Sat, 03/01/2008 - 18:04

Iconic Bulgarian writer and patriot Ivan Vazov found himself embroiled in political intrigues far from home in St Petersburg - all thanks to the Irish

Ivan Vazov
Ivan Vazov

Ever since the Revival Period, Bulgarian literature and politics have gone hand-in-hand. The first Bulgarian novel, Pod igoto, or Under the Yoke, tells of the failed Aprilsko vastanie, or April Uprising, in 1876 and the country's subsequent liberation from the Ottoman Empire. Its author, Ivan Vazov, is revered as the patriarch of Bulgarian literature.

Vazov was born in 1850 in Sopot, a town nestled in the foothills of the Balkan Mountains. When sent to Romania by his merchant father to learn the family trade, the young writer filled the ledgers with verse. He eventually ran away to the border town of Braila for a few months to live among the Bulgarian hushove, or exiles, who later inspired some of his most famous characters.

A prolific author of poems, short stories, novels and plays, Vazov chronicled the ups and downs of Bulgaria's struggle for liberation and the decades of independence that followed. A devout patriot, he drew his inspiration from his love of the countryside and the Bulgarian language. After the Liberation, he was a key figure in Bulgarian political and intellectual life until his death in 1921, serving as minister of education from 1897-1899.

Although Vazov's literary intrigues usually involve bloodthirsty Turks, the Irish also make a cameo appearance in his work. On a trip to St Petersburg the writer's Irish landlady ensnared him in dubious political alliances, as Vazov himself describes in a humourous passage from his travelogue “Outside Bulgaria – Notes from a Journey XIII”.

The memoirs were originally published in the journal Denitsa, or Morning Star, which Vazov founded in 1890. “The five-bedroom flat has one interesting feature: it is inhabited by a cosmopolitan mix. The six residents represent six different European nations. The elderly landlady is Irish; my neighbour, Mr Cox, is a full-blooded Englishman; the young lady, who is a nanny, is French; the fourth tenant is me, the Bulgarian; the maid is Russian; and the doorman is Polish. I could safely say that this cosmopolitan flat resembles Babel, because each tenant speaks only his or her own language and many misunderstandings arise, especially between me and the Irishwoman.

At the beginning she was really quite stern with me, bordering on the disrespectful and eyeing me with displeasure. Once we had agreed upon the rent with the aid of the maid, she summoned me into her room and began to speak to me rather crossly, as if she were giving me a lecture. I could not grasp anything from her Russian, but I concluded that she wanted me to pay half the rent in advance, as is customary. In order to appease her I paid her the full rent in advance. To my great surprise she exclaimed, “Non, non, non, Monsieur!”

Vazov's original account of his Irish landlady in St Petersburg

Vazov's original account of his Irish landlady in St Petersburg

Then the maid came and told me that the landlady did not need the advance payment that minute, instead she was explaining the house rules, which I was to observe. The Irishwoman deemed it necessary to draw my attention to this because prior to my arrival there had been a Georgian occupying the room who had been rather messy.

Based on my southern features, she also mistook me for one. When I told her that I was Bulgarian, her expression relaxed a bit and she began eagerly asking me (with the maid acting as translator) about the grisly events which had taken place in Ruse in February, exclaiming tragically, “Poor, pauvre Bulgarien!” The first word resembled Russian, the second French and the third English. As an Irish patriot she hated the English (with the exception of Gladstone and Mr Cox) and loved the Russians as an enemy of England.

From Russia her political sympathies were transferred to the Bulgarians. The maid shared the same feelings. From that day on a robust tripartite union was formed between Ireland, Russia and Bulgaria against insidious England. I can say with pride that up to now our coalition to take on the might of England is blossoming without poor Mr Cox ever suspecting anything. Given the right moment our ardent Parnellite hopes to involve France, that is, the nanny, in our union in order to strengthen it. I, too, hope that soon we will be able to include her in our consultations.”

Issue 18 Culture shock

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