Published 1.17.2018. Open Letter Press: Rochester, NY. Translated by Izidora Angel. (E-galley copy provided for reviewing purposes by the publisher.)
A disjuncture exists between the world as it was experienced by my great grandparents or the parents of (for example) the Bulgarian-born writer Elias Canetti, who fled their Eastern European homelands during World War I and ended up in Vienna, and that experienced by those who remained behind in Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and the nations formerly known as Yugoslavia: the main difference being that in the east, World War I simply didn’t end. In western and central Europe, the issues that were fought over before the armistice were sublimated for a time by the economic prosperity that came to a sudden end in 1929. However as Robert Gerwath explains in The Vanquished: Why The First World War Failed to End (credit to Josh Marshall for bringing this book to my attention via his Holiday Book recommendations), the fighting continued in Eastern Europea with a series of revolutions and counter-revolutions, Marxists, anarchists, and fascists all violently contending for control. Two casualties of this violence are the subject of Bulgarian author Hristo Karastoyanov’s 2014 book The Same Night Awaits Us All, now translated by Izidora Angel and published by Open Letter.
Bulgaria began the 20th century as a country increasingly autonomous from Turkish rule; a beautiful country, separated from Romania to its north by the wide Danube, from the former Yugoslavia to the west by the Balkan ridge, its variable southern border shared at that time with Greece and the Ottoman empire, it was mainly a nation of farmers (albeit one in which efforts to modernize the economy were underway.) In 1912, Bulgaria was among the Balkan states that allied to throw off Turkish rule, though when the allies turned on each other, Bulgaria joined World War I on the side of Germany and Austria and invaded the territory of Serbia, who had sided with the triple alliance. By the end of the war, however, the surrounding countries of Serbia, Romania, and Greece rallied and drove back the Bulgarian army and support from Bulgaria’s German allies collapsed. The war left Bulgaria poverty-stricken and destabilized. The resulting Treaty of Neuilly took away significant territorial possessions and was viewed as a massive defeat and humiliation for Bulgaria, and it momentarily undermined the authority of Bulgaria’s rightist, monarchist ruling class. In 1918, Ferdinand I was forced to abdicate in favor of Boris III, and a new group came to power under Aleksandar Stamboliyski, the charismatic leader of the leftist reform party, the Agrarian Union. Stamboliyski had a handful of years to try to implement his program before a coup d’etat was staged against him by forces allied with the fascist politician Aleksandar Tsankov, who brutally murdered the deposed Stamboliyski.
The rise of fascist rule in Bulgaria did not go unresisted. The separatist paramilitary group IMRO operated throughout the Balkans, assassinating political leaders left and right. The Bulgarian Communist Party, under the leadership of Georgi Dimitrov, staged an uprising against Tsankov’s rule in 1924, which was harshly put down. The communists responded to this by staging the St. Nedelya Church terrorist attack in 1925, in an attempt to kill Bulgaria’s right-wing leaders and Czar Boris III all in one go; but the attack—which killed 150 people, but not its primary targets—backfired, and the ruling government in the immediate aftermath staged a campaign of purges against its perceived enemies. Two of the victims of these purges in 1925 were the anarchist revolutionary Georgi Sheytanov and the Bulgarian poet Georgi “Geo” Milev.
So it went—but now let’s talk about The Same Night Awaits Us All, which in marked contrast to the desultory information about the historical period I’ve just retailed to you, reader, is in fact delightful; and that is because the bulk of it isn’t really about global politics, revolutionary movements, government censorship, or political murders, however much those day-to-day calamities figure into the plot; no, the bulk of what’s in the book is an attempt to imagine, to recreate in the figures of Geo Milev and Georgi Sheytanov two debonair personalities who are fun to watch merely as they go about their lives; with much wit and sauciness, Karastoyanov has cast them in the mold of such classic heroic archetypes we are already familiar with as the iconoclastic poet and the bandit marauder. (Translator Izidora Angel not unjustly describes the book as “a pretty badass take on a two-year period in between the two wars,” and as we shall see, there is more than a little of Lord Byron in both the main characters.) The book shows us the human side of both of these characters, and is particularly moving when it describes their conflict over freedom of expression; Geo Milev was, after all, ultimately arrested and then killed for writing what must be a truly dangerous poem (a poem which, as Sheytanov jokingly says at the beginning of the novel, deserved a full life sentence.)
Georgi Sheytanov (Credit: Wikimedia, author unknown)
The first of the two protagonists we meet (and the one whom I found it much more difficult to find English-language information about) is Georgi Sheytanov, an anarchist revolutionary and folk hero with a broad brimmed hat and a special talent for escaping capture by the authorities. When we meet with Sheytanov, he is already legendary. He has seen every corner of the countryside, roamed the hills and mountain saddles and killed people in service to the various radical militias, though his home is the southeastern town of Tambol (where there is a large public statue of Sheytanov displayed today.) Much of the book shows Sheytanov and his lover Mariola as they are on the run from the law and contemplate fleeing the country, but I found some of the most exhilarating chapters—unexpectedly funny and quotable—came when Sheytanov was describing his adventures in the world of early 20th century radicals and revolutionaries:
It had all been very revolutionary up until then, if it weren’t for the fact he was starving! . . .
