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.

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