Poignant, personal tour of Bulgaria

By John McCrystal

I first learned of the existence of Bulgaria from a handsome stamp in my childhood collection - larger than most, featuring strange writing and the head of a striking-looking black and white dog, like a kind of friesian Scooby-Doo. If Kapka Kassabova is to be believed (and there seems little reason to doubt her), that dawning awareness meant I already knew more than most about her homeland.

For most people in the West, she maintains in her delightful memoir Street Without a Name, Bulgaria was either a style of yoghurt or a Womble. For its neighbours - and even for Bulgarians - it has been a strangely contingent entity, with its borders and its precise ethnic make-up dependent on which period of history and which particular overlord was reinventing it at the time.

Much of its present day territory has been Turkish, Macedonian, Greek, Romanian or Serbian at some time or another; from the end of World War II until 1989, it was part of the Soviet Bloc, and today it is trying to come to terms with the implications of being the latest face at the European Union's family table.

Kassabova's memoir occupies three timeframes: her childhood as far as adolescence, when her family managed to escape to Britain and thence to New Zealand; a return trip with a Kiwi boyfriend many years later; and yet another trip back last year, just as her homeland was granted membership of the EU.

Kassabova was born and grew up in Bulgaria's capital, Sofia, nestled at the western end of the Balkan range, while the Communist regime of Todor Jivkov - "socialism with a human face" - was at the height of its Orwellian powers.

For most of her young life, her family occupied a two-room apartment in a bleak tenement in a district of the city known as Youth 3 (as it replaced Youth 2 and Youth 1).

The young Kapka was subjected to a range of indoctrination programmes, including instruction in the violence done to Bulgaria and Bulgarians by the Turks during the reign of the Ottoman emperors.

A cardinal episode of these years was the "Revival" movement, where with a truly Balkan sense of ethnic hygiene, the regime forced the Turkish tenth of Bulgaria's population to adopt Slavic names and to speak Bulgarian rather than Turkish, forcing many to flee to Turkey - to go on "a long holiday", as Kassabova recalls the official line.

After years of being miserably aware of what the West enjoyed and Bulgarians were missing out on, the Kassabovas finally made it into exile, finding their way to New Zealand in 1992.

Kapka was a bird of passage in our literary scene - she published two novels and a couple of volumes of poetry here, before departing for Scotland - but a welcome one. She has also made a name for herself as a travel writer, and in as much as the past is a different country, she is an astute and charismatic guide through her former Bulgaria.

Despite - or perhaps because of - the adversity of her youth spent in Youth 3, the best part of Street Without a Name is the section dealing with her childhood. She writes with poignant honesty and a scalpel-sharp satirical wit about the weirdly distorted lives of people under socialism "with a human face", and since.

But her two subsequent traverses through Bulgaria, travelling anticlockwise, as she notes, as though turning back time, are fascinating, too, as she records the struggle her homeland faces making the transition from communism to "man-eat-man" capitalism and dealing with the legacy left by centuries of intolerance.

She is at once central to the story, yet unobtrusive - a neat trick indeed. Realised in her lively and endlessly creative prose, Street Without a Name is a rare treat, striking just the right balance between bitter and sweet.

Street Without a Name: Childhood and other misadventures in Bulgaria
By Kapka Kassabova (Penguin $28)

* John McCrystal is a Wellington reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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