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Gergana Apostolova


Eastern Europe as a space of literary exploration in the time of the great turn called by all the world Perestroika turned up in English literature and film from a time and place where history and geography had not worked in the traditional way.

Being in the periphery of great political events and keeping a position of discretion, enclosing its unique culture in its native tongue, Bulgaria has not been made a space for great literary exploration. At the same time it is challenging to read about ourselves in other literatures learning about our own representations and misrepresentations in world culture.

The latest English fiction referring to Bulgaria is The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. It is not high literature and in this in no way meets the standards and the tastes of the Bulgarian readership but it has become highly popular as an entertaining story although of somewhat bulky form.

Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, on which it heavily relies, The Historian produces a reading matter aimed at entertainment and provoking discussion. The narrative which is not so dense as that of Stoker, but certainly well-told, combines in itself a multiplicity of discursive fields - ethnography, totalitarian practices and ideology, discourses of identity and degeneration, gender, truth, history, life and death, sexuality, moral and aesthetic values, boundaries, conventions - issues of never- fading significance and validity though of contrastive interpretation.

As a haunting figure from past narratives, legends and beliefs, the vampire emerged as a creature of folklore and rustic superstition. The myth was initially referred to on the stone tables of the Assyrians. The ancient Greeks, who believed that the offsprings of blood could affect the return of the dead from the dark abysm of the Underworld, called it “sacramenous”- “flesh made by the Moon”. The noun vampire is also cognate with the Siamese word “vampra” - the term used for a lunar Sabbath, a day that was particularly noted feared for its supernatural potency. The belief in vampires was widespread over Asia and central Europe, Greece and Turkey, but it was primarily a Slavic and Hungarian superstition (not Bulgarian, though), with reports proliferating in Hungary as early as 1730. (Gelder 1994:39)

Ever since the eighteenth century the distinction between dominant centre and dominated periphery had played a major role in the master narratives of Eurocentrism in which (North) Western Europe had inscribed itself as the centre of the civilization and progress, reserving for itself only the right to “represent” the Old continent. (Kostova 1997:11) In this respect the vampire became deeply embedded in the cultural context and, as a transgressive figure from the past embodying the periphery’s difference from the centre, came to fit perfectly into the cultural narrative space. Not only did the vampire manage to do that but, as an early emblem of the periphery, it also became an indispensable image in the system of images invented by the West to define and contain the East. (Ibid.)

As an eruption or unfavorable energies from the primitive past Dracula is disturbingly ambivalent. This is a focus of the past and the present: a membrane cutting through layers of time and space.

The Historian is the story of an American family which searches to find itself in places so shady and mystic as one’s subconscious, in times so unfixed as half a millennium, in a quest for the unknown, so unfamiliar, severe, raw and fundamental as gender, bloodshed, religion and the Balkans.

Elizabeth Kostova has managed to reproduce a haunting story in a clever smoothly running narrative, telling about the early 1970s yet without touching hard upon the painful spots of our histories of that time, sending her searching fantasy back - not so much in time as succession of events but in the darkest folds of primeval fears aroused by concrete events and names - and that without making her story too scary or too melodramatic.

It is a well-built narrative and one could make the most of entertainment reading it.

Our aim here, however, is to explicate the levels of cultural representation and its perception by a Bulgarian reader.

First of all, building a fictional reality using real names, places and events in a story which is made up, is something that strikes a Bulgarian reader since realism and high literature are the established readers’ tastes especially in cases where well-known places, names and historic events are concerned. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” type of fiction is something novel on our literary horizon. In fact: there is no problem up to page 463 of the Bulgarian edition of the book where the name of Bulgaria is mentioned for the first time. After that the story becomes dense in both description and events reaching a culmination, though not an end in its ‘Bulgarian’ part. It is then that literature ceases to exist for a Bulgarian reader and one feels cheated, because using real names and places in a tale of fantasy really spoils fantasy by the knowledge that it is impossible in that particular setting. Probably the reason lies in the fact that the fantasy relies on local realia rather than on local character, and hero-centered action is in fact imported: the local settings are the background to action of strangers using our well-known realia in a strange way. This feeling of disappointment, however, is the surface reaction. A further rereading of the book reveals it not as travel book, as it appears to be in its structure, but as adventure of deeper nature.

