A novel by Englishman Christopher Buxton is climbing up the Bulgarian bestseller list
Issue 3, December 2006
by Lucy Cooper; photography by Dragomir Ushev
There are probably not many English authors who can claim to have accompanied the launch of their book with a live set of Bulgarian folksongs. At the Helikon bookshop in Sofia this October, Christopher Buxton picked up his guitar and sang for the audience attending the Bulgarian launch of his novel Far From the Danube.
The guitar has been a permanent fixture since Christopher's teaching days at the English School in the Black Sea town of Burgas in the 1970s, where a whole generation of Bulgarians can still happily recite all the lyrics from the Beatles Complete Songbook. Christopher first arrived in Bulgaria in 1977, intending it to be his last port of call in Europe before continuing on to Latin America. However, as his eyes met those of a Bulgarian teaching colleague across a ping pong table, dreams of Latin America vanished and a Bulgarian love affair began, not only with his future wife, but also with the Bulgarian language and culture.
The couple have now lived with their two children for 25 years in Essex, where Christopher still works as a teacher. His interest in Bulgaria has endured, as has his frustration at the lack of any history books dealing with events before the birth of Bulgaria's first Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov. This may be partly why his first full-scale novel is a historical epic, in which the characters journey from Bulgaria along the Danube to France and England.
Far From the Danube follows the 15th Century journey of Maria Iskra from Bulgaria to Normandy. Like Iskra, many of the characters in the novel are based on real people, which necessitated a lot of research on the part of the author. "I travelled to Nikopol on the Danube, and from there to Belene, getting a feel for the landscape." Days were spent researching trade on the Danube at that period, visiting the Guiton residence in Carnet in northern France, and poring over archives and 15th Century parchments in the Kew archives near London.
Christopher was drawn to this particular story in this period of history as the heroine's journey "mirrors the loss of faith that occurred across Europe, but also symbolises a people's ability to survive". He believes that the events that took place then are still relevant today: "The nature of humanity determines that nothing much changes. The 14th and 15th Centuries, as now, were times of great unrest and questioning of faith. There was also the larger context of resurgent Islam overwhelming a Christianity weakened by corruption. Writers from this period share exactly the same concerns as those afflicted by medieval-style conflicts now".
Far From the Danube promises to be a novel of epic proportions. Read on to discover for yourself.
What the book is about
Far From the Danube is set in 15th Century Europe. It follows the story of Maria Iskra, a real life character whose journey took her from war-torn Bulgaria to the court of King Henry V. After her country is invaded and her father murdered, she rescues a Crusader knight, Gilles Guiton, from a Bulgarian battlefield and nurses him back to health. Together, they make the hazardous journey across Europe, beset on all sides by danger. Despite Giles's oath of chastity, Maria bears him a child, whom she brings to the Guiton residence in Normandy. There she receives a cold welcome, so the ever-resourceful Iskra presents herself to the English warrior king Henry V to ask for land rights for her son. Ultimately she is caught between two ruthless men and dies in a convent, largely forgotten, save for a scroll of English parchment. Her story is told in a series of vivid episodes that illustrate the turbulent and savage nature of the times and reflect the fortitude of the woman who survives them.
Far From the Danube, by Christopher Buxton
He stood on the spit, the island's wooded slopes darkening behind him, mesmerised by the relentless flow of the brown waters. The calls of birds wheeling for a while above his head brought him the vision of himself as seen from a terrifying height, lonely and far from home.
These waters fl owed against the way he had come - out through the reedy maze of channels at the river's mouth, past the quays of Lykostromo, out into the Black Sea, past the besieged walls of Byzantium, then out into the bigger sea and then to lap about his seven year home of Rhodes.
A huge branch swept slowly by. It looked like the body of an armoured knight. Time was passing and he had changed. Seven years of the Hospitalers' rule - his oaths of chastity, poverty and obedience - he fl inched at the memory and glanced back at the mass of trees. They stood there still as dark accusers pressing him towards the water. But the trees were to be felled. Isaac was to see to that. He gazed again at the river Danube.
Right now the fluid world looked so inviting. Could he slip into the icy cold water, grab a branch and so return to his life? It suited the role of weak sinner to rely on currents. On the voyage across the sea and up the river, Brother Thomas had kept them entertained in retelling the writing of an Italian poet. Brother Thomas was older, had come to the order late and was full of the world's wisdom.
A vision of hell - well, if the poet were right, he would find himself in the pit's first circle, buffeted and blown about, never able to rest because of his growing love for Maria Iskra.
Mary, Mother of God! Mary the chaste; Mary the virgin! Every day, every night, he prayed to her. Did the Mother of God now feel betrayed by her knight? - looking at the lustful shoots springing from his soul.
Her knight was now a friend of schismatics and Jews. It was getting darker and colder. It was high time to get back. But as he turned, Maria Iskra was running towards him, down the spit and Baba Kera was not far behind. Maria had returned to find him gone and she was angry. Ten yards away, she stopped and put her hands on her hips, her head tilted back and waited for him to come to her. If he had been a child he'd certainly have got a beating.
"You!" was all she said - at least to him. She had much more to say to Baba Kera, as they walked up the path through the trees. He pulled his cloak tighter, aware of his wounds, now healed but still aching. The cold was biting through his shoulder to the bone. His thighs ached and as he struggled to keep up with her, he became breathless. He had to stop.
*This is an excerpt from Far From the Danube by Christopher Buxton, published in Sofia simultaneously in English and Bulgarian by Kronos Publishers, 2006. Far From the Danube is available through Helikon bookshops
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers