Karl May, Germany's most famous adventure writer, disguised himself as a Turk and adopted a strange name to go unnoticed in 19th Century Bulgaria
In the mid-1980s when I was a student in Dresden, then in the GDR, I received a strange letter. It arrived in an ordinary envelope, postmarked and addressed, but it was empty; it appeared to have been opened and then inexpertly resealed. Upon closer inspection, a folded grey sheet of paper fell out, which turned out to be a signed and stamped official form. East German customs informed me in their inimitable style that "one item of printed material cut from a capitalist media source containing content hostile to the GDR's civic order" had been removed from my postal package.
Knowing my weakness for books by the German travel writer Karl May and my interest in his wild and eccentric life, my brother had sent me an article about the author from the West German magazine Stern, but unfortunately it had fallen in the hands of the GDR's fastidious postal censors. And so Karl May, the master of fictitious, fantastically elaborate adventure stories, fell victim to Socialism's humdrum spy phobia.
For GDR leaders, May was in fact a nonperson. His books, which were published only in West Germany, were officially banned and confiscated because their content and ideas did not conform to the official principles of Socialist Realism, even though May has been one of the most popular and widely published German authors, not only at home but abroad. Altogether, nearly 200 million copies of his 80 or so novels are in print, with 100 million copies published in Germany alone.
Through the Gorges of the Balkans
Karl May was born in 1842 and until his death in 1912 lived in Dresden, in Saxony. His most popular novels are set in the American Wild West and recount the adventures of the Apache chief Winnetou and his friend the noble, brave and devout Old Shatterhand — a traveller from Germany and an alter ego of the author. May presented his novels as authentic travelogues and built a cult around himself and his alleged exploits. He turned his villa into a virtual museum of trophies and souvenirs he supposedly gathered during his adventures, posed for photographs dressed as a trapper with specially made guns and sent the autographed photos to thousands of his fans. For a long time no one suspected that his adventures took place in his imagination while he was sitting in the safety of his study and that his travels were the fruit of long hours spent poring over the best encyclopaedias, atlases and maps available at the time.
In fact, Karl May took his one and only trip to the United States in 1908, when he was already a successful author, and went no further west than Buffalo, New York, and Niagara Falls.
The novels (or "travelogues," as he called them) from his "Oriental" series are lesser known, yet perhaps of greater interest to Bulgarian readers. The six-book set begins in the Sahara with In the Desert. The action then shifts to Egypt and the Near East before travelling From Baghdad to Istanbul, then to Bulgaria in the novel Through the Gorges of the Balkans (first published in English in 1979 under the title The Secret Brotherhood). May had little more firsthand knowledge of the Near East than he did of the United States — his only two real journeys to the Orient were to Egypt, where he didn't stray further into the desert than the tourist attractions near the Pyramids. The writer never even set foot on the Balkan Peninsula.
But that didn't stop May from enthusiastically recounting his adventures in Bulgarian lands — told as always in the first person and using his "Oriental" pseudonym, Kara Ben Nemzi. Of course, his heroic Balkan traveller is every bit as resourceful, brave and ready to help people in need and punish evildoers as his counterpart was among the Indians on the Great Plains and in the ravines of the Rocky Mountains.
May began publishing the story of his Bulgarian exploits serially in a magazine in Regensburg during 1882 in "Memories of a Journey Through the Kingdom of the Turks." Only 10 years later did the first full edition appear as a book, Through the Gorges of the Balkans. The action takes place in the 1870s before Bulgaria's liberation from the Ottoman Empire. At the beginning of the novel, Kara Ben Nemzi leaves the city of Edirne, or Adrianople, accompanied as always by his faithful servant and friend Hadzhi Halef Omar. He sets out through what is now Bulgaria in hot pursuit of a group of bandits whom he ends up disarming singlehandedly.
For the mass German audience of the time, Karl May's books were undoubtedly an important and practically unique source of information about the distant, mysterious Orient and the still unfamiliar Bulgarians, their lives and customs, and the dangers lurking on Balkan roadways. Readers are introduced to a fictitious and eloquent expat, who, of course, manages to escape unscathed from all sorts of exotic scrapes that would cause burghers, safe and sound in their cosy German homes, to tremble and break out in a cold sweat.
May's main achievement was that he succeeded in creating a relatively authentic atmosphere filled with details from everyday life which he gleaned from numerous ethnographic and historical publications. Of course, his narratives reveal a certain naïveté — the political map of the Balkans remains deliberately vague and does not allow for an exact dating of the events.
