Irina Papanheva's novel Annabel has been shortlisted in the 2014 January Contemporary Bulgarian Novel Contest of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester. Translator Bistra Andreeva won the 2012 Translators' Residency Fellowship Contest of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester where she spent three weeks improving her working translation of an excerpt from the same novel in April 2013.
It is a kind of painting that rather changes in character, and takes on a richness the longer you look at it. Besides, you know, Gauguin likes them extraordinarily. He said to me among other things – "That...it's...the flower."
Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to Theo Van Gogh
When she faced one of the original Sunflowers paintings, back in that distant summer, at that same museum, she had felt a surge of inexplicable tender joy, mixed with sadness. It had a pale yellow background and it was a copy of one of the first four versions that Van Gogh had painted in the summer of 1888 in Arles. Annabel knew the originals and the "copies", all nine of them, all too well. Back then she lived and felt intensely, passionately, expressively, and there was something different to the state that the painting put her into now, something as sweet as a blissful nostalgia, a whiff of her childhood, something of her first sketchbook, out of which the same vangoghly sunflowers were laughing at her. She looked at the sunflowers and associated them with loaves of bread again, baked with gratitude as if they were the artist's gift to nature, the artist's gift to her. Back in those days it had seemed to her that everything existed for her pleasure, as if the Creator had made the world with one single purpose in mind – to grant Annabel delight. She had returned to them three times that day, she had gone around the museum, she had stood in front of the other paintings too, but something had been pulling her back to the sunflowers all the time. Then she had entered a phone booth and dialled her home number. That was her second and last call home. "Daddy, please, pick up, please, please, please!" she repeated in her head, while listening to the dial tone, and when she had heard her father's deep warm voice, she had almost cried out with relief.
"I saw the sunflowers!" her first words were.
"Anna, is that you?" She felt his joy.
"Yes, Dad. I saw the sunflowers. I was at the Van Gogh Museum, they're even prettier, even more intense, brighter, I am dazzled!"
"I am very happy for you. Are you okay, my girl?"
"Yes, Dad, very much, I paint a lot, I've never been happier."
"This makes me feel a little bit better, we worry about you, your mom is very concerned..."
"Mom just doesn't get it, Dad. I'm good, better than ever, I feel like a sunflower, and you're my sun, Dad, I love yoooouuu."
Annabel heard her father's subdued laughter on the other end of the line.
"I love you too, Anna. Look after yourself."
"Gotta go, Dad, I'm running out of coins, see you soon..."
The line went dead. That was the last time she heard his voice, the last one; ever, that cruel ever, that really means never. Never. What a gruesome, incomprehensible word...
"All of life's stages in a few sunflowers"
Annabel turned around abruptly and saw her father. The paintings blurred and the last image her mind managed to grasp was that of sunflowers burning like torches. The next image was of Vincent, leaning above her. Annabel realized she was lying on one of the museum benches, she flinched and tried to sit up. Five or six people had gathered, she saw among them their lady companion's made up face.
"It's okay, calm down, no sudden moves," the man said.
She felt her breathing ease so she slowly rose. People made sure she was fine and went on with their walks around the museum.
"What happened?" Annabel asked uncomprehending.
"I saw you study the Sunflowers and your complete concentration was so magnetic, that I felt like seeing them too. I started talking to you and apparently you were taken aback, because you turned abruptly and then you slumped down. Has this happened to you before?"
"Not for a while, it hasn't. It's probably due to low blood pressure. I am sorry."
"Would you like to go down to the Museum Café?" Vincent offered.
"I wouldn't want to bother you. I am fine," Annabel said in a voice still weak.
"No, please," Vincent insisted.
Their companion followed them. The café was buzzing like a beehive, but they managed to find a table. Annabel asked for coffee. Vincent brought it, along with a croissant and the words: "You need a bite."
"Do you feel better now?" their companion asked her with concern.
"Much better, thank you. What did you say when you approached me? What were your exact words?" Annabel turned to Vincent.
"I said that all of life's stages are represented in a picture of a few sunflowers."
"What did you mean by that?"
