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Thursday, 2 June 2016

Party Headquarters - Georgi Tenev (translated by Angela Rodel)

Leaving, becoming distant from yourself, that’s at the basis of weightlessness. When you break away from your earthly stance, when you leave your orbit as well, the planets shrink in the portholes. Your individual body becomes the center of all attraction. You spin in the vacuum-womb like a stellar baby, who is the beginning and the end of everything, just as it is its very self.

Bulgarian cosmonauts participated in the Soviet space program. The first Bulgarian visited space in 1979 on the Russian ship Soyuz-33. The second – and for the time being, the final – Bulgarian cosmonaut blasted off in 1988, several years before the break up of the USSR. (From “Notes on the Translation” in “Party Headquarters”.)

On 26 April 1986 reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl power station blew apart. Five days later the Bulgarian State compelled people to parade in the “spontaneous manifestations” in celebration of May 1. That day was recorded as one of the days that the fallout from Chernobyl over Bulgaria was at its heaviest.

 "Bulgarian politicians kept quiet but shipped in uncontaminated food from other countries for their families," says Stefan Pavlov in an article entitled “Sofia’s Choice”. If you would like more details on the Bulgarian fallout from the Chernobyl disaster read Sofia Echo’s article “Bulgaria’s Chernobyl cover-up” here

And of course we have 2015 Nobel Prize Winner Svetlana Alexievich’s work “Voices from Chernobyl” to give us even more details on the catastrophe.

When a routine test went catastrophically wrong, a chain reaction went out of control in No 4 reactor of Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine, creating a fireball that blew off the reactor's 1,000-tonne steel-and-concrete lid. Burning graphite and hot reactor-core material ejected by the explosions started numerous other fires, including some on the combustible tar roof of the adjacent reactor unit. There were 31 fatalities as an immediate result of the explosion and acute radiation exposure in fighting the fires, and more than 200 cases of severe radiation sickness in the days that followed.

Evacuation of residents under the plume was delayed by the Soviet authorities' unwillingness to admit the gravity of the incident. Eventually, more than 100,000 people were evacuated from the surrounding area in Ukraine and Belarus.

In the week after the accident the Soviets poured thousands of untrained, inadequately protected men into the breach. Bags of sand were dropped on to the reactor fire from the open doors of helicopters (analysts now think this did more harm than good). When the fire finally stopped, men climbed on to the roof to clear the radioactive debris. The machines brought in broke down because of the radiation. The men barely lasted more than a few weeks, suffering lingering, painful deaths.
But had this effort not been made, the disaster might have been much worse. The sarcophagus, designed by engineers from Leningrad, was manufactured in absentia - the plates assembled with the aid of robots and helicopters - and as a result there are fissures. Now known as the Cover, reactor No 4 still holds approximately 20 tonnes of nuclear fuel in its lead-and-metal core. No one knows what is happening with it.

For neighbouring Belarus, with a population of just 10 million, the nuclear explosion was a national disaster: 70% of the radionucleides released in the accident fell on Belarus. During the second world war, the Nazis destroyed 619 Belarussian villages, along with their inhabitants. As a result of fallout from Chernobyl, the country lost 485 villages and settlements. Of these, 70 have been buried underground by clean-up teams known as "liquidators".

Today, one out of every five Belarussians lives on contaminated land. That is 2.1 million people, of whom 700,000 are children. Because of the virtually permanent presence of small doses of radiation around the "Zone", the number of people with cancer, neurological disorders and genetic mutations increases with each year.
-          excerpt from “Voices From Chernobyl” by Nobel Prize Winner Svetlana Alexievich (translated by Keith Gessen) Read more excerpts at

Of course Svetlana Alexievich’s book explores the disaster from a Belarusian and Ukrainian point of view, however numerous surrounding countries were severely impacted, including Bulgaria.
Only last week there was a revelation that LSD experiments were conducted in Bulgaria in the 1960’s, “What has not been known until recently is that dozens of experiments involving the psychedelic drug were carried out in Communist Bulgaria, from 1962 to 1968, by the Bulgarian psychiatrist Marina Boyadjieva. Among the human guinea pigs were doctors, artists, miners, truck drivers, and even prisoners and mentally ill patients. These research subjects were involved in some 140 trials.” The Early, State-Sanctioned LSD Experiments in Communist Bulgaria by Jordan Todorov , more at

Georgi Tenev’s “Party Headquarters” uses the space race, the Chernobyl disaster and the myth of Bulgarian politicians stashing briefcases full of cash and escaping to the west at the time of the fall of communism to weave a darkly comic, mystery, off kilter novel. So off kilter is this work that the page numbers appear sideways, I couldn’t help but think, is Georgi Tenev on some sort of psychedelic drug experiment himself as this fractured, rapid paced, jigsaw of a tale unfolded.

The novel opens with tears, needless to say you are warned from the opening page that you are in for an emotional journey.

I never imagined that I would get mixed up with the daughter of one of them. But fatal meetings are always marked by signs from the very beginning. I’m talking about fleeting clues. But no one tells you “Watch out!”, you don’t hear any voice yelling “Stop!” And the fact that at that very moment the angels fall silent most likely means they’re egging you on. That the meeting is divinely inspired; the meeting is the beginning of the collision of love.

There is also a physical activity, exercise theme throughout, with introductory and occasional references to running, the pace of the novel speeds up, slows down with exhaustion, cramp in line with these activities. A few flashbacks to the 1976 movie “Marathon Man” did cross my mind and the themes of pursuit and endurance are the possible connections for me. Delirium and fractured thoughts becoming more frequent as the exhaustion kicks in.

As per the later day exposes that children of the party leaders were treated differently to every day citizens, our protagonist/narrator is involved in a relationship with the infamous “K-shev”, owner of the briefcase containing 1.5 million Euros and a party head. Through this relationship we get flashes of life for the elite:

They don’t have school for a few days, so they don’t have snacks during recess. They brought different food and milk in a jar; frothy and very sour – this is the way it has to be, they told her, you mustn’t eat anything else. The wild plums of springtime, the wild cherries in the courtyard of the residence – everything was forbidden. Vacation, they told her, but not at the seaside – you can’t go to the seaside, now isn’t a good time for the seaside.

A novel that reads like a Prozac induced, hallucinatory drug induced rant by a deeply self-obsessed soul, sharing all of his disgust at living under communist rule.

Childhood, those naïve lessons at school, were an illusion that life is valuable in and of itself. The army is that blessed experiment that divides the body on the one hand from its meaning on the other: In the sun, in a uniform sewn with unimaginable flair for discomfort. In scratchy fabric that even wild tribes wouldn’t wrap their dead n before tossing them into the grave – there and as such, here and now you stand. And while the sun crawls slowly overhead, as if waiting for you to curse it, insulting comparisons explode in the brain. Curses and insults want to fly off your tongue toward your very self – but why?

A blur of a novel that is peppered with bizarre sexual experiences, laugh out loud reflections on what it is to be human, dark memories of darker times all presented in an atomic style, with chemistry, and radioactive fallout always hovering on the horizon.

I, of course, am deeply convinced that the world revolves around me – at its center or at least as the object of its dictatorship. The idea is grandiose and never gets tiresome. Until you finally decide to enter real life.

Not your standard narrative style, nor fitting any usual novel structures this work is for those who like to explore the different styles, cultures and plots from around the globe. Thanks to Open Letter books for continuing to produce books that challenge the reader and open our eyes to the works of so many nations and languages. I can assure you a subscription will give you plenty to think about over your reading journey.

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