zondag 8 april 2012

Nikolaj Kuntsjev revisited

Nikolaj Kuntsjev / Nikolai Kanchev in Leiden, June 1988.
Николай Кънчев в Лейден (Холандия), юни 1988.

Foto Copyright © Jan Paul Hinrichs
About 20 years ago, I spent a year studying in Sofia, the capital of what was called “the sixteenth republic of the Soviet Union” because of the predictably loyal line of the former Bulgarian communist authorities toward Moscow. Materially speaking, the people didn’t have it too bad for an East-bloc country, although censorship was alive and well. It was risky business to be a “dissident” in this corner of the East-bloc, to which came only foreign correspondents from countries like the DDR or Cuba. There were few writers who openly confronted the authorities. The main critic of the regime, Georgi Markov who had left for London, paid with his life for his critical BBC radio broadcasts: a political murder with a poison-laced umbrella unique even to the East-bloc. At the same time Bulgaria made itself accessible to foreign Bulgarianists. No East-bloc country was as generous with invitations to congresses and symposia. Western students had it pretty good.
     It was in this atmosphere that I became acquainted with the poet Nikolai Kanchev in Sofia in 1982. Born in 1936 in Biala voda, he published his first poems in 1957. His first collection, Presence, appeared in 1965. After publication in 1968 of his second collection, As Big as a Grain of Mustard, it took twelve years before a third collection came out. Kanchev remained active as a poet in those years, but his work was rejected by publishers and journals who adhered to their superiors. He also could not get a permit to live in Sofia and had to live in a village outside of town. When I met him, he had become a little more accepted. His background was intriguing. He appeared to be a dissident, but never was: as a poet he was simply too independent in a climate that demanded subordination to literary clichés.
      I usually met Kanchev in the smoky café of the Writer’s Union on the Angel Kanchev Street and in the loud restaurant of the journalist’s club on Count Ignatiev. He was always very careful that we didn’t get the “wrong”  table; on the other hand he didn’t mind being seen in the company of a foreigner. Once I went to the restaurant Liaskovska sreshta with him and we ended up sitting directly across from the former Minister of Internal affairs and the former Prime Minister Anton Yugov, who was one of the worst Bulgarian henchmen during Stalin’s time, responsible for numerous deaths. He had a body guard with a gun next to him. “A man without a conscience,” Kanchev said quietly. He liked to recall this experience. As for me, I really got a lot out of the conversations with Kanchev. Actually I had years of classes in Bulgarian literature from him, and learned a lot of opinions and facts that couldn’t be found in the books in communist times.
     Our contact resulted in the publication of his poems in Dutch in 1982. The publisher was De Lantaarn (The Latern), a small publishing house of Slavicists in Leiden, which I helped establish. It was Kanchev’s first book publication in the West. In 1988 he took his first trip to the West at the invitation of Poetry International. I picked him up at Schiphol airport. It was the only time that I saw any sign of insecurity in him: a man who came for the first time to the West at the age of fifty-two, at a gigantic airport, next to a luggage belt that was so different than everything at his provincial airport in Sofia. He was afraid that the telephone in his hotel room was being tapped by the Bulgarian secret service. But I have never seen him laugh the way he did when I gave him the book by Vladimir Kostov, Le parapluie bulgare (1986), a book published in Paris about the murder of Georgi Markov. At first he hid it under his pillow, as if he was afraid that walls had eyes.
    The Berlin wall came down a year later. Years later, in 1998, he recited his poems in the Bulgarian Embassy in The Hague, a formerly hostile political climate. He even did good business there with book sales. Now Kanchev’s poems have appeared in translation and book form in many different countries.

In hindsight, my interest in Kanchev was roused by his character and his independent attitude which was refreshing in the stark Bulgarian climate of the 1980s. The first Dutch translations of Kanchev were done by the Flemish Slavicist Raymond Detrez. Later I translated Kanchev. In 1991, a selection of my translations was published as a book by Plantage in Leiden. I haven’t read Kanchev’s work for a long time, but if I re-read his poems now, I appreciate them more and more.
     Kanchev is supposed to be difficult, but sometimes his work is deceptively simple. Witness the following poem in which he compares the poet to a monk:


At the end of town,
where the houses send,
there’s the monastery.

At the world’s end,
where words end,
there’s the Word.

The roots of Kanchev’s work can be found in the small but surprisingly strong Bulgarian tradition of philosophical poetry (Atanas Dalchev, Pencho Slaveikov, Aleksandar Gerov), in Bulgarian sayings, in modern Western poetry, and in Eastern philosophy and religious texts. Kanchev published translations of modern French and English language poets like Henri Michaux, Yves Bonnefoy, Eugène Guillevic, Kenneth White, and Ezra Pound. He writes free verses, without rhyme which, despite the unconventional character of his imagery, are so lyrical that they rarely come across as unnatural. The world of Kanchev appears to be born again in a lightning-like flash of wonder, as if through a child’s eyes. One can feel restrained tension in his poetry, but very rarely is his tone negative. He is a great artist who, despite extremely depressing circumstances, never ceased to admire the beauty and depth of life, and never lost his self-confidence.
     As a poet, Kanchev will always remain master of paradox for me:


If I flash you’ll appear.
Backs turned against their present,
how can they hope to greet you?

You’re just what I myself am
at the precise place predicted
where we’re bound to miss each other

Like thunder and lightning –
we may come at the same instant,
yet manifest ourselves apart.

Jan Paul Hinrichs

| Eerder verschenen in Ablak 7 (2002), no. 2, pp. 37-38. Vertaald uit het Nederlands door een onbekende vertaler.