In the Strandja Mountains, where Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece come together, a young graduate student, who left Bulgaria for the United States as a boy, reconnects with his grandfather, from whom the family has heard nothing for the past three years. Unsuccessful in his college studies and desperately in need of funds to pay off some loans, the youth has come to Klisura in southeast Bulgaria hoping to sell some family land and also to spend time with the grandfather he has not seen in fifteen years. Written by debut novelist Miroslav Penkov, who lived in Bulgaria until he was nineteen, the narrative breathes with the kind of exuberant realism which distinguishes the writing of someone who has actually lived through certain events, as opposed to the writing of someone who is “writing about” events which he may have observed but not fully lived. Specific, often charming, detail accompanies the descriptions of many events and cultural traditions, giving a new kind of liveliness to the story of the youth’s return to his homeland and to his meetings with the people who live there. Among them are the nestinari, men and women, often quite young, of priestly importance, who walk on red-hot coals without being burned during the once-a year religious celebration. The overwhelming presence of storks in the spring and summer also adds to the spiritual tone of everyday life in Klisura. An unusual – possibly unique – combination of coming-of-age novel and epic of Bulgarian history and culture, the narrative has the small focus of a young man with limited goals and the grand scope of a culture which has incorporated elements from its Christian, Muslim, and even pagan past over many centuries.
Category Archive for 'Bulgaria'
Zachary Karabashliev creates a darkly humorous, entertaining, and compulsively readable novel so full of life that it bursts its way through several different genres. First, it is a love story, though in this case, it is a love story gone awry: the main character, also named Zack Karabashliev, has been living alone, miserably, at his home in San Diego for the past nine days, his wife having left him. It is also a story of the immigrant experience, in that Zack and his wife Stella met as students in Varna, Bulgaria, in 1988, and came to the United States as graduate students, working at several different kinds of jobs until they finally found financial, if not personal, success. The novel also becomes a quest, when Zack, in despair over the absence of Stella, decides to drive to New York to meet friends, traveling from California through the southwest and across the Mississippi and Midwest, stopping at small towns and bars along the way and observing how others live their lives. What makes this novel most unusual, however, is that it is also a well-developed metaphysical exploration of what it means to be alive, how we see our lives in the continuum of time, and where and whether happiness and an appreciation of beauty fit into the picture at all. Funny, poignant, and chock full of twists, turns, and surprises.
Usually when I read a novel described as “controversial,” I find myself seeing both sides of the controversy and writing about both sides when I write a review. With this novel, however, I was so exhilarated at the author’s bold originality, his ability to juggle his characters’ vibrant and creative inner lives while also examining the depressing circumstances under which they lived, the sweeping historical scope which includes the entire twentieth century, and his total control of language with all its potential to amaze with its images and ideas, that this review will be, I hope, a celebration of one of the best and most innovative books I have read in a long time. Ulrich, the Bulgarian main character, is almost a hundred years old as the novel opens. Blind, impoverished (after all the failed economic experiments of the various governments in Bulgaria), and alone, he spends his days looking out a window from which he cannot see. His inner world, however, is lively and filled with events, real and imagined. What follows, is an extraordinary novel, however, controversial in its structure, which I found riveting. One of my favorites for the year.
Author Elizabeth Kostova’s unusual debut novel combines her ten years of scholarly research on Vlad Tepes, the Impaler of Wallachia, sometimes known as Drakulya, with the stories that have become part of local folklore in Bulgaria and Rumania, and the legends created and perpetuated by Bram Stoker (in his novel Dracula). A sadistic prince from the mid-fifteenth century who killed up to 15,000 of his own people, often impaling them on stakes and leaving them to die horrible deaths, Vlad terrified his enemies from the Ottoman Empire, though it was Stoker who created the belief that he was a vampire. Historians and scholars will be fascinated by the detailed information revealed in this novel as the three main characters uncover key information about Vlad/Drakulya. Though the story is often exciting—and has a conclusion which packs a wallop–the novel involves serious, scholarly research, and the “novel’s” characters themselves are undeveloped.