Monday, 26 August 2013

The soviet martyr: Konstantin Pavlov

Let me tell you about yet another Bulgarian writer, Konstantin Pavlov.

Capriccio for Goya. Selected Poems 1955-95, the bilingual edition. Translated to English by Ludmilla G.Popova-Wightman.

Chances are, you already know him as Pavlov is said to be among the Bulgarian classics of the 20th century. To me, however, Capriccio for Goya. Selected Poems 1955-95 was the first Pavlov's book I have read.

There is an important thing to remember while reading these poems: Pavlov happened to live most of his productive years under the communist regime. Being an artist of any kind during the communism meant facing state censorship. All the artwork had to be politically correct; socialist realism style was the only allowed.

The imposition of socialist realism meant all the artwork had to be simple, happy, of an uplifting mood, expressing proletarian values and glorifying the socialism. One was not supposed to show any doubts about the meaning of life or about the virtues of the socialist system. Those who did were censored and silenced.   

As a result, two phenomena emerged in soviet literature: Aesopic language and samizdat. The first one meant using ambiguous, allegorical phrasing so that the piece passes the censorship but the readers are still able to decipher its hidden antisocialist messages. The second one stood for underground publishing, sharing and multiplying the banned texts. The samizdat texts were exchanged in private, read at homes when no-one was watching, discreetly discussed in trustworthy friends' kitchens, and often rewritten - by hand or a typewriter - so that more people can get 'enlightened'.  

Konstantin Pavlov was one of those socialist poets who did not want to write texts glorifying the system. Although he did manage to get his first two poetry books published, starting with the third one he fell into disgrace with the socialist critics and was condemned to long years of samizdat and Aesopic language. He was no longer officially recognised as a poet; his texts were regularly refused by literary magazines and publishing houses. Despite his popularity in the underground and abroad, Pavlov had not been acknowledged as one of the Bulgarian classics up until very recently. Some fans claim, the severe stroke Pavlov had experienced in the early 2000s was a consequence of the years of rejection.     

I will have to be honest: Pavlov's Capriccio for Goya is not one of my favourite poetry books. Too much suffocation and helplessness can be felt here; too much of a small town mentality. I have missed sharper irony, wilder thoughts, higher flights. It is way too easy to state:

I wake up
And what horror -
I find that I'm alive ('Endless Poem', Second Fragment, page 123)

I would prefer a curvier virage before one declares his/her desire to die - but, remember, we need to put things into perspective: Pavlov lived under the socialist system. One cannot, for example, expect truly untamed virages from a socio-economically dependent teenager (however poetic) who lives with possessive parents.

Likewise, in another poem, 'The Insight of a Sparrow' (pg.169), Pavlov simply declares 'us' the small socialist sparrows who breed the eggs of the cuckoo of Stalinism. In 'Shoe, Loyal Like a Dog' (pg. 231-33) a morning turns out duller than last evening when the poet, in his real life or allegorically, lost one of his shoes. 

The whole book feels like poetry in which the author never really takes off to another dimension, never really leaves his claustrophobic, realistic environment. Although he keeps disapproving of the system he is in, he never actually gets out of it.

Poems are not the easiest literary genre to translate. Perhaps because of this reason the said Capriccio for Goya edition is bilingual: on the right side pages you have the English translations; on the left side the same (original) poems in Bulgarian.

'Capriccio for Goya. Selected poems 1955-95' contains only a fragment of all Pavlov's work. Selecting certain poems over others is a subjective process and this book surely does not represent all Pavlov's talents.      

I would recommend this book as a historical document - one that illustrates a mindset of a person living under the socialism - rather than a source of good poetry but you are welcome to disagree. 

Konstantin Pavlov, 1933-2008.

The review is a subjective opinion.

Monday, 19 August 2013

A kunstkamera of thoughts: Georgi Gospodinov's 'Natural Novel'

'Mutual antipathy, just like its opposite, has no need for excuses' (pg. 39, just a quote that I liked).

'Natural Novel', the English edition.

A book without an obvious storyline - good or bad?

Georgi Gospodinov's 'Natural Novel' is one of those books. All we know is that the main character, the narrator himself, has divorced from his wife, now pregnant with another man's child. It seems, the fact of the divorce was the reason why the novel appeared; the cause of the book.

