It is purely by chance that I stumbled across “Bulgarian Literature Month”, as arranged by Thomas at “Mytwostotinki” (see http://www.mytwostotinki.com/?p=2841 on how to participate). Having recently read “The Physics Of Sorrow” by Georgi Gospodinov and then “Party Headquarters” by Georgi Tenev (both books translated by Angela Rodel), I found myself being thanked by Thomas for my Bulgarian literature coverage, therefore I thought I would explore the field a little more and have committed to at least another two books, Gospodinov’s earlier “And Other Stories” as I thoroughly enjoyed his most recent release, which made the 2016 Best Translated Book Award Shortlist, and the collection of short stories titled “Circus Bulgaria” by Deyan Enev (translated by Kapka Kassabova).
This two hundred and fifty one page volume contains fifty short stories, all very short, some little more than two pages, others covering a little more real estate. Writer Deyan Evev, a graduate from Sofia University in Bulgarian language and literature, has extensive publications in his role as a journalist, and his earlier occupations of house-painter, hospital attendant and teacher shine through in this collection. Originally titled “Everybody Standing on the Bow” the English language release was titled “Circus Bulgaria” and the book was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor English language short story collection contest.
Unlike a lot of collections of short stories this collection is hard to review, given the breadth of the tales, Tibor Fischer (author of the Booker Prize shortlisted “Under The Frog” in 1992 – the first debut novel to be shortlisted for the award) describes the collection in an article at “The Guardian”:
The overall tone of the collection, despite the general grimness of the panorama, is gentle and serene. You feel that Enev is a man at ease with hopelessness, who has made his accommodation with failure.
Heather McRobie at Café Babel says; The fullness of Enev’s stories is mediated through his reverence for words. Language creeps into the natural world, and the natural world becomes text.
And the “Times Literary Supplement” in December 2010 said; The stories in Deyan Enev’s Circus Bulgaria bristle with life’s illogic. Wild, lawless and sad-funny, they are a kind of continuous discourse on the amorality and unknowability of life.
All in all a thumbs up set of reviews, for such a diverse collection of stories, that mainly look at life in Bulgaria post-Communist rule. With tales about such subjects as destitution leasing to prostitution, post war mental hospitals (there a numerous stories with this setting, and I can only assume Deyan Enev’s resume of inclusion of “hospital attendant” on his resume was actually in a psychiatric ward), animals, caged and chained, monkeys strangling people all mixed together in a David Lynch(esque) style world where the characters of dancing girls (strippers) and crippled phone sex workers become blurred, this is not your standard “flash fiction” fare.
The thinly veiled references to the struggles of ordinary citizens at times becomes a little tiresome, with some rather obvious, others so cryptic I found them impossible to decipher. For example the story “Niki-Nikola” is about a news reporter finding a child and putting together a report ‘Icarus: One Boy’s Flight’..”He flew away to another country, where people are not afraid”, or the title story describing an impoverished lion tamer, circus master, who can no longer feed his sole remaining lions so he is talked into selling him to a “developer”. Or the reverse “fairy tale” where the swineherd marries the princess, however she is the one to go off and live in the forest with the pigs instead of him moving to the opulent castle. These with very straightforward messages, metaphors for the new world.
Other tales are less than straightforward but all contain a heavy dose of angst and despair, the bleak becomes the norm, the hopelessness of any worthwhile future becomes standard fare, the repetitiveness creates an anaesthetic when reading about the horrors of people being reduced to working for scraps or sex working for a warm coat.
All of the tales flow easily, via, one would assume, a wonderful translation, stumbling or re-reading not featuring at all, and the bleakness of the prose revealing a poet at work (both the author and the translator are published poets).
He had a prophet’s beard, an eye for four-leaf clovers and a hand that always cast the winning dice at backgammon. In winter he went about in his father’s old anorak, and in summer he wore the canvas trainers he’d worn for basketball games at high school. We’d shared a desk from Year One to Year Eleven. We called each other Joe, as in that children’s song about Lemonade Joe: ‘Joe peeks from the grave, winks with his left eye…’ or however it went.
The descriptions vivid enough to allow your imagination to run wild, something that is a relief with the very short tales involved:
He is like a teardrop with her arched brows, her ankles thin as spindles, her bosoms like freshly risen dough.
Overall another nice collection and a different view to Bulgarian literature than my two recent reads, however I do feel the collection could have been tightened up a little, with possibly 10-15 stories taking place in a mental hospital that theme began to wear rather thin.
Onto Georgi Gospodinov next and his short collection of short stories “And Other Stories”, afterwards I think a straightforward narrative is in order, wonder if I own one!!!