Thursday, 19 November 2009

Passing through Bulgaria

Well, my trip to Bulgaria turned out to be a brief stopover of two days, courtesy of Georgi Gospodinov's "Natural Novel" set mainly on the outskirts of the capital, Sofia.

The brevity of this visit does not indicate, however, that this is an insignificant novel - quite the contrary, I really enjoyed this work and that (combined with its relatively short length of 136 pages) - is why this was such a brief stop.

On the face of it, this novel should not have been as enjoyable as it was - it is very experimental in form and content, with a fractured structure and a number of digressions as varied as a history of toilets and the possibility of literature by flies (even a Fly Bible). These musings are loosely connected to a central (although never clearly defined) concept that Gospodinov has of a 'natural novel': "My immodest desire is to mold a novel of beginnings, a novel that keeps starting, promising something, reaching page 17 and then starting again".

Gospodinov does not achieve that aim in this work for, despite the various digressions, there is a clear sub-narrative here of a writer whose life has been shattered by the discovery that his wife is pregnant with his best friend's baby, and their subsequent divorce. This narrative is driven forward through a series of touching, at times heartbreaking, vignettes charting his various stages of disbelief, anger, despair and resignation. It is interesting that the shattered nature of the main protagonist's life is reflected fittingly in the shattered structure of the novel itself.

For me, the book works better here, in the narrative of the main character, than it does in its postmodernist musings on the nature of language and literature; although these are interesting enough. And the narrative contains enough descriptions of everyday life in Sofia to make this a worthwhile stopping point on my journey. I was particuarly struck by the description of the recent economic hardships of the country in the 1990s: "I remember an elderly woman asking for half a lemon at the market. Others searched around the empty stalls at night for a potato that might have been accidentally dropped. More and more well-dressed people overcame their shame and reached into the garbage cans".

What really struck me was the style of writing here: an engaging, at times brutally honest, and direct style which - whilst the author namechecks Salinger - for me was more reminiscent of Charles Bukowski or Hubert Selby Jnr; both of whom were expert at depicting the self-destructive anti-hero's knowing descent into social exclusion. That is not to say that this novel is derivative however, it is highly original and deserves and wider readership than it will inevitably get in the West. Nor is it a depressing read - indeed there are some moments of great humour (a favourite of mine is Chapter 22, entitled "A List of Pleasures in the 1980s". The chapter simply consists of the line: "...I can't remember any pleasures".)

To sum up then, an entertaining tragi-comic work with some fascinating glimpses of Bulgarian life, interspersed with some interesting semiotic asides. I am certainly pleased that my travels led me to this work.

And so, without further ado, it is time for me to make my way to the impressively modern glass edifice which is Sofia Central Bus Station in time for the 16.00 bus to Skopje in the Republic of Macedonia. There, for the first time on my journey, I will be tackling an anthology of short stories by a range of different native authors from different generations; I look forward to seeing what overall picture of the country these diverse voices will paint.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Leaving Turkey....

Well, the snows have melted, the roads are open and I find myself on the first train heading out of the remote city of Kars after three days' worth of events (which took me a month to read!).

This is an important point actually - the narrative of this book - for the most part - takes place over only three days (you can find a more detailed account of the plot itself in previous posts), yet while this might seem to imply this is a simple book it is, in fact, extremely complex with a multilayered plot which intertwines the wider concerns of religion and politics with the more individual issues of love, selfishness and difficulty of retaining moral integrity whilst pursuing personal happiness.

All of these themes are encapsulated in the central character - the poet Ka - and in his poems which he attempts to relate to the simple, yet complex, nature of a snowflake (reflecting the simple, yet complex, nature of the novel itself).

Orhan Panuk, the author of Snow, is an assured writer who has written a fascinating novel. He even appears as character himself, and whilst he denigrates his own art as a novelist as inferior to that of a poet, he achieves moments of poetry within his own narrative - especially in the hauntingly melancholic descriptions of the snowbound city of Kars itself.