Throughout the book, apart from a few episodes, we don't know where the narrator actually is or what he is doing. It seems, we only get to read his diary, sketches from the writer's journal - while the writer himself is somewhere over there, hiding behind his clever words: making up stories; cracking jokes; chatting with flies in his room; jotting down memories; reflecting his life; imagining his own future (as a weird elderly naturalist of a small town); philosophising; sulking occassionally; collecting information for the natural history of the world's toilets.

The style of telling this novel has been compared to the way a fly sees the world, i.e. fragmented. It is like looking at the same topic (divorce) through many different eyes simultaneously. Or like looking through a caleidoscope.

Undoubtedly, this is a very contemporary way of seeing the world. While reading 'Natural Novel', at times I felt as if I was consuming a multimedia text or a website, jumping from one seemingly unrelated bit of information to another (okay, they do relate on some level eventually, the way everything in this world is related). It certainly is a non-linear way of thinking. 

Gospodinov's 'Natural Novel' was first published in 1999. I remember how around that time my own way of thinking was radically changed and diverted because I became a truly regular user of Google and internet. I remember sitting at a desk at school one day trying to write an essay for the literature class and realising that I could no longer put my thoughts in one line as I used to. The thoughts were jumping at me from all sides as if there was multimedia all around me, both inside my head and outside. I blamed the internet. 
At times reading the Gospodinov's book I felt as if reading prose poetry. There is certainly no overload of words, the texts are laconic and polished. At the same time it's quite a musical text. To me, personally, it goes well with electronical music and two films from the same era, 'Trainspotting' (1996) and 'Run Lola Run' (1998) - a concise and dynamic way of telling a story. There are no adjectives or tiring descriptions. Emotion is cut off the text but one can feel it between the lines. Or, as a popular advice for newspaper writers instructs, showing, not telling.  

One may also say that the divorcee man of the 'Natural Novel' is a master of escapism. His mind will wonder around between ideas, dreams, memories, and the more prosaic topics of flies and toilets, avoiding to point itself directly at the actual problem. That is why the book is poetic.

Talking about toilets, the protagonist is quite obsessed with them. For him, toilets are connected to the underground world. Toilet is the place to escape from an unhappy marriage. The protagonist feels, the humble topic of toilets never gets the attention it truly deserves. He might be right.

Georgi Gospodinov is currently one of Bulgaria's cult writers. 'Natural Novel' has been translated into over ten languages (fellow Lithuanians, you can find an edition in your language too).

I cannot say it has been the easiest book to read (should I just blame the hot Bulgarian weathers incompatible with my nordic physique?). However, it was interesting in the way a talk over a drink with someone intelligent is.

If there was a clearer storyline perhaps I would have enjoyed the book more. Well, but we all are now living in modern times, aren't we.    

Review by Agne Drumelyte.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Sorting out books, that's what we do in August

August is the preferred holiday month for many Bulgarians. Sofia gets unbearably hot, people move to the seaside. Not much point in keeping the libraries open.

Still, the librarians do go to work. They clean dust, polish bookshelves, redecorate reading rooms, sort out and label the books.

That's what we have been doing in August.

Sorting out.


Emptying out reading rooms so that they can be refurbished.

Some more sorting out.

And yet a little bit more.

Cleaning the shelves, German reading room.
Our tutor Valentina, cleaning the Scandinavian literature shelves.

At the Children's Department.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

The importance of wearing a seatbelt. International Youth Day 2013, Sofia

Petar from the Bulgarian National Agency with some goodies to be given away.

August 12 is the International Youth Day, as declared by the United Nations back in 1999. Celebrated annually around the world, the day is meant to raise awareness about the youth issues.

Altough young people form a significant part of the world's population, their problems and achievements are often overlooked. These people are often expected simply to 'be young', in the meantime forgetting that they are the segment of society particularly sensitive to issues like unemployment, poverty, lack of education, drug problems, discrimination. On the other hand, they are the ones contributing heavily as workforce, inventors, artists, scientists, enterpreneurs. The day is meant to highlight both the hardhips and the achievements.