"The Sunflowers. Birth, maturity and death, it's all in that sunflower vase."
"Right, of course...," she hesitantly replied and thought about it. She had never looked at the painting that way. "I have to see it again," she thought.
Apparently, it'll never be enough, there will always be more to discover, and that "more" will reflect the stage we are at, our current state of mind.
"Do you know the myth of the sunflower's origin? A water-nymph named Clytie was in love with Apollo, but someone else had won his affection. For nine days she sat without flinching, and gazed at Apollo traveling in his golden chariot across the sky. Finally, she turned into a flower, but kept looking at him by turning her face on her stem, always gazing in the sun's direction. That's why a sunflower is a symbol of devotion in love, of faithfulness that never questions, and of gratitude for that feeling, even if it is unrequited," the elderly lady recited dramatically, looking at Vincent more than she was looking at Annabel.
"I didn't know that," Annabel uttered. "But I do know that for Van Gogh a sunflower was a symbol of gratitude and friendship."
"Apparently, you love the arts?" Vincent asked.
"Yes, Van Gogh is my favorite artist."
"Do you paint yourself?"
"I did. Once. In fact, so long ago, that it seems like it was in another lifetime. What about you?"
"Too bad you've stopped. I am just an appreciator."
"As someone who was involved in the arts all her life, I know best how important it is to have appreciators," the lady cut in, and looked at the consultant with a big smile and squinting eyes.
"You paint?" he asked.
"No, I'm a poet. I have several collections of poems published."
After finishing their drinks they went back to the paintings. This time they walked around together, they stopped in front of some paintings and quietly discussed them. Annabel was silent and hardly listened to them. Eventually, they ended up in front of the Sunflowers again.
"Here is why this painting is so mysterious," Vincent drew her attention. "Because it's much more than just a still life. Look, some of the sunflowers are like little suns just come up, others are like suns in their zenith, and these over here are declining into the sunsets of their short lives."
Annabel carefully absorbs his words while watching the painting, and it seems to her that she really sees it for the first time. All of life's stages in one. That summer she had gone back to the museum to copy it. She had spent the whole day with her tripod in front of it, making dozens of sketches only to finally crumple them all up and throw them away. It was impossible for me to copy it, because I didn't grasp its essence, its soul escaped me, she thought.
She feels someone touching her hand lightly, the man is next to her and keeps observing her with eyes that are still as calm and careful.
"You are a sunflower yourself, that's why you like them so much. A sunflower in its loveliest stage."
Annabel looks around. The poet lady is at a safe distance. She doesn't know how to respond. She keeps her eyes on his for a moment. Then she heads for the exit. The weather is still as hot. She relaxes on a shady bench. Her cell sounds a popular hit. She takes it out of her bag. She sees the name Nikola written on the display and puts it away. The song continues a little longer, gets to the middle and abruptly stops. Her companions show up and she starts towards them.
"It is not possible to live always away from the motherland and the motherland is not only nature but also the human hearts, who search and feel like us."
Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to Theo Van Gogh
I was in Bulgaria. I was on a bus and it was a long trip across the country, so to kill some time, I started making lists. Two of them. I tried to break into pieces each of the two worlds that I inhabited geographically, so as to create two new non-geographical entities: one by invisibly sewing up some select pieces into a patchwork that I would call "homeland", and another that would automatically become the non-homeland.
The rounded landscape
The comfort of the ever-strained family relations
The old friendships
A few Sofia bars
The Black Sea
My dear mother tongue
Sofia in October
Gela village in the summer
The chaotic, yet distinctive Brussels architecture
My little street
The smart-casual Brussels cafés
Art in Bulgaria
Art in Belgium
The way the sun colors the buildings in a very warm yellow-orange shade after a dark day
The station city
The airport city
The evening news
The feeling of freedom
The flea market on Place du Jeu de Balle
Grey apartment buildings
Madness on the road
Elbowing your way up
The evening news
The coarse side of my mother tongue
A certain bus driver in Brussels
Brussels district registration
Cynical doctors in the emergency ward
Prejudice towards Eastern Europe
Fawning on Western Europe
Homeland is the space your soul occupies.