It is like hovering in a spiral round the heart of the Balkans in search of a mystic fearsome creature: traveling between Rumania and Turkey and preparing to enter a forbidden zone: Bulgaria is a difficult place to enter - physically because of the fearsome mountain ranges that nestle the land in their folds, and politically - because of the totalitarian limitations of access. There is, however, a third boundary which lures fantasy: the fascinated foreigner never reached deep into the roots of what her characters see or hear: there is action and there is dialogue, but it is like surfacing. Cultural experience is limited to the information in tourist brochures or to what totalitarian iron curtain allowed foreigners to see. Maybe this lack of real knowledge is what has made it for the narrator so mysterious to travel round Bulgaria, and to fix it as the enchanted land where Dracula found a lasting shelter.

It is quite an experience to find out that not only the past but the present can be ‘another country’ when seen through eyes adapted to other cultural environment which is open to our own yet completely unaware of our own self-awareness. Thus, the traditional experience of the mind knowing itself through ‘otherness’ is displayed.

It might seem a good idea to replace the history of incessant bloodshed and human monstrosities of the Balkans with a fantasy of vampires: thus the present Bulgarians, Romanians, Albanians, Greeks and Turks remain just normal people whose ancient feud has turned into a ghastly story, into a nightmare which can be survived. This, however, makes the story, though well-told, sound shallow. It is real strong clash in history and the survival after such clash that has made the Balkan peoples what they are now and it is part of all our diverse national pride and self-respect. A vampire as a creature of the dark is a tale for naughty kids. There is no longer the powerful boyar who fought against the Turks, and who killed thousands of warriors. There is the story of a transnational nightmare which is chased and removed by an ordinary American family where the women play leading part. This seems a very simple solution to entangled Balkan histories. You just need enlightened Americans and vampires can be beaten for you.

The representation of Bulgaria is multi-coloured and emotionally loaded. It is evident that it holds a special magic for the author who approaches it with the scary enchantment of her heroes rooted in both the unknown and the unnatural. There are three levels of literary representation bound in the development of the plot: the historic events, the people, and the places.

There is a couple of character types described: the man from the state security services, the old professor of history and his niece, the monks at Rila Monastery, the common people from the small village huddled in a wild valley of the Rhodopes - the mountain massive that separates Bulgaria from Turkey and Greece to the east.

The characters are built according to the simple scheme of telling the good ones from the bad ones depending on how cooperative they prove to two Americans who have broken into the country in search of something that serious history would discredit. The mysterious task of finding the vampire is emblematic as a metaphor of the effort to break the ‘iron wall’ in an attempt to understand a hidden culture. A simple-minded story for a simple minded audience would search for artifacts rather than for real living people. In fact the method of presenting the Bulgarian characters is that of the black box: a well-described surface and partly the outcome - in a small spell of time - while the input and the inner mechanisms of functioning are unfathomed. That makes them stationary and unimportant as they are only part of the background where the story is about establishing American identity through uninvestigated cultures.

The historic events come as letters, translated documents, narratives by reliable characters. It is amazing that the story of Vlad Dracula is truthfully told up to the vampire fantasy which it seems to support. The incredible fictional representation of history comes when the specialized enichari department for fighting the vampire is introduced.

There are also a number of other historical fantasies which make the story rather shaky from a Bulgarian reader’s point of view. First comes the nonchalant labeling of Georgi Dimitrov ‘a communist dictator of Stalinist type’, which is a somewhat understandable but untruthful inference from the later histories on that Bulgarian leader (Lalkov 2006) and contradictory to the common attitude of the Bulgarians: a really ‘foreign’ approach, which sets debate between readers of different generations or at different stage of ideological and ethnic displacement. There seem to be caught clashes of national history and transcultural historical context: yet, a Bulgarian reader is readier to tolerate different approaches than the author of the book who knows nothing about (and doesn’t seem interested in) any other way of calling a great (not necessarily good in every respect) Bulgarian: black and white here are accepted as sufficient colours of the background to the story.

Another unbelievable tale is the celebration of May 24th at the house of the ‘famous’ historian Stoichev, who was declared ‘enemy of the people’ for his religious belief. There is a man from the state security accompanying two suspicious foreigners. And there is a multitude of admirers of that professor who openly manifest their love and respect to him in the mid-1950s when there was really totalitarian dictatorship and people in disgrace were shunned and even they kept self-isolated so that other people would not be investigated for talking to them. This is rather a dream picture: a way to make up a good character by stating ‘factually’ that he is respected and loved by many. Such a picture is possible only in retrospection as a romanticized vision of the quiet revolution of the Bulgarians. Surviving totalitarianism was not that romantic, and not so open, and not so proud - keeping quiet and low proved wise.

