zaterdag 7 juli 2012

Remembering Bulgarian literary life in the 1980's


Sofia, januari 1980

Foto / Copyright  © Jan Paul Hinrichs
It was in 1978 when I first visited Bulgaria. At that time I was in my third year at Leiden University, where I studied Slavic languages. However, only later, when I spent a year working on my specialization in Sofia before graduating from

Sofia, september 1980.

Foto © Jan Paul Hinrichs
university, did I come to fully appreciate Bulgarian literature. Bulgarian was my minor subject for which I decided to write a thesis about the poetess Elisaveta Bagryana. I came across her name when I read the book A History of Bulgarian Literature written by Charles Moser, who clearly admired her poetry. This book was published in The Hague by the publisher Mouton & Co. It turned out that Leiden University Library possessed earlier works by Bagryana. Therefore her earlier creations, in which she extolled love and nature, became my first encounter with Bulgarian poetry, which I found truly beautiful.
     When I arrived on the Istanbul Express in frozen and snowy Sofia in February 1981 in order to do some more research for my thesis, a friend of mine who I had written about my work arranged a meeting with me and Bagryana. ‘It’s a great honour,’ she told me, ‘Bagryana won’t meet everyone.’ All I had to do then was dial the telephone number and refer to my friend. The woman that I got on the telephone – she was in her eighties – apologized for her coughing and explained that she had just returned from Stockholm. Nevertheless she said it would be fine with her if I could come over at around six o’clock.
     At six on the dot, I stood at her door in Neofit Rilski Street, a quiet backstreet behind busy Vitosha Boulevard. A stiff, middle-aged man looking like a butler opened the door, as I found out later he was her son. My jeans, long hair and beard did not seem to meet with his approval. The elderly woman appeared in the hall and greeted me most warmly. Her shimmering blue dress, shining black hair, dark eyebrows and exquisite lips still reminded one of her former legendary beauty. An indication of aristocracy was not only in her appearance, but also in the interior of her flat, which contained quite a number of pieces of mahogany furniture, mirrors, expensive vases, paintings and massive lamps.
     With Bagryana's son and his wife, I started making a polite conversation about Bulgarian literature and films while she herself retired to her study. She emerged twenty minutes later, carrying five autographed books, which she solemnly handed me. Then she poured cognac into our glasses and asked us to stand up, which her son and daughter-in-law seemed  to consider as unnecessary. On my departure, one and a half hours later, I promised her to translate her poems into Dutch.
     Less than four months later, the local publishing office De Lantaarn, which had a reputation for being prompt, unprejudiced, but a bit reckless, set out on the task of printing my translation. In next to no time, the book was ‘typeset’ on a  pre-war typewriter that belonged to my late grandfather and produced by a printer in Scheveningen.  Every conversation we had about typographic matters  was drowned out by the barking of his gigantic Alsatians, which, unfortunately, aroused fear in me that was much stronger than that of making typing or translation errors in my work.
     I sent Bagryana a booklet of her poems. Very soon I received a letter from her in which she wrote that she was happy with my translation.
     A few months later, I graduated. I had been unemployed for about nine months when in the summer of 1982 I suddenly received a telephone call from the cultural attaché at the Bulgarian embassy: ‘On behalf of the ambassador, it is my privilege to invite you to participate in the symposium dedicated to Bulgarian literature in Varna. It will take a fortnight. The departure is scheduled for next Saturday. Everything will be paid for by the Bulgarian government, including the flights, of course.’
     I was in seventh heaven with joy, where I was drawn from my somewhat uninspiring state  of unemployment by the hand of the mighty man. That stage of my life I every so often filled in by plugging away at my quite boring thesis. For me, it was not just an invitation to a formal meeting, but to the beaches of the Black Sea! I arranged all the necessary formalities for my ‘educational leave’ with the Department of Social Security, obtained a visa from the Bulgarian embassy, and all that was left to do was to get my ticket at Schiphol simply by saying my name at the check-in desk and depart. I didn’t even have a single document mentioning the symposium – neither a programme nor a written invitation.
    The other person invited along with me to the Balkans was Harry, a lecturer from the University of Leiden, who spoke excellent Bulgarian, but had never shown much knowledge of Bulgarian literature. When the medium-size Soviet jet took off, he asked me whether I knew why they had invited me.  I replied that I did not really  know, but I could guess that Bagryana’s poems were to blame. Harry pretended not to have heard that, his only remark, however, was that De Lantaarn, which, as a matter of fact, had not been registered at the Chamber of Commerce, was not ‘an official publishing office’. I decided to refrain from asking him why he was invited.
     Having changed at Sofia, where at the airport we had met ‘specialists’ and ‘poets’ recruited by the other Bulgarian embassies, we arrived in Varna at around midnight. Athletically built young officials, who you would expect to work at a sports club rather than at the Writer’s Union, walked  the group smoothly to the awaiting cabs. Around midnight we came to the motel-looking block of flats  that the Union had built for its members to the north of Varna. Each room had  a delightful view of the Black Sea above the tops of the cypresses.
     During our ten days’ stay  in Varna, we had lectures given by writers, poets and critics in the morning and excursions to the nearby areas in the afternoon. The food was delicious, the sea was great, the bars were open till early hours of the morning, the colleagues were very friendly. I brought home a suitcase full of autographed books presented to me. For many years on, the people that I had met in Varna – the colleagues from the United States, Slovenia, Sicilia and Poland - kept sending their works to me. I myself came back with the poem ‘The Black Sea’, which I managed to get published in a literary journal.
     In retrospect, I still think that the most significant discoveries were not made on the Black Sea coast,  but in Sofia, where the last few days of the symposium were held. That is where I met Nikolai Kunchev. Another chance, just like the one with Elisaveta Bagryana, presented itself: a couple of months later De Lantaarn published a collection of poems by Kunchev, but this time it was translated by Raymond Detrez, a Slavic specialist from Gent, who was also in Varna.  It was him that had introduced me to Nikolai.
     The Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov, who was murdered by a poison dart fired from an umbrella in London in 1978, describes in his works how the Writers’ Union functioned as an organization serving the interests of the communist elite. That symposium was no different -  for example, useful contacts were being made in order to translate the poems written by the chairman of the Writers’ Union. As a result, this man was translated in fifty  countries. The translators were eager to cooperate as it could lead to new invitations. However, had it not been for this symposium, Kunchev’s first edition would not have appeared in the west - but of course the chairman’s ‘creations’ were published at the union’s expenses, and Kunchev’s were not.
