This very enjoyable and informative book was among the first I ever read about Bulgaria. I knew one of the Wombles was called Uncle Bulgaria and a few other facts about the country too. There was also a great deal that I didn’t know so I now feel that Bulgaria has been opened up to me and I’d like to discover more. Despite what Kassabova says in her opening ‘Disclaimer’, I think this is not only a history book but a travel-guide to modern Bulgaria as well as being a reflection on the nature of identity.
Kapka Kassabova was born in Sofia in 1973 but finally left there in 1992 and currently lives in Edinburgh. This memoir of her childhood under the former Communist regime is balanced by her description of her return journey to her homeland in 2007, just after Bulgaria had become a member of the European Union. It begins with her arrival at Sofia Airport but then backtracks to take in her childhood up to the time she, her parents and sister suddenly found themselves living in Colchester in 1990. They then had to return to post-Communist Sofia to await the arrival of their U.K. visas and in fact ended up settling in New Zealand.
One of the many changes which struck her when she returned in 1991, after what was less than a year, seems emblematic of that turbulent period in Eastern Europe – a local tough guy, who’d stuck up for her when she was a teenager, had started charging everyone for parking their cars in what had always been a free communal parking-area so the spirit of free enterprise had arrived with a vengeance. By 2007 the houses with security guards belonged to the ‘new elite’ rather than to the party members of old.
She captures the cramped, concrete dullness of life in Youth 3, her housing project, very graphically. Her neighbours come alive, including the psychotic guy downstairs with his ‘stained wife-beater singlet’ who hammered on his ceiling whenever she practised on the piano her parents had slaved to buy her, and the pig-slaughtering gypsy family on the ground floor. The endless queueing in stores as another exotic product was ‘released’ by the authorities, and the rigid formality of school-life with its favouritism granted to relatives of party members, is depressingly familiar. Late in his life her grandfather had a sexual relationship with another man but homosexuality ‘didn’t exist’ in communist Bulgaria and so couldn’t be acknowledged. One sentence encapsulates how it was to live under that regime i.e. ‘We were living inside George Orwell’s 1984 but we didn’t know it because it was on the list of banned books.’ The phrase ‘theatre of the absurd’ is used more than once.
I hadn’t heard anything about the Bulgarian regime’s treatment of the ethnic Turk population in the 1980s. Bulgaria had been part of the Ottoman Empire for around four hundred years and many of its citizens were of Turkish origin but the government forced them to adopt Slav names. Overnight Hassan was obliged to become Ivan and former identities disappeared when, for example, university diplomas were printed with the students’ new Bulgarianized names. Thousands of Bulgarians of Turkish origin were pressurized into leaving the country and crossing the border into Turkey. It was a prelude to the ethnic cleansing that was soon to come in the former Yugoslavia. In recent years ethnic Turkish citizens have started to return in considerable numbers.
On her return to Bulgaria in 2007 she does an anticlockwise tour of her country that starts and ends in Sofia. After her global wanderings not only does she wonder where she really belongs, but within her own country the locals soon identify her as a Sofian and therefore an outsider. When she finally returns to her home, Youth 3 in Sofia, it’s been transformed and no longer feels like home in any sense.
Bulgaria is being preyed upon by speculators from home and abroad who are making lots of money at the expense of the local environment; ugly hotel developments litter the coastline while inland mountains and forests are similarly laid waste. The complex history of Bulgaria and its ever-changing borders and ethnic mix is dealt with throughout the book and one characteristic of the locals that repeatedly comes across is their Middle Eastern sense of fatalism.
Clive James and Misha Glenny are among the famous names showering praise on this book from its cover and, as I said, I thoroughly enjoyed it too. I have just one small suggestion for the publishers: I’m usually good at remembering names but there were so many mentioned throughout this book that I got confused after a while. I think a Dramatis Personae at the end of the book would help in future editions – of which I trust there will be many.
Kapka Kassabova’s Street Without a Name (2008) is available from Portobello Books at £9.99.