Modern Bulgarian Literature deserves to be better known in the English-speaking world. For a small nation, a great deal of literature has been produced and much of it has been translated into English and other foreign languages.
Ivan Vazov (1850-1921) is the great figure in the books of the Classical modern period. He was born in Sopot in Central Bulgaria and grew up in Kalofer. In his 20’s he met Hristo Botev and other revolutionary figures and spent time in exile in the Romanian towns of Oltenita and Braila. He was personally involved in the April Uprising of 1876 taking an active role as a revolutionary leader (‘komitadji’) and after the failure of the insurrection took refuge again in Romania.
After returning to Bulgaria in 1878 he became involved – inevitably – in the politics of independent Bulgaria. The dominant Russophile tendency was not his and he was again forced to leave his native land… With the triumph of the anti-Russian party in Bulgarian politics, Vazov returned and had a busy career in the field of politics. He was for a period the Minister of Education. This reflected his early career as a teaching assistant and teacher in pre-Independence Bulgaria.
His lasting contribution to Bulgaria was, of course, literary. His great work was completed in 1893 and is a historical novel. Greatly influenced by Walter Scott, the father of European Historical Fiction, Vazov wrote a fictional treatment of a village during the struggle to free the country of the Ottomans. This was ‘Under The Yoke’ (‘Pod Igoto’). The title of the book has entered everyday Bulgarian language to describe the period from 1393 to 1878. Ordinary Bulgarians do not refer to ‘The Turkish Occupation’ or ‘The Ottoman Period’. They talk of ‘Under the Yoke’.
There is at least one English translation that I know of. For those who want an insight into modern Bulgaria and how Bulgarians interpret Modern History it is required reading. For those who are not great readers there is an alternative. The book was filmed and you may get the chance to see it on Bulgarian TV. You might be able to get it on VHS or DVD. If the chance comes, then watch it. And look out for Chorbadji Marko. In Bulgaria the ‘Chorabdji’ is the rich man in the village. Literally he is the man who gets the ‘Chorba’ or soup. Of course in Ottoman times the rich often worked together with the authorities. In modern terminology they collaborated. At the time it must have seemed different. They cooperated with the authorities. We, like Vazov, have the benefit of hindsight. What would we have done faced with the practical realities of occupation?
Svishtov is a small town on the Danube, today best-known for the University of Economics. Students outnumber the other inhabitants of this neat little town. It was near here that the armies of the Tsar Liberator crossed the Danube in 1876 as the first step in the dreadful and deadly war to drive the Ottomans out of Bulgaria. It was also the place of birth of a great Bulgarian. Aleko Konstantinov was born here in the year 1863 on the Feast of St Vasil – 1st January. Svishtov was a prosperous town in those days and a centre of trade and commerce. Aleko was born into a wealthy merchant’s family and studied Law in Odessa, which had a substantial and thriving Bulgarian community in the 19th century, both before and after 1878.
Returning to Bulgaria Aleko practised Law and also wrote for publication. Literary life flourished in this period and he wrote for a number of magazines. His first work was also his greatest and an abiding part of the ‘canon’ of modern Bulgarian literature. ‘Bai Ganyu’ tells us of the times, travels and adventures of Ganyu Balkanski. He has made his money by selling rose oil (attar of roses). This was and still is an important export from central Bulgaria.
Aleko depicts his Bulgarian hero with all his flaws. Bai Ganyu is self-centred, boorish and rude. He has inflated ideas of his own importance and expects others to provide for him. He knows best on everything! He is the Bulgarian peasant who is transforming himself into a modern European – with some difficulty.
The Bulgarian film director Ivan Nitchev (student of the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda) made two excellent film versions of the book and I heartily recommend them both. The first was ‘Bai Ganyu’ made in 1990 and the second ‘Bai Ganyu on His Way to Europe’(1991). That great Bulgarian actor Georgi Kaloyanchev plays the role of Ganyu Balkanski with conviction, realism and vigour. They were made by Bulgarian Television and are often repeated on Kanal 1.
Aleko’s other great work of course was ‘To Chicago and Back’ which is an account of his travels to America to see the Great Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. It includes the description of Aleko’s arrival on American soil. The Immigration official thinks he is Russian, then Hungarian. When Aleko shows him a map indicating ‘Sofia’ the official says, ‘Ah. Ok. Turkey.’
Aleko was active as a lawyer and that may have led to his early death. He also played a large part in the creation of The Ramblers’ Association in Bulgaria, (Bulgarski Turisticheski Soyuz).
In events that have never been adequately explained, Aleko Konstantinov was shot dead by assassins while traveling from Peshtera to Pazarjik. In memory of this great Bulgarian, the village where he was killed was renamed Aleko Konstantinovo.
The Southern Dobruja is that area in the North East of Bulgaria with its centre in the town of Dobrich. Fertile agricultural land with a rich mixture of many ethnic groups and religions, this was the area described by Yordan Yovkov. He was born in Zheravna, a small town near Kotel. This town has been preserved as a ‘museum town’ and is well worth a visit. Go to see the wonders of the architecture in that style known as ‘Vazrozhdenie’. This is sometimes translated as ‘Renaissance’ but should be ‘National Revival’. This architectural style typifies the growth of a wealthy merchant class in Bulgaria and their new aspirations to an independent Bulgaria outside the Ottoman Empire.
Yovkov was born in 1880. He later studied in Sofia and became a teacher. As with many other of his generation he became involved in the military during the Balkan Wars of 1912/1913 and the Great War after Bulgaria’s entry on the German side in 1915. When peace came in 1918 he returned to teaching for a while and was then appointed Press Attache at the Bulgarian Embassy in Bucharest. He died of cancer in 1937.
Albena may be best known to most of us as the name of that resort on the Black Sea Coast between Varna and Balchik. For Bulgarians the name is also the title of one of Yovkov’s stories. ‘Legends of the Stara Planina’ (1927) is also another well-known collection. A well-known play is ‘The Inn at Antimovo’ I am not sure that any of the translations into English do Yovkov justice. His language is very difficult to translate as he used many archaic expressions and words from Turkish. These give a distinctive feel to his work
As with other works by Bulgarian authors, film versions have been made. These may be more approachable for the foreigner. Shibil -1968, Nona -1973 (from the novel Chiflikat krai granitsata); and 24 Chasa duzhd -1982.
In Dobrich there is a Yovkov Museum with impressive architecture but I am not sure how much a visitor would learn of Yovkov and his work. Try one of his books. Or a film. Or visit Zheravna.