Creator of 'stock' Bulgarian inspires exploration of national psyche
In Vagabond we sometimes write about people whose activities or inactivity have shaped Bulgaria's past and present. Most of these are politicians or revolutionaries.
Aleko Konstantinov (1863-1897) is different. As a passionate traveller, he single-handedly set off organised tourism movement in Bulgaria. As a writer, he captured the most unattractive and also the most fascinating traits of the Bulgarian national character, and described in painful detail the shortcomings of the late 19th century Bulgarian democracy. His most famous creation, Bay Ganyo, the archetypal "stock" Bulgarian, continues to fascinate but also divide.
Aleko Konstantinov is the only writer within or beyond the national literary canon who is called by his first name, Aleko, or by his most popular pen-name Shtastlivetsa, or The Happy One.
Most of Bulgaria's beloved poets died young and left a limited number of works. Aleko Konstantinov also died young and left little, but he is the only one who won a place in the nation's heart with his prose rather than his poems
Konstantinov's life began in the best possible conditions for a mid-19th century Bulgarian. He was born into the family of a wealthy merchant in Svishtov, then a prosperous trading town at the Danube river. Young Aleko studied at the best schools in Bulgaria, graduated in law from Odessa, in today's Ukraine, and in 1885 moved to Sofia along with his family.
Sofia had just become the capital of Bulgaria and was ripe with opportunity, particularly for those with business acumen and proper education. For several years, Konstantinov worked as a judge and prosecutor. Eventually both he and the then inchoate Bulgarian establishment grew tired of each other. He left the judiciary and became a freelance lawyer, living hand to mouth – and often in poverty.
The museum of Aleko Konstantinov at his family house in Svishtov
The rift was caused by Konstantinov's restless spirit: the man just did not fit into the mould of the successful middle class professional in contemporary Sofia. Instead of gossiping and passing his time in smoke-filled cafés and restaurants, he preferred to roam Bulgaria's still underexplored mountains. He discovered a passion for writing, too. His body of work, published in the liberal media and as standalone books, is in two fields. Konstantinov wrote inspired travelogues about Bulgaria's sublime mountain ranges, and urged his fellow Sofianites to leave their dull, polluted city and discover the country's stunning natural landscapes. His claim that Bulgarian mountains were superior to those in Switzerland is still often quoted, by Bulgarians of course.
The apex of Konstantinov's efforts to help Bulgarians discover their own country was on 27 August 1895. On that day, about 300 Sofianites responded his call, published in the media, and climbed up Cherni Vrah, the highest summit on the Vitosha mountain range. Today, the date marks the official beginning of organised tourism in Bulgaria.
Aleko Hut on the Vitosha
The other side of Konstantinov's writing was not as easy to stomach by his contemporaries. Over the span of several years he penned a number of satirical short stories and feuilletons – a literary form he mastered to perfection – that laid bare the more obnoxious side of the national character and the politics of the day: corruption, stupidity, hypocrisy, sycophancy, brutality and political violence.
Bay Ganyo was his most popular creation. The small-time provincial seller of rose attar who sought business opportunities abroad made his quiet debut in To Chicago and Back (1894), Konstantinov's mesmerising, witty book about his travels to the World's Columbian Exposition in the United States the previous year.
In 1895, Bay Ganyo got his own book, and entered the national literary canon. Bay Ganyo is divided into two parts. The first, Bay Ganyo Goes to Europe, is dedicated to the merchant's travels in Central Europe and the comic as well as thought-provoking clash of civilisations that ensues. A shrewd, confident opportunist, Bay Ganyo is immune to culture shock, at least most of the time. Instead of being impressed and humbled by the higher standard of living, the magnificence of architecture and the refined etiquette of Europe, he proudly preserves his own habits, shaped by centuries in the Balkans under Ottoman rule. He screams loudly "Bulgar! Bulgar!" before jumping into a bathing pool in Vienna. He burps while dining with a prominent intellectual in Prague. He does not understand the point of sightseeing: "Why do I have to sightsee this Vienna, a city like any city: people, houses, manifestation of wealth. Everywhere you go, they want to take your money, very politely." He is offended when a woman meets his uncouth sexual advances with a slap. Occasionally he does feel embarrassed: as when he tries to take off his tailcoat at the Vienna Opera, because he is hot, and the audience laughs at him, and when he is afraid that a train has departed with one of his precious possessions, a rug he had brought to Europe all the way from Bulgaria, to keep himself warm.