     I came to realize soon enough that Nikolai Kunchev was a serious artist: his style was full of surprises and original images, intensely complicated and erudite. The communist party did not trust him: he had been banned from living in Sofia for many years and he could not get his books published. But he had recently started being allowed to participate in public literary events – we are speaking about 1982, the communist regime had another seven years to go. We met again when I visited Bulgaria in 1983, 1986 1991 and 1998. I even stayed at his place, during which we drank a bit too much, at least more than I (and his wife) would consider reasonable.
     Nikolai was a hefty man with large hands and whiskers which were as grey as his hair. He was always dressed in very simple clothes: he invariably wore a sweater. When he was napping  in front of the television, he - the man who had bookshelves packed with volumes from the international repertoire and, not to forget, an impressive collection of French and English works on Eastern mysticism and religion  - resembled a labourer resting after hard work. To tell the truth, he was a labourer, a very disciplined labourer ‘with the word’, as he wrote in one of his poems: ‘The poet is a miner, with the word on his forehead.’
     Nikolai had extraordinarily small, penetrating and vigilant eyes  that disguised his peasant’s shrewdness (he was originally from a village) and his joviality. His way of walking was that of a calm, single-minded and self-confident person, he walked as a man who has determent his own path through life and would not be deflected from it. He would decide for himself when to stop. When he talked, one could notice an indication of his hermetic, aphoristic poetry. He was very quick at making conclusions, sometimes he responded to a question that was not quite finished. ‘Just look…’, was his favourite expression with which he opened almost every conversation.
     For such an independent individual as Nikolai was, it must have been quite a sacrifice to put one of his two rooms at my disposal – a person twenty years his junior, who ‘as a foreigner, could not quite comprehend the true nature of communism’, and who ‘knew quite a lot about Bulgaria’, but  ‘still had to learn more’.  I did actually look that way. Kunchev gave me a number of private lessons, from which  I learned a lot. But for these lessons, I could never  publish my books about Bulgarian literature which appeared in the Dutch language in 1987. In those books I wrote about two poets, in whom he, however, did not personally believe. On the other hand, Kunchev aroused my interest in another two poets’ works, Pencho Slaveikov and Alexander Vutimski, who I wrote my ‘scientific’ articles in English about. Despite his reputation for being selfish and preoccupied with his own work only, I heard him talk mostly about the others.  After all, he resembled a grumpy, but good-natured bear, who wrote in one of his verses: ‘My growl defends the paradise’.
     It was Kunchev who first drew my attention to the poet Atanas Dalchev. Unfortunately he died before I ever set foot in Bulgaria, but his daughter, Victoria, was still alive. Kunchev gave me her telephone number.  I called, and we met in the kitchen in her flat in Solunska Street, where she had lived with her parents when they were alive. This very kitchen was immortalized in Dalchev’s  prose fragment ‘The Writer’. The kitchen where, according to Kunchev, he spent a lot of time hanging around and in between wrote his works. He liked this place as it kept his unnecessary worries about his family away.  The reason why I decided to visit  Dalchev’s  daughter was to get her permission to translate her father’s works. And I managed to do so. However, I never  found out whether she received the second bibliophile edition of my translation which had been published by a publisher in Baarn and which I had sent to her via somebody else.
     Only once did I witness  Nikolai’s insecurity when in the summer of 1988 he, thanks to De Lantaarn’s publication, came to the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam. It was the first time he had ever travelled alone to the West. There he was: in the June of 1988, a fifty- year-old man stood at the airport which was immensely bigger than that in Sofia. He was about to take his suitcase from the carousel. But never before had I seen him laughing more  genuinely than then in The Netherlands when he received the then banned book ‘Le Parapluie Bulgare’ by Vladimir Kostov, a book about the murdered writer Georgi Markov, which he shoved in his bag in a smuggler’s fashion. I fully realized the extent of his anxiety when I rang him up at his hotel room. Then he asked me uneasily whether our conversation was  being listened in. At that time it seemed to be absurd, but now I think that his fears were not unfounded.
     In the autumn of 1998 we met in the Netherlands again. This time he came to a poetry festival in The Hague. Meanwhile, his works were being translated everywhere, and he was dreaming of the Nobel Prize.  He read his poems at the Bulgarian Embassy, and I accompanied and sometimes interpreted for him, which was absolutely unthinkable for me in the communist era. Afterwards Kunchev sold quite a few of his books. He stood there like a Bulgarian market trader selling his geese, keeping one of his hands on the banknotes in his pocket: that was how he looked when I last saw him.
     As for Bagryana, I never met her again after that visit, yet she did send me a luxurious edition of her book issued for her ninetieth anniversary.  In 1991 – she was eighty-nine then – I intended to pay another visit to her. However, the first thing I heard from Kunchev’s wife on my arrival in Bulgaria was that Bagryana had died a couple of days before that. I explained it to Kunchev that if it had not been for Bagryana, I would never have been invited to the symposium in Varna, and consequently we would never have met and his book would never have appeared in the Netherlands. Also, the new edition of his poems, which was due to be published, would never have seen the light.
    ‘You are right’,  he granted me that only once. ‘Now I am walking in irrational ways once again.’
     As a poet, Bagryana was recognized by everyone in Bulgaria, but her personal life did not receive the same optimistic response as she was on friendly terms both with the tsar and  the communists, which is why she was dubbed ‘the mistress of three regimes’.  Had she died two years earlier, her burial would have become a pompous state ceremony, even the president Zhivkov would have been present. In the changed circumstances, not many men turned out at her funeral.
      The second edition of Bagryana’s poems translated by me appeared in 1983, but never again have I dared to read them  - neither the original nor the translation. I have always worried that those good memories of her poetry would disappear. I have always thought that should I read them again, I would be disappointed. On the other hand, maybe I would not. All the same, had I never read Bagryana and translated her works, my connection with Bulgaria would be different.
     After all, she was a femme fatale also for me.


