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.

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