The episodic characters who appear alongside the main duo — Kara Ben Nemzi and Hadzhi Halef — are one-dimensional and rely heavily on the author's own stereotypes. Turks are lazy, cowardly and grimy, and when in positions of power they shamelessly grovel before their superiors, while mistreating and cheating their inferiors. Karl May showed a certain sympathy towards Bulgarians — in his prose they appear as hard-working, friendly and hospitable, yet poor and living in terror of their capricious Turkish rulers.
The author begins his journey on horseback through what is now southern Bulgaria, heading towards Shar Planina hot on the trail of a famous outlaw known as The Shut (according to May, this nickname meant "Yellow-Faced" in Serbian). Along the way he contemplates the security of the region's roads, a topic of interest even today: "Banditry can never be vanquished on the Balkan Peninsula. Especially in recent days the newspapers have been falling over themselves to report on the constant attacks on travellers, assassinations, hired hits, arson and other such incidents, which are due to the chaotic conditions there…"
Near Mastanli (present-day Momchilgrad) Kara Ben Nemzi meets Bulgarian villagers for the first time: "Communities in Bulgaria are called sela, or villages. They are located quite far from the highway — or from that which is understood under that concept here — they are hidden and cannot be spotted from far away. Don't count on finding European-style highways in such places. Even the word pat, or road, is too generous a description for that which connects one village to another. In most cases it's simply a set of tracks carved out by oxcarts, which makes the traveller envy the birds their freedom…"
With his description of Bulgarian villages, Karl May certainly shocked his fellow countrymen accustomed to orderly urban planning: "Bulgarian villages usually begin in a field and stretch along a river, which they use both as a canal and as a defence in times of danger. Each village consists of only a few courtyards, each of which contains six to 10 huts. The huts are either dug into the ground and covered with branches and a mound of hay or are woven from willow branches and resemble squat baskets. There are separate huts for people, for horses, for livestock, for pigs, for sheep and for chickens. Animals can come and go as they please and wander freely between the huts..."
May also described another curious tradition that most likely has its roots in fantasy rather than ethnography: "The Bulgarian is famous for hanging a horse's head over the entrance to his hut or the head of another large animal such as an ox, mule or donkey. He thinks this will bring him good luck..."
In one of Kara Ben Nemzi's most extensive encounters with a Bulgarian — besides the constant chases, shootouts, fistfights and mutual kidnappings and rescues involving Turkish and Albanian bandits — he chats with the gardener Yafiz, who has just pruned his rosebushes. It turns out that poor Yafiz's life dream is to try dzhebelski tyutyun, or tobacco from Dzhebel, which only the pashas and ministers in Constantinople smoked. The destitute Bulgarians usually filled their pipes with dried-out cornstalks. The Bulgarian gardener's ecstasy is unbounded when Kara Ben Nemzi gives him a bit of his precious dzhebelski tyutyun. With typical Bulgarian generosity, Yafiz gives his German guest a small vial of rose oil and, despite his poverty, refuses to take money for the priceless gift.
Illustration from the book
Kara Ben Nemzi makes his way across the Rhodope, through villages like Barutin and towns such as Nevrokop and Melnik. He enters what is now the Republic of Macedonia, travelling from Radovis all the way to Usturumca (now Strumitsa). He frequently relies on Bulgarian Christian (and this is emphasised in the book!) hospitality and returns the favour either with packages of real coffee or sage advice. One of the most dramatic scenes is when the German traveller helps expose a fake case of vampirism.
The Bulgarian tile-maker Wlastan is fooled by his rivals into believing that his dead daughter has become a vampire and is on the verge of conducting the cruel ceremony needed to save her soul: "The grave must be opened and a sharp spike blessed by a priest and smeared with the blood of a pig slaughtered eight days before Christmas must be driven through the heart of the deceased." Kara Ben Nemzi bravely takes matters into his own hands, catches the charlatans who are tormenting the grieving father, exposes their evil deeds and returns peace and quiet to the village.
The book's 450 pages pass by effortlessly. After a series of adventures, close shaves, weddings and feasts, Kara Ben Nemzi and Hadzhi Halef leave Strumitsa for Üsküp (the present-day capital of Macedonia, Skopje). But that is the subject of May's next book, Through the Land of the Shqiptars.