Tuesday, 21 October 2014



Street without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria (2008) | By Kapka Kassabova



  
Danube blues

Text by Nicholas Lezard for The Guardian*

For the second week in a row I recommend a memoir by someone you might have considered not quite old enough to achieve or indeed even remember anything worthwhile. No apology is necessary: for this week's chosen author can write, too; and what's more, she does so in a language which is not her first. That would be Bulgarian. As to whether English is her second, third, or fourth, I don't know; she also speaks French, German and - after the initial reluctance so common among the youth of former, non-Russian, Warsaw-pact countries - Russian.

We are not, in this country, intimately familiar with Bulgaria. I wonder how many people, were they asked in a pub quiz which country is bordered by Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey, would be able to give the right answer? (Try it now with a friend.) All I knew before I read this book was that its name, according to folk etymology, has supplied us with a word too indelicate to reproduce in a family newspaper, its capital was Sofia, and that its standard of living, under communism, was worse than Poland's, if not as bad as Albania's.

Kassabova is acutely conscious of Bulgaria's status as a poor relation. Not even a relation. A simmering pot of ethnic and historical tensions, when they're not beating each other up (which at least meant their wartime record against the Jews was better than many other countries') they're glowering at the Romanians over the Danube. Number of bridges spanning its 400-odd-kilometre boundary with Romania, ie the Danube: one. Although they're building another one. When they're not doing any of these things, they're busy feeling ashamed of their own poverty.

Kassabova's family managed to leave for New Zealand when she was 17, but until then she had suffered the full experience of "Socialism with a Human Face" that was the notional premise behind Bulgarian government: a family of four living in two rooms in a modern yet decaying block, in a street with, as she says, no name. "Our street might have had a name, but nobody knew what it was. When you received mail, your address looked like this: Sofia, Mladost 3, block 328, entrance E, floor 4, apt 79. Your name came last, if there was room for it." That she was known by her Russian teacher as Number 16, until she started working harder at the language, makes "if there was room for it" more than just a rueful joke. (It is, though, as you can see, superbly executed, and is typical of her effortless style; in this book, the jokes are more than just jokes. But of course she can write superb prose: she's a poet.)

Halfway through, the book stops being a memoir of life under communism and turns into a travelogue, a report of her trip back to Bulgaria after living in New Zealand and Scotland. This is disorienting at first; deliberately so, I think, for we hear nothing about her life elsewhere, yet suspect that something has happened in the interim. And I suspect that that something is not too much more than: leaving Bulgaria.

Going back she now finds the place full of gangsters, poverty, trauma-inducing public toilets, and shocking roads; much like before, then, but with gangsters. (Who will, as she sighs, eventually launder all their money and become respectable.) But this is far more than dyspeptic travel-writing. This is not a freak show; it's a profound examination of what it can do to you, to come from a country like that, and then, when you're not sure you should, return to it. It's a journey back to her own past, and she has some very pertinent, and very moving things to say about the dangers of that kind of trip.

It is a beautifully structured book: its closing pages take you back to the beginning, by which time you will know and feel for Bulgaria much more deeply than you did when you started. The country, you will learn, seems to have turned up remarkable women regularly during its history; it strikes me that, in her quiet way, Kapka Kassabova could be one of them.

*This book review is courtesy of The Guardian.

 

 

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