In Sofia this year's activities took place next to the famous NDK building. Set up by the Bulgarian National Agency, the event was a mixture of presentations, games and performances. There was one main stage as well as pavillions of various Bulgarian and international youth NGOs: the scouts, the business minded, the environmentally aware, the ones against human trafficking and discrimination, the work camps- and EU projects- related. For those in a more playful mood a labyrinth game was available at mini venues scattered around the park.    
An important part of this year's event was run by a cooperation of two Bulgarian & Greek road safety NGOs. Statistics show that road accidents are among the main causes of death among young people. The Greek NGO, Panos Mylonas Road Safety Institute, was initiated in 2005 by a woman whose son was killed in a car accident a year earlier. Among its other missions, the NGO travels internationally with their authentic experience simulators to demonstrate youngsters how important it is to wear seatbelts.       

One of the simulators, a real, normal car with four people in it, slowly rotates as if it was a kebab grilled over a fire. The 'passengers' inside are held only by their seatbelts. Sitting there, upside down, I do realise how easy it would be to break my neck if I was in a real car crash.

The kebab-like crash simulator.

Another simulator is a car seat sliding two metres downhill and knocking into a wall. Again, although both the distance and the speed of the 'accident' are low, it wouldn't take much to fall face down on the pavement if the seatbelt was not on.

In addition, one could try stumbling around red traffick cones wearing goggles that imitate vision of a drunk person, and to drive a computer game car in order to measure how ecological their driving skills were, thanks to the Bulgarian 'Open Youth'.

For more photos from the event, see below.

Carmen, George and Inga, EVS volunteers at the Bulgarian Infinite Opportunities Association.
Daniel from CVS Bulgaria promoting international workcamps.

Milena from SMART Foundation Sofia.
One of the labyrynth stops.

Giving out leaflets, EVS volunteer David from Armenia.
More interns & volunteers: Madlena (Bulgaria), Kasia (Poland), Eneko (Hungary), Maria (Sweden).

Elina from Latvia in the background of animals.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

'Hope for the Little Ones', a Bulgarian orphanage

Fellow EVS Sarah (middle) and Oles (left) spending time with the infants.

It is the second time in my life I get to hold babies. Once again, I am surprised at how solid and strong a body of a six month old is. When he is interested in something all his body shifts towards the point of attention; when he, lying in my lap, starts to move his arms and legs simultaneously, I fear I may not be strong enough to save him from flying off.

Earlier on I read an article claiming how important it was to all newborns to be touched. According to the text, babies who were not touched grew and developed slower than those who got regular contact. An American NGO was described, members of which go to hospitals on their free time to touch and massage abandoned babies.

Now, spending time with the infants at the 'Hope for the Little Ones' orphanage in Sofia, I indeed notice how much they want to be held and played with. Some start to cry as soon as we put them back to the buggies or disappear out of their sight.  

The youngest one, two month old Maria, has got a hypnotising gaze. She barely makes any sound but with her stare alone makes me freeze next to her bed. She looks fragile, otherworldly; looking at her, I think that people who have just arrived to this world and people about to depart share something in common: a very powerful gaze. Without doing anything extra they can get all the attention; they radiate the most intense nonverbal communication.

There are currently seven infants at the 'Hope for the Little Ones' house. Most of them were abandoned by their parents or taken away by social workers. Mother of one of the girls comes to visit every now and again; another boy is about to be adopted. Quite a few come from Roma families.

The house is for infants of up to three years old. They can stay at the house for up to a year. According to Bulgarian law, foreigners can adopt only those children who have been refused by at least three Bulgarian families.

The numbers of infants at the 'Hope for the Little Ones' are deliberately kept low - this way it is ensured the environment is as homely as possible, rather than that of an institution. Half of the funding comes from the government, the other half from private donations.

There are some full time staff working, as well as incoming volunteers. There can never be too much attention (or touch), so volunteers are welcome to visit, as well as are certain donations (a list of things needed usually is announced at the foundation's website). We brought some books donated by Sofia City Library.

I was expecting a gloomier place when I was coming to visit; in return I discovered a cosy two-storeyed house with a small garden surrounded by trees. There are lots of toys; the pastel green interior is that of a children's room. If all goes well, the foundation is going to open a second orphanage, also in Sofia, in September 2013. The current house has been open since 2010.

Although no institution can be a replacement of one's real family, at least these kids can spend part of their infantry in a safe oasis - for up to a year.  

With Dani (left), the director of the orphanage, in one of the children's rooms.
A visit from a doctor: check up, vaccinations, gymnastics.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Bulgarian National Radio: the 78-year-old mammoth with a contemporary twist

First of all, let me tell you that the Bulgarian National Radio has got its own chapel. I found this interesting and unusual:

An Orthodox chapel within the premises of the BNR.

