Book of the month: Aleko Konstantinov

One of the extraordinary things about reading books from other cultures is encountering beloved literary figures that have been points of reference for whole nations or language groups but remain unknown to most English speakers. This first happened to me back during my original 2012 quest when I read an unpublished translation of the Mozambican classic Ualalapi and was blown away by its portrayal of the legendary leader Ngungunhane, a towering character with every bit as much tragic power as King Lear or Okonkwo.

Learning about these well-known cultural figures feels a bit like seeing a streetlamp flickering on to reveal a massive monument where before you saw only darkness. It is a startling reminder of how much we miss when we stay within the boundaries of a single language’s literary output.

I had a similar experience reading my latest book of the month, Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian by Aleko Konstantinov, translated by Victor A. Friedman, Christina E. Kramer, Grace E. Fielder and Catherine Rudin. The title came onto my radar when translator Christina E. Kramer, a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Toronto, emailed me about it, mentioning that this was the first English-language version of this nineteenth-century classic, which has long been translated into most other European languages. Intrigued, I plunged in and made the acquaintance of the extraordinary title character some 125 years after he first appeared between the pages of a book.

The work is styled as a novel, but it is really a collection of satirical short stories all featuring the maddening, endearing and sometimes callous rascal Bai Ganyo. Like many nineteenth-century anglophone books, these stories were originally serialised in magazines and newspapers. Indeed, this edition contains several more pieces than appeared in the original collection, published in 1895. As such, an overarching narrative progression is largely absent, although there is a shift in tone, which the translators have recognised by dividing the book into two parts. The first contains a series of light-hearted accounts of Bai Ganyo’s bungling attempts to hawk rose oil in various European cities, narrated by a group of friends vying to amuse one another; the second, much darker section records his cynical attempts to capitalise on corruption when he returns home.

This is an interesting book to read at a time when nationalism is on the rise in many parts of the world because of the way it problematises the concept. While the Bai Ganyo of the first part of the book is staunchly and almost blindly patriotic, the behaviour he and many of the Bulgarians he meets on his travels demonstrate is far from admirable. Indeed, Konstantinov presents many often witty but nonetheless harsh criticisms of national characteristics from jibes at cleanliness and table manners (‘when a Bulgarian slurps, it’s no joke. Three hundred dogs at each other’s throats can’t drown him out’) to portrayals of widespread venality and systemic corruption. Small wonder that while Bai Ganyo and his creator are so celebrated that in 2003 they were depicted on Bulgaria’s 100-lev note, ‘the idea that Bai Ganyo could be construed as representative of a national type is a source of embarrassment,’ as the introduction explains.

It’s often said that humour is hard to translate, yet in this book it comes through loud and clear. As many of the jokes in the first section arise from farcical happenings and physical comedy, there is a universality and immediacy to them that transcends language. Indeed, there is a crudeness to several of the anecdotes (which feature, among other things, a train decked out with soiled nappies instead of flags and an extended search for the toilet) that makes this book seem to come from quite another era than the buttoned-up English-language novels of the late-Victorian period. The most successful passages, however, concern misunderstandings that arise from Bai Ganyo’s naive optimism – as when he pitches up at the house of a world expert on Bulgaria in Prague and presumes he will be welcomed as an honoured guest simply because he hails from the nation.

Many of the later, darker sections will hit home for English speakers too. In an age of fake news and claims of election rigging, it is chilling to read of Bai Ganyo’s nakedly cynical attempts to intimidate voters and found a newspaper for financial gain.

For all its recognisable elements, however, this is not an easy read. The second part becomes relentlessly bleak and cynical at times. There is also the challenge of numerous references to nineteenth-century Bulgarian political and cultural figures whose names will mean nothing to most English speakers. Friedman et al have done their best to elucidate these with footnotes (an understandable choice for a book translated by academics and published by a university press), but these may have an alienating effect for general readers not used to being dragged out of a story to be given context. Even with this background information, the significance of some of the most involved passages may not land for those without detailed knowledge of the Bulgaria of the time.

All the same, readers willing to make the effort (and accept the possibility that some of its elements may not reveal themselves easily, if at all) will find that this book introduces a memorable and striking literary figure whose influence continues to exert itself more than a century after he burst onto the world stage. To make Bai Ganyo’s acquaintance is to come to understand something about the humour and self-image not only of his home country but of humanity as a whole. It’s not an entirely comfortable experience, but memorable encounters rarely are.

Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian by Aleko Konstantinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Victor A. Friedman, Christina E. Kramer, Grace E. Fielder and Catherine Rudin (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010)

Bulgaria: buzz buzz


I had a book lined up for Bulgaria. I was going to read Elias Canetti‘s The Tongue Set Free. It was in my bag and everything.

Then I discovered a copy of Georgi Gospodinov ‘s Natural Novel in the excellent indie bookstore McNally Jackson in New York City (where I’m staying for a week or so, hence the different bookshelf) and it sounded so intriguing that I had to buy it and read it there and then.

Normally at this point in a post, I’d give a brief rundown of what the book’s about. I’m stuck here, I’m afraid because, as the narrator, one Georgi Gospodinov, writes in the fictional ‘Editor’s note’ that pops up after chapter 2, ‘the novel itself could hardly be summarized’.

The throughline, such as it is, is the mental disintegration of the protagonist, another Georgi Gospodinov, after a divorce. But to say that seems to reduce the narrative and squash it back on to the page when it is a living, breathing, alarming entity that leaps around the room, in and out of your brain, helping itself to your insecurities.

As his psyche splinters, the writer/narrator gives himself over to experimentation, trying everything from a novel based solely on the beginnings of classic works and a novel written only in verbs to the Bible according to flies (‘The Book of Flies’) and a disquisition on the artistic significance of toilets.

As in several other books I’ve read so far, the ubiquity of Western culture is evident with The Kinks, Reservoir Dogs, Elvis Presley, Daniel Defoe, J.D Salinger and Shakespeare all featuring (along with many others). But here, instead of a sinister, controlling force, it seems rather to be an amusette or smogasbord for Gospodinov to pick at, pull apart and reconfigure as he pleases, often to startling effect.

Essentially, this book is about itself. Fly-like it lights on and digests its own events, regurgitating them in altered form for reconsideration. However, unlike much postmodern literature, it doesn’t take itself wholly seriously. Anarchic and subversive, the narrative bristles with jokes. It pokes fun at me, at you, at them and most of all at itself, while opening a door on to a fresh landscape of linguistic possibilities and ushering us all through.

Natural Novel by Georgi Gospodinov (translated from the Bulgarian by Zornitsa Hristova). Publisher (this edition): Dalkey Archive Press (2005)