FROM THE BLUE RIDGE TO THE BALKANS
Bulgaria's fascination with the United States has been reciprocated in American literature
Sometimes just a sentence, a word said in passing, can evoke a powerful image that endures forever. Consider this: Two people are talking - about pain and an horrible odour. One of them is bound to die unless help arrives. You don't know the peoples' names, nor the time or the place; nor do you have any background information about them. You know only that something is terribly wrong with the male character, causing a potent stench, and that three big birds squat “obscenely” close by: vultures. The woman's first comment – “Don't! Please don't” – indicates that tension exists between her and the man, a tension that will soon erupt into antagonism. Then comes the flashback, what some literary critics refer to as “interior monologue”. Snow. The man remembers the railway station in Karaağaç, Turkey, and leaving on the famous Orient Express and riding through northern Greece, where he recalls fighting between the Greeks and Turks. He remembers Bulgaria: the mountains covered with snow, the exchange of populations and people walking in the snow until they die in it.
This is, of course, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Earnest Hemingway – one of a number of great American writers who were as much fascinated by Bulgaria as Bulgaria was fascinated by America.
Hemingway just passed through Bulgaria in 1922 as a war reporter for the Toronto Star, but he would remember the Bulgarian mountains forever
Many years after Hemingway's trip, in a speech in Sofia in 1999, President Clinton celebrated Bulgaria's deep-rooted respect for American writing and culture:
"Perhaps the best symbol of this is the American College here, which was actually first opened in the year Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States: 1860. During the dark days after the Second World War, the college was closed. The war first brought its closure and then afterward, in the Communist era, its grounds were turned over to the secret police. But Americans and Bulgarians never lost faith that it would open again one day, because we never lost faith that Bulgaria would be free again one day. A few years after the school reopened, the American ambassador at the time, Avis Bohlen, took a trip to the famous Rila Monastery. Right before she left, the abbot came up to her and said, 'I have a secret to show you.' They walked to a basement and there in a hidden place was the entire library of the American College, preserved for 50 years by the same monastery that helped to preserve Bulgarian language and culture for 500 years."
Even in what Clinton called the "dark days" of the Cold War, Bulgarian bookshelves heaved with translations of Twain, Melville, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dreiser, O. Henry, Fitzgerald, Upton Sinclair, J.D. Salinger and even William Faulkner. Their critical realism caused fewer ideological problems than the great European classics – especially Russian literature.
What kind of attention can a small country expect from a major world power – beyond a horde of suit-wearing evangelists pushing free trade and born-again Christianity? Over two centuries American literary responses have fluctuated between a sense of bafflement at perceived exotic differences and inclusive visions of a common human fate.
Walt Whitman first expressed the generosity of spirit that represents the best of America.
In "Salut au monde!" from Leaves of Grass, he actually mentions Bulgarians in his long list of peoples that he welcomed to America's shores:
“You sturdy Austrian! you Lombard! Hun! Bohemian! farmer of Styria!
You neighbour of the Danube!
You working-man of the Rhine, the Elbe, or the Weser! you working-woman too!
You Sardinian! you Bavarian! Swabian! Saxon! Wallachian! Bulgarian!
Health to you! good will to you all, from me and America sent!
Each of us inevitable,
Each of us limitless – each of us with his or her right upon the earth…”
The little-known fate of Bulgarian immigrants who answered Whitman's call has been explored only in Michael Cimino's screenplay and film Heaven's Gate. Sadly, the film's notoriety as a box-office bomb has meant that the Bulgarian experience is still largely unknown. Dumped onto small parcels of virgin land in Wyoming, Bulgarians along with other late immigrants were left to starve and struggle with cattle barons who did not recognise the newcomers' rights and boundaries. Cimino's screenplay shows how numerous Bulgarians were shot by bounty hunters or hanged as cattle thieves.
It is Bulgarians who stayed at home, however, who have primarily captured the American literary – and political – imagination. An American journalist, Januarius MacGahan, reported on the Turkish atrocities in Bulgaria following the April Uprising for the London Daily News in 1876. He wrote with such power and accuracy about the massacres in Batak that British public opinion turned against pro-Ottoman Prime Minister Disraeli. Gladstone's new government supported Russian intervention and the eventual liberation of Bulgaria from the "Turkish Yoke."
MacGahan's description of Rayna Popgeorgieva – or Princess Rayna as people called her when they saw her on horseback waving the flag of rebellion in Panagyurishte – illustrates the pathos and attention to detail that won him applause from contemporary journalists: "Gentle and gracious forms transpired beneath her miserable clothes. She had large hazelnut eyes, an oval face with a slight sunburn, a straight nose and a real rosebud for a mouth. She was thin and slender, hardly capable of standing on her feet and her girl's face bore that desperate shattered look that was so painful to see."
