with a variegated dramatis personae. Bumpkins they might be and their society rudimental, but for Vazov their closeness to the earth compensated for their narrow lives. The mountains at their back, snowcapped and wooded, are unmistakable. The remote monasteries, the flooded gorges, the rough roads are all swept by the edge of a wind that belongs only to Bulgaria.

Fixing its sights on a particular village, the novel tells of the preparation and failure of the 1876 uprising against Turkish rule. Writing in the 1880s, the author could view this fiasco in the light of the successful war of liberation of 1878. He could satirize and even castigate the wishful thinking and incompetence of the would-be revolutionaries. He could suggest the painful truth that many Bulgarians had a stake in the Ottoman Empire. He could show Bulgarian treachery and cowardice as well as the cruel treatment served up by Bulgarians to their countrymen, the defeated rebels. This harsh realism keeps at bay the novel's sentimental drift.

Such truth telling didn't stamp Vazov a defeatist wanting in patriotism. The triumph of 1878 eliminated similar considerations. The tenor of his conclusion is again realistic. In 1876 the national spirit hadn't reached boiling point. The debacle was necessary. By provoking a brutal Turkish reprisal it drew foreign intervention. The brutality also put paid to any idea of power sharing with the Turks. This worse-is-better conviction has a distinct flavor of small nation realpolitik. It would be the Russians and not the Bulgarians who drove out the Turks.

At times the accuracy of the author's image-making silences any criticism. A drunken Bulgarian cripple lets himself go to mad audacity. He vehemently insists that a passing Turk carry him on his back. The intimidated son of the Sublime Port gets down and lets the drunkard mount him. A crowd of Bulgarians stand awestruck. They sense the coming end of Ottoman rule.

Vazov's stony realism keeps cropping up among the idealist flowers. There's a famous passage about a subject people being a merry people. They can eat and drink and sing in the open air without any sense of political responsibility. But such a view of unawakened power suggests a danger for any ruler, Turk or Bulgarian. A strong didactic line also runs through the novel. Violence and extreme action are the essence of revolution. Moderation must be put away. The Bulgarian of 1876 had to learn to be ruthless in his just cause. The end does justify the means. Moses, not Jesus, was the man to deal with the Turks.

The storytelling of Vazov is a familiar bag of tricks: Concealed witnesses, lost letters recovered, coincidental meetings. A hero mistakenly believes he has been betrayed by his lover and judges her unjustly. For her part she suffers direly believing him dead when he's not. Psychology ranges from the crudest black and white to a coloring of some subtlety. Vazov's Turks are pure stereotype, evil incarnate, shrewd like animals and at the same time dull-witted. When they appear in any number the English translator keeps invoking the word horde. On the Bulgarian side, the protagonists are too lily-white to be of much interest. The cast of minor characters, however, is rich in social and moral nuance. We can disregard the blackguard Bulgarians, mere ciphers of treachery sold out to the Turks.

The degree of adherence the various conspirators give to the rebellion is finely etched. One of them surreptitiously alters his name when signing the manifesto, there's a reckless dreamer who will put his name to anything, another is a poseur enamored of his new uniform, out for blood one day and in a blue funk the next, diplomats argue about which foreign powers to deal with, politicians are in favor of a republic or monarchy but not just yet, a prudent merchant inclines to rebellion but hedges his bets by keeping his sons in the dark and insisting on a cache of arms in case things go wrong.

With the character of Zamanov, the author works toward an idea of true-blood-doesn't-lie patriotism that has become the curse of the Balkans. This cynical spy in Turkish pay has more depth and shadow than the other bad Bulgarians. He's forceful, almost magnetic. When the chips are down his true self emerges. Putting his own life in danger, he turns double agent to avoid harming the patriots.

After the botched revolution, village attitudes are shown to be various. Some denounce the rebels to the authorities as criminals, others bolt their doors to them as they flee capture, still others are heroically generous. Townspeople running from their razed homes and the Turkish avengers are reduced to a chilling egotism. Vazov is at his best describing the reaction of a solitary shepherd. Asked for help by a fleeing rebel, he provides food to his modest ability. Duty done and the rebel out of sight, he betrays him to the Turks to save his own skin.

Buzzing in the background like a friendly bluebottle is village life: Vicious gossip, salty characters, rustic love, café talk, meals in the garden under a plane tree, misinformation bruited about, church rituals, the village school, a theatrical performance, the monastery in the mountains that is apart but a guiding light. Action here trembles with fright. Householders wonder if they can hold on to what they have. Rock the boat, they seem to be saying, and the Turks may drown us all. More than the melodramatics of love and rebellion, it's the rendering of this little world that has won the affection of Bulgarians. On this homespun terrain, Vazov's hand is light and sure. The Bulgaria you can touch is all there.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published June 3, 2013