Circus Bulgaria is a collection of fifty short stories, some of them less than two pages long and many of them like postcards from a place that’s way past its best, the protagonists often struggling to survive in difficult circumstances. Although there is no definite time-reference in most of the stories, only one ‘The Cricket’ would appear to be set in pre-1989 Bulgaria, in the Communist era. Some of them are set in a timeless Fairyland.
For those of you who are unacquainted with Bulgarian history, here’s a very quick resume. In ancient times the area was known as Thrace and was home to the mythical Orpheus and Eurydice as well as Spartacus, leader of the slave rebellion against Rome. It was occupied by the Romans and later enjoyed a lengthy period of dominance in the Middle Ages, before becoming part of the Ottoman Empire from 1396 to 1878. Not until 1913 did it become a fully independent state, at the end of the First Balkan War. In World War One Bulgaria sided with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and in the Second World War was allied again to Germany, but protected its Jewish citizens and took no part in invading the USSR. Occupied by the Red Army in 1944, it became a satellite state of Moscow. After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the Bulgarian communist regime also fell and a period of great instability and poverty followed – but life has improved a lot since 2001. It became a member of the European Union in 2007.
Enev is a fifty-three year old journalist and short-story writer and has so far produced seven collections of short stories, of which Circus Bulgaria is the first to be translated into English. It was originally published in his homeland in 2009.
A recurring theme throughout this collection is one of incarceration – creatures (a chimpanzee, a lion, an eagle, a cricket) are trapped far from their natural habitats – while a number of stories (‘Galileo’, ‘The Cricket’, ‘Ballad for Mario’, ‘March’) are about residents and workers in psychiatric hospitals, where both sides are caught in tedious, gloomy routines. I assumed that Enev had worked in such institutions himself and on looking into his life I can confirm he worked as a night-shift hospital attendant. With its symbolism of people trapped in a regime they can do little to change I was reminded inevitably of Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Cancer Ward’.
I could feel the sunshine and freshness of the Bulgarian countryside but also the stifling hopelessness of people with no money, power or future. The natural beauty of Bulgaria, best described in the final and much longer story ‘Over the Mountains’, is in sharp contrast to the poverty and grimness of the urban terrain in many of the other tales – e.g. ‘Brother of Mine’ which deals with modern gangsterism. In a number of them a rural world of goats, pigs, berries and the coming of the storks paints a picture of a simpler idyllic life.
One thing I particularly liked was his rich vein of similes. He describes a guffawing taxi-driver as ‘like a hippo who was having his nails clipped’; an old couple walking along the street were ‘stiff, like cut-outs from some cracked old sepia photograph’; ‘the yard was white like a fairy tale’.
This fairytale atmosphere, as I mentioned, carries through in some stories. notably ‘Cardilescu’, in which a talisman, which in reality appears just a geranium root, brings about the protagonist’s heart’s desire. In ‘Dragon’, one of the shortest tales, a fair maiden has a suitor with scaly skin. In ‘The Orphan’ a poor young man dreams of finding a pot of gold and it comes true. Others (‘Prodigal Son’, ‘Rider Girl’ and ‘The Longest Dance’) are in a more fantastical and grotesque vein.
While I enjoyed this collection a lot and found it very easy to read I occasionally felt that the stories ended too soon and could have gone further. In ‘The Eagle’, for instance, an eagle is captured and taken to the roof of a residential block but then the story comes to an abrupt, unsatisying end. However, another very short piece, ‘Casablanca’, says all it has to say in little more than a page and was probably my favourite tale in the book.
The book is translated by Bulgarian emigre Kapka Kassabova who’s no slouch herself. I recommend her memoir of growing up in Bulgaria Street Without a Name (Portobello, 2008)
Circus Bulgaria by Deyan Enev is published by Portobello Books (http://portobellobooks.com/circus-bulgaria)