MacGahan blazed the trail for great American writers who came to the Balkans primarily as journalists, including Hemingway and Robert Kaplan. A young Papa, hardened by his experiences on the Italian front, came to the Balkans to report on the aftershocks of the First World War. In the face of ethnic cleansing and genocide, he perfected his pared-down laconic realism. In an excerpt from In Our Time, he describes ethnic cleansing close to the Strandzha: "The main column crossing the Maritsa River is 20 miles long. Twenty miles of carts drawn by cows, bullocks and muddy-flanked water buffalo, with exhausted, staggering men, women and children, blankets over their heads, walking blindly along in the rain beside their worldly goods." Of course, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” with its one-liner about Bulgaria outperform the more journalistic description of “In Our Time.”
Mark Twain, who sailed up the coast of the Black Sea from Istanbul to Sevastopol, also put the kibosh on Americans' Orientalist fantasies about Bulgaria, as exotic Balkan customs did not escape his wit. His description of Turkish coffee in Innocents Abroad will sound familiar to anyone unfortunate enough to have ordered a cup in Communist Bulgaria: "Then he brought the world-renowned Turkish coffee that poets have sung so rapturously for many generations, and I seized upon it as the last hope that was left of my old dreams of Eastern luxury. It was another fraud. Of all the unchristian beverages that ever passed my lips, Turkish coffee is the worst. The cup is small, it is smeared with grounds; the coffee is black, thick, unsavoury of smell, and execrable in taste. The bottom of the cup has a muddy sediment in it half an inch deep. This goes down your throat, and portions of it lodge by the way and produce a tickling aggravation that keeps you barking and coughing for an hour."
Amnesty International had sent him a list of East European writers recently thrown in jail, Robert Penn Warren and Eleanor Clark had warned he was almost “criminally naive” to validate such a repressive regime by his presence, but John Cheever did come to Bulgaria - as a participant in the 1979 “Writers for Peace: The Spirit of Helsinki and the Duty of the Masters of Culture” conference. He would later remember that the conference turned into the expected “love-feast, stage-managed from opening speeches of self-congratulation to final resolutions on peace.”
The Iron Curtain did not put a damper on American writers' fascination with Bulgaria, but rather heightened it. John Updike is a writer of infinite subtlety who conveys like no other the sadness of missed opportunity. In his short story, "The Bulgarian Poetess," his carefully crafted persona, a failing American writer named Bech, is sent to Eastern Europe on a cultural exchange. There he encounters a poetess whose beauty fills him with a melancholy longing for what he assumes to be unattainable:
“‘I think it is good,' she said.
‘Love?' he asked, startled.
She shook her head and tapped the stem of her glass with her fingernail, so that Bech had an inaudible sense of ringing, as she bent as if to study the liquor, so that her entire body borrowed a rosiness from the brandy and burned itself into Bech's memory… everything except the expression on her face.”
William Saroyan was celebrated by the Communists even though he never concealed his dislike for their regime. He visited in 1979. Now a school in Sofia bears his name
John Updike was one of many left-leaning writers to be invited to Bulgarian literary junkets during the Communist years. Others included William Saroyan, Gore Vidal and John Cheever, who found themselves together there in the late 1970s. Saroyan's championing of the common man and especially his fellow Armenians and their endurance during Turkish pogroms made him very popular in Bulgaria – so much so that Vidal joked during an especially harrowing bus journey that were the three of them to die on a Bulgarian road, only Saroyan's death would be reported.
After the fall of Communism, Henry Miller, that restless purveyor of cosmopolitan sex and philosophising, was finally to be translated. Of course, much of the Bulgarian intelligentsia had been his secret fans through the Cold War, despite his unflattering portrayal of Bulgarian womanhood in Tropic of Capricorn: "A big Bulgarian woman named Olga… She weighs almost as much as a camel-backed locomotive; she drips with perspira tion, has halitosis, and still wears her Circassian wig that looks like excelsior. She has two big warts on her chin from which there sprouts a clump of little hairs; she is growing a moustache."
As if this wasn't bad publicity enough, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Balkan Peninsula sadly reassumed its reputation for being Europe's number one trouble spot, specialising in ethnic conflict and organised crime. Bulgaria's extraordinary cultural ambiguities at this time attracted the attention of two great factual writers - Robert Kaplan and Bill Bryson.
In Eastward to Tartary, Robert Kaplan comments on the phenomenon of bortsi, or wrestlers, in the 1990s:
"In the Communist era, Bulgaria had a great Olympic wrestling tra-dition. When the regime favourites lost their subsidies, many of them went into racketeering – with the help of their friends from the security services – and amassed tremendous wealth during the power vacuum that followed the regime's collapse. I saw the wrestlers frequently in Sofia. A late-model high-per formance car would screech to a halt, muscular men in fashionable clothes would emerge with cell phones, wearing enough cologne to be noticeable from 15 feet away. The boss would occasionally have two beautiful women with him, one on each arm. It was both frighten ing and pathetic. Their expensive homes, on the slopes of Mount Vi tosha, above the haze of pollution that hovers over Sofia, were surrounded by two-story-high brick walls and punctuated with satellite dishes. Nearby sprawled a vast Gypsy settlement of muddy shacks, growling dogs milling about."
