"Most often it is writers in the West that write stories about the East, and I think we have the right to do the same thing coming from the other direction"
Issue 4, January 2007
by Lucy Cooper; photography by Dragomir Ushev; illustrations by Gergana Shkodrova
Alek Popov is a leading figure on Bulgaria's contemporary literature scene. Having written numerous award-winning short stories and scripts, which have been translated into over a dozen languages, Mission London is his first novel. In a style "something like Pulp Fiction," it tackles the behaviour of Bulgaria's new elite on the eve of accession.
The action is set in an Eastern European embassy in London. Alek himself worked in the Bulgarian embassy in London in 1997-98. "The background of the book is very real for this reason. I wasn't intending to write this book actually, but over time the material started accumulating and I felt I must write something about it. There was too much precious material to be lost. It's the small details that I like, they are completely real."
As for the characters, "Some of the main characters have something to do with real people, but in the end it turned out that they evolved into archetypes of characters from the Transition." The "Transition", the time after the fall of Communism, was a period of change from the old Socialist ways to democracy. This brought with it struggles for a new identity.
"The main strands of the plot chart the struggle for representation and for a new image of both the elite and the ordinary citizen. It looks at how ordinary people from Eastern Europe are trying to adapt to the West and be part of a greater Europe, a process which involves the disruption of many illusions."
"On the other side, it is about perceptions the West has about itself and about Eastern Europe." Alek wants to invert the balance in which it was traditionally the West that "imagined" or "colonised" other cultures by writing about them from a Western standpoint. "This book is also an attempt to colonise the West through the view of the Eastern European order."
What is it about?
When Varadin Dimitroff, the Bulgarian ambassador, arrives at his new posting in London he finds the embassy in disarray. Not only are there signs of all night parties, the staff have done nothing towards organising a concert planned to celebrate Bulgaria's accession to the EU.
Under pressure from the Prime Minister's wife, Varadin's career prospects rest on his ensuring the Queen attends the concert. With the date fast approaching, Dimitroff enlists the help of "Famous Connections", a shady PR agency that promises him direct access to Britain's social elite. But in his haste, he fails to get some crucial information on the agency. Namely, that it deals in lookalike strip programs. By the time the truth comes to light, it is too late. A huge scandal looms on the horizon...
To complicate matters further, Varadin falls in love with gorgeous Bulgarian student Kati, cleaner in the embassy by day, stripper by night, unaware that she is working for "Famous Connections" as a Princess Diana lookalike.
The night of the concert arrives, and the strands of the narrative come together, resulting in a sumptuous carnival of frenzy and futile vanity, reflecting the illusions and delusions of post-Communist society.
Mission London (2001), Zvezdan Press
For the occasion of the opening of the European Conference, a large chunk of the cabinet poured into London, headed by the prime minister himself. The local press was exceedingly sceptical concerning the gathering in question, there was even a note of cynicism, but for the transition tormented governments from Eastern Europe, it was manna from heaven, an overwhelming prelude to their eventual membership of the club of well-off Western cousins.
Throughout those three days filled with general commotion and long speeches, with exultation and not very well hidden disappointment with the vagueness of the conference's goals, Varadin struggled merely to survive. The reality of the situation blurred before his eyes, like the countryside outside the window of a speeding train; he saw clearly only the obstacles, hazards and pit-falls that he had to avoid. The immediate proximity of the premier horrified him; that strict and powerful politician, who had swum out of the primordial soup of Post-Communism, looked to be the sort of man who breakfasted every morning on fragile clerical destinies, with garlic and horseradish sauce.
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