“And you just can’t do it ,” he explained to the poet seriously. “The revolution is a revolution, but you just can’t take it on an empty stomach!”
Of walking from Marseilles to Paris, the then-Mecca of revolutionaries:
“I’ve walked the road to Golgotha, you know. I can’t take the train to Golgotha!”
At one point he stows away on a cruise ship, and upon being discovered by the crew and explaining that his profession was “revolutionary,” he gets a most amusing (and unexpected) chewing out by the captain:
“Revolutionary, you say. You revolutionaries,” he says, “I can’t stand you! You people,” he goes on, “you have nothing better to do than to ask for someone else to feed you, while you wave your flags and give your speeches. Revolutionaries! As though you people today can be compared to the real revolutionaries!” he yells. “Real revolutionaries set off bombs and killed emperors! You, and your mothers, all you know is how to steal people’s salami! How many emperors have you killed?”
Sheytanov must admit he’s killed none, a lack he later sorely regrets when some kid younger than himself assassinates the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
But he holsters his Mauser and says, ‘Where do you think you’re going? Revolutionary or not, show me your ticket!’ I’m ready to burst out laughing at this point. I tell him I have no money for a ticket and he tells me, ‘Well of course! When have revolutionaries ever had money for a ticket! You’ve got money for everything except a ticket. You think everybody owes you something. Since you’re going to be liberating them anyway, why not get a free ride now!’
The captain turns out to be a good enough chap and sends the young revolutionary off with 25 rubles for the cause, and it is such amusing dialogue and tales of rascality as this that make both Sheytanov and Geo Milev’s parts of the novel enjoyable. I can’t say that the book (as it presents itself in English dress) is particularly distinguished stylistically; and I don’t use the phrase particularly distinguished here in the snarky damning-by-understatement sort of way that many reviewers might use it, but rather I mean that there are books where the style calls attention to itself and announces the author as a great stylist, but the style here is more engagingly conversational than forbiddingly virtuosic; which is to say that I found the book quite approachable and, to use the common word, readable.
We are introduced to the book’s other protagonist when early in the book Sheytanov goes for an unlikely meeting with the great Geo Milev, described by a younger poet early in The Same Night Awaits Us All as “the apostle of Bulgarian culture,” and asks Milev to take a large sum of money Sheytanov has for him to start a classy new literary journal. The poet, who “smoked violently, as if he were murdering someone,” and had had his run of crappy luck with journal editing, tells Sheytanov angrily, “You have the gall to bring up a magazine in the house of the damned. Have some respect!”—and that sort of cantankerous speech is fairly typical for the great Geo Milev, at least as our author Karastoyanov has portrayed him.
Geo Milev (Credit: Wikimedia, author unknown)
Milev harshly describes at length all the obstacles faced by an ambitious publisher—“Do you have any idea how much paper costs now?” “Do you have any idea how greedy those miscreant printers have become?”—in the environment of pervasive corruption and rent-seeking that was Bulgaria after World War I, but it is readily apparent from the depth of his knowledge that Milev speaks not from bitterness but out of a boundless passion. He’s a man who gets angry over his art; for him, art is no hobby. When a typesetter accidentally prints pieces instead of poets, he flips out:
The poet screamed, swore like an animal, called the typesetter a provocateur, and spit out the most violent profanities he could summon, courtesy of the army reserves in Kniajevo, then he swore a hundred times he wasn’t going to pay these incompetents for the magazine and that he was going to shove it up their let’s not say where . . .
He is similarly uncouth when reading poetry submissions:
“Oh, here’s another one!” he roared and recited out loud: “Poor, pallid Bedouins, wandering desolate deserts, mounted on camels, their legs thin as pins . . . Unbelievable!” he yelled, and pulled out another piece of paper from the piles of poems. “When the beak of the wood-pie taps the tired tree . . . Bravo! You’re one dangerous forgeron, my friend. Very modernistic , I’m simply speechless. I haven’t been privy to such literary crap in quite a while!” and things of that nature. He’d then dress them down even further, address them with a fierce derision and tell one author he didn’t know the difference between Thermopylae and Propylaea, or palindrome and palisade; he’d tell another that he wrote madrigals with the exquisite touch of an iron stove; and a third he told to, quite simply, eat shit.
Milev’s excess of spleen, more than just matter of him being a poet, may also be matter of the poet having come into particularly close contact with Death.
The poet had a strange attitude toward Death . He’d lived through her once, when she’d held him in her dark embrace for seven days and seven nights. She had to all appearances unhanded him, but in fact she followed him no matter where he went and what he did. It was for this reason Death had become tedious— she reminded him of herself all the time. It was enough to simply look in the mirror. Or to feel the guiltridden shiver in the eyes of those who saw him for the first time . . .