We went to visit the Bulgarian National Radio on one of our networking days. The government-funded media giant has got four major radio channels (national, international), as well as eight regional ones across Bulgaria.

Around 1480 people are currently employed by the BNR - most of them at one of the two headquarter buildings in Sofia, others as regional correspondents. (To put the figures into context, there are around 7.3 million people currently living in Bulgaria, so the BNR staff would account for a 0.02 percent of the population).     

The two national channels are Horizont and Hristo Botev. The first one specialises in news, comments, interviews; between the spoken parts it plays contemporary popular music. Horizont is the most popular radio in Bulgaria, and is often considered the least biased.

Radio Hristo Botev, named after a famous poet and revolutionary, is a high brow cultural channel. On the menu are classical music programmes, concerts, radio theatre plays, cultural news.

The Bulgarian National Radio since its very beginnings has been a promoter of cultural activities in Bulgaria. It has got a record studio that has been helping the less commercially-successful musicians (classical, jazz, folk) to publish their work, a radio theatre, a children's choir, a symphony orchestra, even a big band. The BNR's legendary first director Sirak Skitnink (an 'Orphan Wanderer', real name Panaiot Todorov Hristov, 1883-1943) was a poet and painter himself.    

To give the 78-year-old BNR a modern twist, an innovative internet radio channel Binar was started in 2012 (my colleague Sarah did a post about Binar's one-year birthday party earlier in July). The music Binar plays is contemporary, both popular one and one drifting towards indie. Binar is a bit more than traditional radio as it also plays videos (of interviews in the studio; music clips) on its website.      
Finally, the BNR's fourth major channel is the international Radio Bulgaria. This one is aimed at promoting Bulgarian culture around the world and informing about happenings in Bulgaria. As one would expect from an international channel, Radio Bulgaria has got information in eleven languages. Similarly to Binar, the latter channel is internet-based and has got multimedia (images, sounds, videos) on its website.

Among the regional channels, Radio Sofia informs about what is happening in & around the Bulgarian capital; the other cities covered by regional radio channels include Plovdiv, Varna, Bourgas, Stara Zagora, among others.    

At the BNR's radio theatre studio.

The foyer of the BNR building in Sofia.
Mocking a radio show at Binar's studio.
A decree from 1935 announcing the start of Bulgarian National Radio. A radio station initiated by a group of enthusiasts several years earlier was nationalised by Tsar Boris III.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

On-arrival, Albena: the famous EVS training

Dancing an improvised version of horo with a local Roma lady, Albena. 

All EVS volunteers have to undergo training. On 19-24 July we had our 'on-arrival' at the Black Sea resort of Albena, organised by the Bulgarian national agency. There have been nearly sixty trainees in total - EVS volunteers from projects all over Bulgaria - some of them 'on-arrival' like us, others 'mid-term'. 

Four trainers were giving us workshops, supported by several other people from the national agency. 

The training, of course, is not just about partying. A typical day included a couple of three-hour sessions, separated by a two-hour lunch break - the latter typically spent at the beach. 

I was not the only one thinking the sessions were fun but intense. We did: ice-breaking games in order to get to know each others, our projects & countries of origin; psychology workshops (personality types, negotiations, conflict management); classes about practicalities of doing an EVS (volunteerism, AXA insurance); plus creative tasks such as designing posters, shooting short films & running for quests all over Albena. 

We were given an in-depth presentation about Bulgaria and a language lesson, afterwards taken to a traditional restaurant to sample some more of the local cuisine and to watch folk dancing & pre-Christianity style fire shows while eating.

Most of our training sessions were animated by quick exercise sets (yes, you have read it right) in order to awaken our happily exhausted bodies and reset our brains. Even if at times I felt as if I was back at the kindergarden now I think that it was actually quite an effective way to make us learn.

All in all, it has been a good time for most of us, both information- and networking-wise, as well as a chance to uncover yet another Bulgarian destination. 

Thanks to Marionela, Nora, Svet and Atanas, our trainers, who have put some additional knowledge into our heads & for their innovative approach; and to everyone present for making it a worthwile experience. 

I am not going to go into details about the free time we had between & after the sessions but one of my colleagues claims he has made 'friends for the lifetime'. I can add, the new skills and contacts are likely to last beyond our EVS projects.