In his book “Neither Here, Nor There” Bill Bryson recalls a Bulgarian who wanted to buy the Levi's jeans he was wearing – right in front of the Sheraton Hotel in Sofia
Bill Bryson also extols Sofia in Neither Here nor There in a way that most of its inhabitants would find extraordinary. But then, he wrote this in 1991 – the year of near famine following the fall of Communism:
"The further you roam in Sofia the better it gets. I took to going for day-long walks out into the hilly districts on the south-east side of the city, an area of forests, parks, neighbourhoods of rather grand apartment buildings, winding tranquil streets, some nice homes. As I was walking back into the city, over a footbridge across the Slivnitsa River and down some anonymous residential street, it struck me that this really was quite a beautiful city. More than that, it was the most European of all the cities I had been to. There were no modern shopping centres, no big gas stations, no McDonald's or Pizza Huts, no revolving signs for Coca-Cola. No city I had ever been to had more thoroughly resisted the blandishments of American culture. It was completely, comprehensively European. This was, I realised with a sense of profound unease, the Europe I had dreamed of as a child."
Luckily, Bulgaria has had its literary champions as well as critics. The American poet William Meredith was made an honorary Bulgarian citizen in 1997 in recognition of his work to popularise Bulgarian poetry. He succeeded in encouraging many of his great contemporaries, including Updike, Levertov and Wilbur to translate Bulgarian poetry and make it better known to Americans. Near the end of his life, he visited the Archaeological Museum in Varna, where he penned the following lines in response to a display of Thracian funereal masks:
“It is moving, that the eyes are still questioning
And no sadder than they are, time being what it is -
As though they saw nothing tragic in the faces
Looking down through glass into theirs.
Only clay and gold, they seem to say,
Passing through one condition to the next.”
(From "Two Masks Unearthed in Bulgaria")
Elizabeth Kostova shares Meredith's fascination for Bulgarian tombs. She placed Dracula in a Rhodope crypt in her 2005 international best-seller The Historian. Bulgaria has reason to be grateful to Kostova, not only for her lengthy descriptions of major historical sites and beauty spots, but also for the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, which seeks to foster new Bulgarian writing and increase its visibility around the world. Lately Kostova has been much distressed by the degradation of the Bulgarian environment by unplanned and often criminal development. Her description of the village cottage where her heroes visit a persecuted history professor during the depths of the Cold War reveals her appreciation of a vanishing landscape:
"Much later when I read about the monasteries that… were not protected by the great walls of the city but were a degree removed from the state's tyrannical reach, I thought of Stoichev – his garden, its leaning apple and cherry trees starred with white, the house settled into a deep yard, its new leaves and blue beehives, the old double wooden gate with the portal above it that kept us out, the air of quiet over the place, the air of devotion, of deliberate retreat.… The whole house looked as if it had grown slowly out of the earth and was now slowly returning to it, and as if the trees had grown above it simply to shade the process."
God bless America! - its variety, generosity and common touch. Just as the children of the new Bulgarian establishment seek American education inside Bulgaria and beyond, so American writers continue to be touched by the chance encounter with the unique reality that is Bulgaria.
TWO VIEWS OF THE RILA MONASTERY
John Updike observed in “The Bulgarian Poetess” in 1964: “Though the church could hardly ever have held more than 30 worshippers, it was divided into three parts, and every inch of wall was covered with 18th Century frescoes. Those in the narthex depicted a Hell where the devils wielded scimitars. Passing through the tiny nave, Beck peeked through the iconostasis into the screened area that, in the symbolism of Orthodox architecture, represented the next, the hidden world – Paradise – and glimpsed a row of books, an easy chair, a pair of ancient oval spectacles.
John Updike visited hardline Bulgaria as part of a State Department organised tour of Eastern Europe in 1964. He was at the height of his literary career
Outdoors again he felt released from the unpleasantly tight atmosphere of a children's book... Below them sprawled the monastery, a citadel of Bulgarian national feeling during the years of the Turkish Yoke. The last monks had been moved out in 1961. An aimless soft rain was falling in these mountains, and there were not many German tourists today.”
Elizabeth Kostova in “The Historian,” 2005: “...My first glimpse of the Rila Monastery filled me with awe. The monastery sat in a dramatically deep valley – almost filling it, at that point – and above its walls and domes rose the Rila Mountains, which are very steep and forested with spruces... It was a hot, dry day; the Balkan summer seemed to be closing in, and dust from the bare ground swirled around our ankles. The great wooden doors of the gate were open, and we went through them into a sight I will never forget. Around us loomed the striped walls of the monastery fortress, with their alternating patterns of black and red on white plaster, hung with long wooden galleries. Filling a third of the enormous courtyard was a church of exquisite proportions, its porch heavily frescoed, its pale green domes alight in the midday sun. Beside it stood a muscular, square tower of gray stone, visibly older then everything else in sight... As we stood there, the church bells began to toll, frightening a flock of birds into the sky.”
Elizabeth Kostova always has time to visit the Black Sea coast
Commenting on www.vagabond.bg