Statue of Bay Ganyo at Enina Village. A local, Ganyo Somov, is said to be the direct inspiration for the fictional anti-hero. Earlier this year, his grandson announced that the family will open a museum to him, because "we should be proud of him"
Bulgarians still wonder whether Bay Ganyo in Europe is a good or a bad character. Yes, he is uncultured, an ignoramus, a brute. But, unlike so many real-life Bulgarians since the 19th century, he never expresses blind admiration for the real or supposed superiority of the European lifestyle and culture. He is confident in his Bulgarian identity and is proud of it, no matter what.
In the second part of Bay Ganyo, the protagonist becomes an undisputed anti-hero. After his successful business trip to Europe, Bay Ganyo is eager to dabble in politics in search of more money, influence and power. Combined with a lack of any scruple, his opportunism, pragmatism and shrewdness unleash. He and his cronies harass political opponents, abuse freedom of speech, rig elections and sink to unplumbed depths in their efforts to endear themselves to those in power. The endearing if rough-cut go-getter has become an unscrupulous political actor, such as Konstantinov witnessed all around him, and Bulgarians continue to witness to this day.
Aleko died too young, in circumstances that might be taken from his own Bay Ganyo.
Monument of Konstantinov at the location where he was shot and killed
In May 1897, Konstantinov and a friend, Mihail Takev, an MP from the Democratic Party, visited the latter's hometown of Peshtera. Takev's stance on a land dispute had enraged a group of influential locals – meddling in property affairs is still the easiest way to make a Bulgarian your mortal enemy. The locals decided to kill Takev, and attacked his coach on its way to Pazardzhik. In the ensuing commotion, Konstantinov was collateral damage.
Huge crowds attended the writer's funeral in Sofia. Soon the nation began to realise the enormity of the loss. In the 1910s, Konstantinov's hometown decided to turn his family house into a museum. The wars and the crises that followed disrupted these plans, but the museum did open in 1926.
Today, Konstantinov is a staple of both the national curriculum and the national topography. His name adorns streets, schools and community halls. A cape on Livingstone Island, in Antarctica, a peak in the Rila mountains and both an area and a hut on Vitosha are called Aleko. In Chicago, where there is a sizeable expat community of Bulgarians, there is a monument and a street named after him.
Aleko's books Bay Ganyo and To Chicago and Back have been translated into many languages, including English. A mixture of inspired travel writing and a scathing portrait of the USA in the 1890s (the description of Chicago's slaughterhouses will turn you off meat for some time), To Chicago and Back is more easily understood by foreign audiences. Sadly, Bay Ganyo is often too time – and culture-specific for non-Bulgarians to fully grasp its genius.
There are also several places related to Konstantinov that can be visited.
There is only a humble plaque to mark the spot in Sofia where Konstantinov's house used to be, at the intersection of Dondukov Boulevard and Rakovski Street. One of the uglier post-Communist buildings constructed in the city stands in its place today.
Most visitors to Sofia see Konstantinov without even knowing it is him: the statue of a man with a suitcase, gazing at Vitosha from the pedestrianised part of the eponymous boulevard does endeavour to depict him.
The exhibits in Konstantinov's museum in Svishtov include... his heart in a jar of formaldehyde
Cherni Vrah peak also has a monument to Aleko Konstantinov, as he made the mountain a favourite place for Sofianites to escape from the urban traffic, stress and pollution.
Konstantinov's museum in Svishtov is the place to go if you want something more. The recently restored house has lost its erstwhile charm, but its interior is still period-appropriate; a nice introduction in the lifestyle of wealthy 19th century Bulgarians. The exhibition has an extensive collection of Bay Ganyo editions in different languages, but the main attraction is the clothes Konstantinov was wearing at the time of his killing, and a formaldehyde-filled jar containing ... his heart. The bullet hole is clearly visible.
The spot where the writer was killed is also marked with a monument, on Road 37 between Radilovo and Aleko Konstantinovo villages. Besides the village, two nearby facilities are also named after him: a small reservoir and the local rubbish depository. If he was alive, the Happy One would have been laughing at the irony.
Bay Ganyo or Boyko Borisov?
A recent translation of Bay Ganyo in Greek had a picture of... former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov on the cover. The media toyed with the story for a while, but it remains unclear whether the artwork for Aleko's book was produced intentionally or not