And there is an open religious celebration with fire-dancing - again in these years - described as it is performed to rich foreigners in our Black sea resorts. This is, however, something typical for Strandja - a mountain massive separated by the lower parts of the Thracian plain from the Rhodopes which is a different territory and holds different ethnic tradition from those kept in the Rhodopes. A further error is the choice of icons: St Mary and St George are impressive in strength but not the ones to dance on fire with where St. Constantine and St. Elena come favourable.

Another improbable fantasy is the enormous crypt under a Bulgarian church: we have been poor people and our greatest churches do not possess that space. Besides, all Bulgarian churches during the 500 years of Turkish reign were small and dug into the ground so that they do not appear bigger than the mosques.

The scenery described is as attractive as an improved tourist brochure: even the route is the standard one we use to offer to our foreign guests when they first come here - and the easiest for us, too.

The book can be approached from another point of view getting beyond narrow ethnic and national perception. It is an adventure into an unnamed identity: a first-person tale of a heroine, who has been marked with the sign of the vampire yet, has grown in a safe generation. This is a story where gender is represented in a way provoked by the Balkans: femininity is leading without being changed for neuter or abstract manifestation of humanity. Here we do not need the ‘he or she’ replacement of the third person, because “I” stands for the heroine around whom action develops. This bears no ethnic references but here I can find a true representation of the Balkan and, in particular, of the Bulgarian self-awareness of femininity. The obedient and loving daughter follows the tradition of her female ancestors (her grandmother, grand aunt, and her mother) from the dark spaces of the Balkans to reveal herself as an explorer and a fighter.

There is not a single line in the whole novel which places femininity in the background of a masculine action: even the mother who has been left with the baby never loses her strength, and her love survives in spite of male uncertainty and dependence on evil forces. Love is an indispensable part of femininity but not subordination. Hate, on the other hand, as well as fear, is not - and they do not divert a woman from her fixed decision to fulfill her mission of relieving the future from the vampire who sucks intellect rather than blood.

There is also the romantic side to the story but it is not the traditional overwhelming love that saves the good and brings vampirism to its humane side. Love is just human, the vampire interferes with it. Here women, though bitten, fight while men seem to be more vulnerable, for the bite of this particular version of Dracula affects the mind rather than the flesh. Those who are bitten twice prefer death to turning into subordinate vampires. Again this might be interpreted as representation of the Balkan liberation movements’ logo: ‘Freedom or Death’.

In the third place comes the fact that this is a tale told from the future: the very beginning is an address to the reader dating as far forward as January 15th 2008 which sets the story as retrospection to 1972 when the action of the novel begins, again to only fall back to the 1930s and the 1950s and further back as far as half a millennium. It is like steps back into time, down into the crypt of darkness. There are ‘acknowledgements’ and ‘documents’ ‘cited’ which add up to the motivation of the story. It is curious but readers never seem to notice the date 2008 and tend to accept this part of the story as preface which ascertains the documentary value of the narrative.

Last, but not least, comes the fact that the Bulgarian translation has put the title The Historian in the masculine although in the very first place the heroine states herself as ‘the historian’ and this is closely translated into the feminine. This places the father into the centre of the action and the heroine - in the position of a narrator only. But the development of the novel brings up this ambiguity of meaning to resolve it in the framework of the story.

All in all, there is not real representation of the Balkans and especially in our case - of Bulgaria in this book. There is the representation of the American trying to find an identity of culture, gender, historic roots, humanity and supernatural survival, as citizen of the world traveling to places so close at hand and so distant from a global perspective. The book is a very good reflection of the American self interested only in its own problems, closed for real love, real suffering, real problems, Christianity, ethnic clashes, values and whatever experiences that pass in a dreamlike way past the rushing train of action, but requiring a vampire to thrill it out of its hidden folds.

As a story the book is unimportant. As representation of the Balkans it is weak. However, it sets a deeper set of questions than come to the surface only through a Balkan reader: they concern a modern approach to cultural transformation through employment of history, literature, fantasy and reaching to readership. The book lacks good representation because the iron wall around the Balkan cultures still exists. It cannot be opened from the outside but an outsider can provoke its destruction.

Therefore, The Historian comes out to be a culturally motivated book, probably one of a type that would cut through walls and throw light on vampire refuges.



© Gergana Apostolova
© E-magazine LiterNet, 24.03.2006, № 3 (76)