|Nikolaj Kuntsjev / Nikolai Kanchev in Leiden, June 1988.
Николай Кънчев в Лейден (Холандия), юни 1988.
Foto Copyright © Jan Paul Hinrichs
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.
At the end of town,
where the houses send,
there’s the monastery.
there’s the Word.
how can they hope to greet you?
where we’re bound to miss each other
yet manifest ourselves apart.