Furthermore, Panuk is acutely aware of the fact that the East/West divisions of religion / politics which he describes also apply to literature. I shall quote a passage from Snow which is a dialogue between Panuk and a disillusioned Islamist student from Kars... this is about the novel (Snow) which Panuk is still in the process of writing at this point. The passage struck me as directly relevant to my trip around the world generally:- in selecting representative books for each country, I am only scratching the surface of each nation's culture, and caution should be taken in ever assuming one can truly learn about a culture from a single book - indeed no matter how many books about a nation one reads, one will always be reading and intepreting those works through one's own cultural background and assumptions. Anyway, Panuk illustrates this better than I can hope to, here is the passage in question:

Fazil (the former Islamic student): "If you write a book set in Kars and put me in it, I'd like to tell your readers not to believe anything you say about me, anything you say about any of us. No-one could understand us from so far anyway".

"But no-one believes everything they read in a novel," I said.

"Oh, yes, they do believe it," he cried. "If only to see themselves as wise and superior and humanistic, they need to think of us as sweet and funny, and convince themselves that they sympathise with the way we are and even love us. But if you would put in what I've just said, at least your readers will keep a little room for doubt in their minds."

A telling exchange and one which applies to anybody reading a book about others from outside of their own sphere of knowledge. This passage really struck me and I shall keep its message in mind for the duration of my journey around the world....

And so, after the long train journey from Kars, I shall disembark at Istanbul's main station, make my way hurriedly to the impressive Atatürk International Airport, and board an Bulgarian Air flight to Sofia, Bulgaria, for the next leg of my journey..."Natural Novel" by Georgi Gospodinov.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Still walking through the Snow in Turkey...

I am now about two thirds of the way through "Snow", the Turkish book on my journey.

What fascinates me about this book is its structure (as well as its hugely interesting characters and ideas). The book takes place over only 3 days of the protagonist (Ka)'s stay in the snowbound city of Kars, and this is reflected in the dense nature of the text itself. Furthermore, much of the narrative is currently taken up with the different views of a number of radical and moderate characters within Kars - Islamist, communist and secular - mostly involving an antipathy towards both the West and the central Turkish government. It is these religio-political debates which take precendence in the latter half of this book, whilst certain dramatic events (which I won't reveal for fear of spoiling the plot) are portrayed as almost secondary.

This could lead to a dry and inpenetrable work, yet it is quite the opposite, Orhan Panuk keeps the reader's interest by clearly showing the human side of the exponents of these - often contentious - views.

At the stage I have reached in this book, there is also an unexpected - and jarring - chapter, where Panuk himself appears to step in as a character in the novel itself, reflecting back on events following Ka's stay in Kars. Again, I cannot comment too much else I shall spoil the plot, but this brief chapter (the next chapter returns to the main narrative) gives a shocking new perspective to the events that precede and follow it...

What this demonstrates is that Panuk is a consumate writer who is able to anticipate and confound the expectations of his readers. In my opinion, he is also a writer who is able to articulate the concerns of his native homeland (which straddles Western Europe and the Islamist East) in a way which reflects the viewpoint of his fellow countrymen, yet which is also accessible to readers from outside of this perspective.

Given the current global "East/West divide" - as Governments and the media would have it - this work is especially pertinent in giving a human voice to the fragmented views of a nation which is uniquely placed to represent this wider schism, in microcosm.

I shall be finishing this book within the next week or so, and shall sum up my opinions once finished; but suffice to say I am pleased that I came across this novel at this stage on my journey.

One postscript to this blog: may I thank Deena Dajani, a follower of this trip from Jordan, for their encouraging and kind words, and suggestion for a representative work from Jordan. It is hugely encouraging to know that people from around the world are engaging with this project, and accompanying me on my online "journey" - and I really appreciate all suggestions and comments which I receive.