Milev was brutally maimed in World War I; an entire section of his face, including one eyeball, was blown off, so that nothing but a black bandage and a tuft of hair covered his deformity. (He had had fourteen surgeries before returning to Bulgaria with his wife Mila, over the objections of the surgeon who claimed he needed more.) As he vociferously lectures at community centers like a Bulgarian John Cowper Powys, he now and then has to wipe away the “rivulets of amber mucus” that leak out of the black bandage. He can only work an hour at a time before head cramps prevent him from continuing. Such aggravating life conditions (it has been my experience) can have a morose albeit disinhibiting effect on the sufferer, so that one no longer finds the strictures of workaday society meaningful. (Or to put it another way: if you were leaking bodily fluids, you might be blase about all these mortal stupidities too.)
Yet there was at least one part of life Geo Milev treated with absolute seriousness: his art. Milev is described by translator Izidora Angel as a poet of great importance in the history of Bulgarian literature, someone whose political poetry bridged the classic literature of his country with the various modernist movements of the 1920s. Some idea of his relevance as an author to world literature may be inferred by that fact that, as Angel tells us, he translated into Bulgarian works by “Lord Byron, Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, John Keats, Browning, and de Musset, to name some.” (In addition to translating Karastoyanov, Angel is also translating Milev’s poetry, which hopefully will give non-Bulgarian speaking readers a better idea of the poet’s powers and why it is he got murdered over one measly poem.)
In Karastoyanov’s portrayal, Milev comes off as a suitably uncompromising old master when he talks about poetry; take for instance this guidance he gives to a younger poet:
“Listen to me boy,” the poet declared, “here’s a little piece of advice from me about what it takes to write. Buy a notebook. Sit down and write something on the first page—write whatever you like. A poem, a story, doesn’t matter, just write. The next day, wake up, tear out that first page, rip it up, and throw it in the fire. Or in the garbage, all the same, the important thing is that you throw it out. The next day, write some more—again you’ll be on the first page, right? On the third day, wake up, tear it out, crumple it up, and throw it out, then sit back down and write! You follow me? Keep going until you are out of pages in your notebook. Then go and buy a new notebook and start all over again . . . That’s it. Somewhere around your tenth notebook you might have something worthwhile.”
Milev is not a total hard-ass, however: the book shows him as a loving father and husband (though this is described as a transformation that overtook him after he came back from the war), and there are certain adorable scenes with the poet’s daughters which help to illustrate this.
Personally, I love how fiery, how combative Milev’s personality is in this portrayal of him, yet somehow I think this personality works better in a context of danger and upheaval like the extremely violent Bulgaria Milev returned home to after having part of his face blown off on the battlefield in World War I; perhaps he was made for a historical moment that allows more space for individual heroism and feats of physical and intellectual bravery; a brash, opinionated poet like Milev would seem a poor fit for the genteel literary culture we have in place today. Regardless, I found his antics, along with the equally debonair exploits of his co-protagonist Georgi Sheytanov, to be the most enjoyable part of the The Same Night Awaits Us All.
As noted above, I ended up (unexpectedly) feeling more equivocal about the book’s style than I did about its plot or characters. Translator Izidor Angel describes Karastoyanov’s Bulgarian as being characterized by “dense, vigorous paragraphs” in which beauty is also conveyed by the persistent use of a grammar mood unknown to us in English, the “inferential” mood, which describes what might have taken place; Angel laments having to “break up” and “re-form” these paragraph, as well as having to do without the book’s signature inferential mood, and not having any Bulgarian in me I cannot say (nor am inclined to say) that Angel has neutered the text (the style of which, at least in English, is never not good), but the translator’s introduction leads one to expect prose somewhat more extraordinary than what we’ve ended up with. (I feel the same way about Richard Azcel’s translation of Skylark: don’t tell me about the author’s stylistic brilliance; show it to me!–even if you have to be freer and less literal.)
I feel similarly unsure what to make of the book’s structure as a “diary” of dated entries by the author. There doesn’t seem to be any intrinsically important reason for why the author chose to narrate one set of events in the story before or after some other events, and knowing that Karastoyanov wrote a particular chapter on “[December 13, 2013]” does not seem to add anything obvious to the plot, though Angel assures the reader that the book has parallels to contemporary global and Bulgarian politics and maybe that has something to do with it. (Who knows?) The publisher’s website adds that the book has been compared to Laurent Binet’s HHhH, but the metafiction in that book involves extensive commentary by the author on the writing of his text, and other than the dating of the chapters and the Karastoyanov’s witty, conversational style of narration, that sort of explicit commentary is not present here. These devices look (to me, at least) like extraneous literary wrapping paper on what is (divested of such) a perfectly fine and entertaining book on its own.