Jan Paul Hinrichs

Translated from Dutch by Natalia Hinrichs

| This translation has not previously appeared in print. See for a Bulgarian translation of this memoir: Jan Paul Hinrichs, ‘Elisaveta Bagrjana, Nikolaj Kǎnčev i dǎšterjata na Atanas Dalčev: Spomen ot literaturnija život v Bǎlgarija prez 80-te godini’ (translated by Julian Žiliev), Literaturen vestnik 22, no. 28, 18-24.09.2013, pp. 12-13 [=Ян Паул Хинрихс, Елисавета Багряна, Николай Кънчев и дъщерята на Атанас Далчев: Спомен от литературния живот в България през 80-те години (преведе от английски Юлиан Жилиев), Литературен вестник, бр. 28, 18-24.09.2013, с. 12-13]. 

See for a published, revised version of the original Dutch text: Jan Paul Hinrichs, ‘Elisaveta Bagrjana en Nikolaj Kuntsjev. Herinneringen aan het Bulgaarse literaire leven (1981-1998)’, in Michel De Dobbeleer, Stijn Vervaet (eds.), (Mis)Understanding the Balkans: Essays in Honour of Raymond Detrez (Gent: Academia Press, 2013), pp.  375-383 (see also the message of December 19, 2013).

© Jan Paul Hinrichs 2012.

Key words: Elisaveta Bagrjana Nikolaj Kuntsjev Atanas Daltsjev De Lantaarn Елисавета Багряна Николай Кънчев Атанас Далчев Ян Паул Хинрихс Холандия