It seems that Bulgaria has declared more days of national mourning recently than any other country on the planet. Yet confusion reigns as to precisely what should happen. The only beneficiaries seem to be populist politicians who demand such days – and sanctimonious media quick to condemn any lapses in mourning etiquette by the country’s "great and good."
Bulgarians don’t need a Ministry of Extraordinary Situations to know that, as in any country prone to corruption at every level, headline-grabbing accidents involving multiple deaths are bound to happen. The brakes fail on a 20-year-old bus, which has somehow bypassed any inspection, and 16 pensioners die. Nine people perish, trapped in a train fire – an inevitable result of official negligence. Ten children are drowned on a school trip to Montenegro. To save money, the driver had driven all night – a common practice that had gone unchecked up to this point.
These are typical incidents in the last few years. They have led to outpourings of local grief, orgies of sentiment from populist media and politicians and, of course, national days of mourning – but no meaningful prosecutions, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Bulgarian judicial system.
Of course, in the years of Communist rule, accidents, though frequent, never led to days of national mourning. The government could hardly indulge its population with a day for solemnly contemplating its own shortcomings. Days of national grief were reserved for the deaths of Communist leaders, and the first manifestation of the bad news would be the playing of solemn music on the radio and blanked out TV screens, which would lead viewers to conclude: "Wow! Someone important has died!" And so, even while its citizens were still unaware of the identity of the deceased, the government was able to close down all entertainment.
In Bulgaria’s post-Communist phase, there seems to be confusion about how individuals and institutions should react. As an outsider, I freely admit to sharing this confusion.
Recently, I arrived at the Burgas theatre, really looking forward to seeing a reputedly exciting new production. At the time, the theatre was performing only one night a week, and this would be my only opportunity to see a Bulgarian play. Arriving at the square in front of the theatre, I was surprised to find it deserted. The theatre was dark. The doors were locked. I checked my ticket. I looked about. I hailed a passerby. He shrugged at my ignorance. Didn’t I know that a day of national mourning had been declared? Of course on such a day theatres would not be working.
It was the day after the tragic bus crash in Montenegro. So, as I walked back through the town, I indulged my feeling of guilt. Yes, I was frustrated and angry that I had been denied my annual theatrical experience. But I should learn to respect another country’s culture. I passed the cinema. It was working. I passed restaurants and bars. They were not only working but heaving with customers. The monotonous voice of the September Cinema bingo caller could still be heard over the racket of hot pop-corn. Music spilled out from everywhere. On the main street, Bulgaria’s day of national mourning was a day like any other.
So to this year. I had tickets for Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and I am always excited by Bulgarian Shakespeare productions. Unhampered by historical reverence, they can make a 16th Century text relevant, gripping and entertaining – even to a group of badly behaved school children.
"We’re off to the theatre!" I tell my neighbour on the stairs. She shakes her head doubtfully. "Today’s a day of national mourning. Haven’t you heard about the crash at Yambol?"
My heart sinks. And this time I feel less guilty about expressing my frustration. If theatres closed in England every time there was a bad road accident, they’d go bankrupt. But it turned out As You Like It was not cancelled. We sat in a full auditorium but, before the lights dimmed, an actor addressed us in a solemn, sonorous voice, apologising for having to perform on such a day. "We are actors. And we have to play." He sounded almost resentful. Suitably chastened, we all stood for a minute’s silence.
Then the lights went down and the magic began. Shakespeare’s rather formal pastoral idyll – so often such a yawn in UK theatres – was transformed into a riotously funny, sharp commentary on sexual and class relations. Visually it was stunning. Should I feel guilty that the actors had transformed a day of national mourning into a night of local celebration?
But some people are certainly held to account for not understanding the unwritten rules. The vigilant press is quick to denounce the elite who are seen to be enjoying themselves. President Parvanov is alleged to have gone hunting wild boar on a day of national mourning. I read in the newspaper that a deputy minister has been sacked. His crime was that he attended a birthday party on a day of national mourning. Of course, it wasn’t just any birthday party. It was a fund raising event for orphans. A cross section of the Bulgarian elite had assembled at a swish restaurant to celebrate the existence on this earth of Ventsi Rangelov, the chief of emergency services. Was there music? Yes, it could be heard from the street by sanctimonious hordes of reporters. Was there dancing? Of course not! And have large contributions been made to unnamed charities? Of course they have. Are opposition politicians outraged by this insult to 16 dead pensioners? Of course they are.
Well, I suppose for this outsider a series of unpolitically correct questions are raised. How many people have to die in a single incident for a day of national mourning to be declared? What if the victims of a terrible road accident were Gypsies or Turks? Would the Cup Final or a scheduled AC/DC concert be cancelled because of some unforeseen tragic incident? And are days of national mourning really a pretext for avoiding some uncomfortable questions about vehicle inspection in Bulgaria, and the ways in which, at every level and in every context, safety is being compromised by money under the table?
Perhaps the chief of emergency services could best answer these questions – or better still, the improbably beautiful minister for extraordinary situations.
"All the world’s a stage," Jacques declares in As You Like It, and days of national mourning could be seen as just part of a spectacle designed to distract the public from raw truths. Except, of course, the public is all too aware of these raw truths and, furthermore, does not seem to take days of national mourning too seriously.