From Brussels, Sofia looks very, very near
From Sofia, Brussels looks so much further
The distance is not only in our heads
but in our cultural predispositions too
In the sense of proximity and accessibility
Annabel has no roots.
Is the lack of roots a commitment?
Free – is she?
She travels spaces, where my mind is not allowed
my soul cannot reach
Thus, Annabel is born
And with her, with her bike
A longing flies away in space
for the impossible
She had left without saying goodbye to Nikola, although he did keep calling persistently until she finally switched off her phone on the plane. What had happened the previous night called into question their whole future together.
"You never loved me!" she screamed at him. "I thought that your coldness was just part of your manner, but apparently I didn't know you well enough. Apparently, you can be truly warm and affectionate, even more than I dared dream of, just not with me."
She was yelling and waving a print-out of an email in his face. An email sent by him to another woman.
"Oh, look who's talking?! Are you capable at all of giving a damn about anything other than your career and your freaking perfection!"
Slamming the door, Annabel left the room and started nervously packing for her impending trip. She called a cab and gave the driver Erika's address. It was only when she had pretty much arrived that it occurred to her she should have warned her. She dialled her number and heard her soft alto on the other side.
"I had a fight with Nikola, I'll be over in a minute. Are you there?"
"I am, but, Anna, I'm not sure this is a good time. I'm not alone."
"I have nowhere to go, please, I can't go back home, I'm so mad at him."
"Alright then. I'll be here."
Annabel hugged her tightly at the door and came into the room. There, sitting a bit stiff on the dark blue sofa, was her assistant Maggie.
Cosmopolitanism and nationalism
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives the following definition of cosmopolitanism: "The word 'cosmopolitan', which derives from the Greek word kosmopolitês ('citizen of the world'), has been used to describe a wide variety of important views in moral and socio-political philosophy. The nebulous core shared by all cosmopolitan views is the idea that all human beings, regardless of their political affiliation, do (or at least can) belong to a single community, and that this community should be cultivated."
In his short story A Cosmopolite In A Café, O Henry's narrator shares his theory that "... since Adam, no true citizen of the world has existed" so he concludes that "we find travellers instead of cosmopolites". And right that minute, his cosmopolite shows up, tossing the planet on his palm like a ball.
In the story, Adam retains his exclusive status, but in his case that's easy – it's one thing to have the Earth as a permanent address in a united and apolitical world, and it's a whole different issue to have to overcome the identity you had predetermined at birth and locked into your language, location and nation. But could the "old world's" perspective of space, distance and destinations be applied also to the unlimited virtual dotcom universe?
The world has changed and it has shrunk, the old boundaries have been removed. How does that affect our understanding of cosmopolitanism? Is our original identity nowadays trans- and post-nationalistic? And what does nationalism mean?
In Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism Michael Ignatieff describes the three aspects of nationalism. He says that as a political doctrine "nationalism is the belief that the world's peoples are divided into nations, and that each of these nations has the right to self-determination". As a cultural ideal, it is "the claim that while men and women have many identities, it is the nation that provides them with their primary form of belonging." As a moral ideal, nationalism is "an ethic of heroic sacrifice, justifying the use of violence in the defense of one's nation against enemies, internal or external".
Then, is the cosmopolite someone who has crossed the boundaries of the national to arrive at a place of absolute freedom and non-belonging? Is it possible to cut someone's roots without amputating a vital part of their identity/spirit/soul?
I don't have an answer to these questions. But I would like to create a free, unburdened and unattached heroine.
IRINA PAPANCHEVA is the author of the illustrated children's book I Stutter (Ciela, 2005), the short novel Almost Intimately (Kronos, 2007) and the novels Annabel (Janet 45, 2010) and Pelican Feather (Janet 45, 2013). She has worked as a journalist, editor and translator, as well as a Deputy Mayor of Sofia Municipality and an advocate and consultant in the Bulgarian and European NGO sectors. Currently, Irina Papancheva is an EU Policy and Advocacy Adviser to the Lumos in Brussels. She writes a blog about the city at myprivatebrussels.com.