A Life-Changing Encounter with Bulgarian Literature

By | July 12, 2022

Guest post by Dimitar Kambourov

I embarked on the project of compiling and editing Bulgarian Literature as World Literature for various reasons. Some of them – like increasing the visibility of Bulgarian literature and provoking curiosity about it worldwide – were uninspiringly important. Others happened to be a continuation of my life-long endeavor to read Bulgarian canonic works from multiple theoretical perspectives so as to ‘warrant’ their worldly literary ‘merit,’ while at the same time demonstrating the monstrous fun of reading them. Yet the ultimate motive was also the most intimate one, connected with the first encounter with literature I remember.

As a child, I spent the formidable summer vacations at my grandparents’ place in the countryside – or rather, on a natural throne in the crown of the walnut tree in front of the house. The second summer I was able to read, upon my arrival from the city, my grandfather took me to the only bookshop around and encouraged me to get as many books as I wished. With few children there, the book choice for kids was quite meagre, and I had little interest in unillustrated books.

Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that the pictures added pages but shortened the reading time. Thus, one early afternoon, hours before my grandpa’s return from work, I found myself with nothing to read. I asked grandma for help, but much like Proust’s grandmother, she worried that too much reading would ruin my eyes. She therefore declared that no more books were to be brought into the house, let alone illustrated ones, prompting my exploration of the dark, stuffy pantry under the staircase.

After an uneven battle with all kinds of junk, I triumphantly struck a vein of decaying paperbacks in an appealingly appalling condition. These turned out to be school chrestomathies of Bulgarian literature. Not without a toil, I deciphered my father’s name on them. My self-congratulating pride was slightly dented when I saw that the only pictures were colorless sketches of old men and the works were printed in tiny letters. Moreover, most turned out to be poems – not even split into stanzas, at that. But better to have books with poems, minute letters, and no pictures than no books at all. I solaced myself and embarked on reading the one for the 9th grade.

After a poem or two by Botev and another one by Vazov, I was astonished at how many words I didn’t know, and yet it didn’t matter that much, as those I did know shed light on the unknown, prompting me to guess what they might mean. The level of uncertainty and vague proximity made the game of reading more inspiring, albeit somewhat exhausting. I took a rest with a piece of prose called ‘Дядовата Славчова унука’ (‘Grandpa Slavcho’s Granddaughter’). Finding it boring, I moved on to a short story called ‘Дядо Йоцо гледа’ (‘Grandpa Yotso Watches’). With the passing observation that there were plenty of grandfathers in Bulgarian literature for adults, I gave myself over to reading.

It was the story of an old man who had lost his sight just before the liberation of Bulgaria after five centuries of Turkish ‘slavery,’ as we keep calling the Ottoman rule. The old man’s blindness prevents him from seeing the long-overdue ‘Bulgarianness’ (българското). Living in a Balkan mountain village, he discovers that his countrymen quickly get used to the new rule, which does not change their lives. Even a victorious war against a neighboring country does not affect the daily routine in the village. Nevertheless, the old blind man is certain that freedom is visible – or that it would be, if only he had eyes to see it. After touching and kissing the insignia of two military men he meets, he declares ‘Lord, I have seen!’ The days pass uneventfully, but when Bulgarian engineers design a railroad throughout the mountain – something previously considered unthinkable – the process of its construction returns the old man’s will to live. When the train begins its route, passengers are puzzled by the odd image of an old man waving his calpac at them from a mountain crag. The new conductor asks the locals if the man is a madman; they respond, ‘No, man, it’s Grandpa Yotso watching.’ One evening Yotso does not return home. His son finds him in the morning, dead upon his rock, hat in hand. One more sentence remained, yet the letters were blurring, fusing, and flowing in all directions. I cleared my eyes and read: ‘Йоцо беше ненадейно издъхнал, поздравлявайки нова България…’ Yotso had suddenly passed away, greeting a new Bulgaria.

I found myself sobbing aloud – with a whole throat, as we say in Bulgarian. I was wailing and howling in that stuffy pantry, surrounded by old books, and I felt more like the little boy lost in the forest than the Erlking on his throne in the walnut crown, as I had while reading about Little Onion and Don Tomato. I was crying and crying and couldn’t stop. I felt such pity for the old man’s death. I felt sad, yet also grateful and vaguely envious that he had died so happy. Simultaneously, I experienced true empathy: an eight-year-old boy from the biggest coastal city, fully identifying with that dead old man in the Balkan mountains from a century back, and the meeting point between us was our unexpected pride in being Bulgarians.

Monument of ‘Grandpa Yotso watches

All these things – my pity for this old blind man, simple yet insightful, with the face of my grandfather, whom I was reading about in my father’s textbook – made me perceive the moment as exceptionally special: my pitiful and happy loneliness on that hot afternoon in the countryside, as I felt so strongly connected with my father and grandfather, with the old man and with my country, revealed to me for the first time the suffocating, absorbing, and overwhelming power of Bulgarian literature.

The clear-cut opposition between blindness and sight had been blurred and subverted by the insightfulness of blindness; by the same token, all oppositions between normalcy and anomaly, reason and naivety, maturity, senility and infantilism, between the imposed reality of seeing and the overwhelming world of imagination – and finally, between life and death – turned out be blurred by a short yet colossal literary piece that elicited an enormous amount of both emotion and intensive intellectual work. At that lonely moment in the stuffy pantry in a forsaken village, I became a witness to two things: the power of literature per se and of the merit of its Bulgarian incarnation. That was the sheer moment of epiphany in which I experienced for the first time Bulgarian literature as world literature.

And this is how I see the book Bulgarian Literature as World Literature, which Mihaela Harper and I happened to make: I see it both as the Bulgarian train traveling through the impossible mountains of the world, I see it – very much like Grandpa Yotso – ‘as a monstrous winged dragon that shoots flames from its mouth, that rumbles and roars, whooshes through the mountains with unimaginable power and speed, proclaiming the strength, the glory, and the progress of a free Bulgaria.’ And I see myself as greeting it from my Balkan balcony as it passes…


Dimitar Kambourov is Associate Professor in the Literary Theory Division of the Slavonic Studies Department at Sofia University, Bulgaria, and Lector of Bulgarian Language, Literature and Culture at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. His numerous publications on literature, theory, film, and music appear in English and Bulgarian. Bulgarian Literature as World Literature is part of the Literature as World Literatures series.

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