Livia Nistor: Contemporary Bulgarian literature is marked by local-universal contradiction

Livia Nistor (source: Livia Nistor)

Interview with the author of the first Romanian research on contemporary Bulgarian literature: what is observed in the evolution of the Bulgarian novel before and after 1989?

Vladimir Mitev

Doctor Livia Nistor studied Bulgarian at the University of Bucharest, where she graduated in Bulgarian philology in 2008. In 2020 she defended her doctoral thesis “The Bulgarian novel in the postmodern era”, in which she analyzed Bulgarian novels from the 60s to the beginning of the 21st century. She currently works as a language trainer.

Mrs. Nistor, you are the author of the first Romanian research of literary studies on contemporary Bulgarian literature, which deals with the postmodernist tendencies of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. How difficult it was for you, as a researcher, to find sources, guidance, experiences related to the subject of the study? To what extent are Bulgaria and Bulgarian culture easy spaces to cross for someone from Romania?

Although Bulgaria is a neighboring country, the Bulgarian cultural space is not very accessible to the Romanian researcher. Bulgarian literature and, in particular, the contemporary phenomenon are very little known in our country, where, in the last thirty years, very little has been translated. For example, the only novels published in Bulgaria after ’89 and translated into Romanian are A Natural Novel by Georgi Gospodinov and The Glass River by Emil Andreev. My work, dedicated to the postmodern Bulgarian novel, involved the overall research of contemporary Bulgarian literature and the understanding of postmodernism as a cultural phenomenon and literary movement. I obtained the necessary books and materials during the research internships, at the national libraries in Sofia and Plovdiv, as well as at the libraries of the universities of Blagoevgrad and Veliko Tarnovo. At the National Library in Sofia I had access to the older editions of the magazines “Kultura” (Culture) and “Literaturen vestnik” (Literary Newspaper), the most important publications of Bulgarian postmodernism. In the first post-communist decade, in these two literary periodicals appeared many manifestos, reviews, articles dedicated to new trends, which I mention in my thesis. My participation in the summer schools for foreign students in Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo, where I had literature classes, some of them held by theorists and practitioners of Bulgarian postmodernism, were also very useful.

Your doctoral dissertation deals with socialist novels (belonging to Vasil Popov, Evgeni Kuzmanov and Georgi Markovski), which, as you write, represent a literature that undermines the norms of socialist life and problematizes local-foreign relations. What does Bulgaria from the mature period of socialism look like in these novels? To what extent are the problems and trends of the 1980s in Bulgaria and Romania similar?

Two of the chapters of my thesis are dedicated to Bulgarian novel and literature from the 1960s and 1980s. Throughout this period, Bulgarian literature is struggling to move beyond the provincial and national perimeter, to become European. Poetry is more subversive, the novel is gradually freed from the dictates of reality, the language is radically transformed. In the 1980s we no longer have a communist monopoly on literature, but we have two types of literature: half realist-socialist, half (post) modernist. This is also happening in our country. However, the different evolutions of Bulgarian and Romanian literature can be seen very well in the 1980s, a period that for our novel is synonymous with playful postmodernism, while for the Bulgarian novel it means a late, recycled modernism. The novels now appreciated in our country are the experimental ones (modernist, expressionist, postmodernist), while Bulgarian prose is still quite conservative, attached to traditional themes, with influences from folklore. The Hero’s Time by Vasil Popov, Seagulls Away from the Shore by Evgeni Kuzmanov and The Storyteller and the Death by Georgi Markovski are novels out of the box, because they parody classical literature and relativize the boundaries between real and fictional. At the same time, their authors are the rebel ones, because they parody the totalitarian regime and socialist realism.

Your study also deals with some contemporary novels, from which it is worth noting that in your view the Physics of Sorrow and A Natural Novel by Georgi Gospodinov are the only truly postmodern novels in Bulgarian literature. What characterizes Gospodinov’s Bulgarian postmodernism? And how is it that his books have become the most translated examples of contemporary Bulgarian literature abroad?

Georgi Gospodinov made his debut as a poet in the early 1990s and the postmodernization of Bulgarian literature is due to the generation of poets he belongs to. We could call Gospodinov’s generation a lucky generation, because it can write differently than previous generations did, it can play and experiment. The young poets propose an ironic rewriting of the Bulgarian myths, capitalizing on those aspects of them that were considered insignificant. Georgi Gospodinov, like Mircea Cărtărescu in our country, is a good quality marketing product. Gospodnov’s novel is an encyclopedic book, interested in ephemeral things, questioning the canon and authority of history, making intertextual references to the Bulgarian literary tradition, addressing human emotions (empathy, sadness, fear) and examining the effects of losing order produced by binary thinking. These are parts of the elements that make up Gospodinov’s specific brand. In addition, the author tells us autobiographical things in almost all his books, regardless of the genre approached: poetry, short prose, novel. This phenomenon of biographical literarization is known to us from Mircea Cărtărescu, who, in addition, also has the obsession of the totalizing work. We recognize at least a part of the real life of these two authors inserted in their novels, due to the characters they identify with and who are at the center of their stories. Both writers talk about communism, which coincides with their childhood and youth, as well as the transition period. In the opinion of Georgi Gospodinov, in none of these periods does metaphysics triumph, therefore people are extremely vulnerable. That’s why his characters in A Natural Novel and The Physics of Sadness are individuals you can empathize with: beggars, lunatics, people trapped in their own past. Gospodinov writes for everyone. He knows how to tell stories and for him stories are important, because human memory is based on emotion, and the moment you tell a story, you generate an emotion and other people connect with your story.

You also deal with Alek Popov’s novel Mission London, which problematizes the eternal problem of Bai Ganio in the Bulgarian cultural code – the tendency for the Bulgarian not to be “a complete European”, but to have something oriental, to wear shameful features in front of the big world international traits that give it vitality and make it local, but also somehow stupid and inappropriate. Moreover, you are dealing with the novel Height by Milen Ruskov, which recreates the reality of Bulgaria before liberation from the Ottoman yoke, when the progressive element in Bulgarian society was carried by those who were open to foreign influences and wanted to draw the world’s attention to the suffering of Bulgarians. under the Ottoman Empire through uprisings and acts of terror. What did you understand from these two novels about the dynamics between local and foreign in Bulgarian culture? And why in the middle of the 21st century does Bulgarian culture still revolve around the contradictions of the 20th century?

The conflict between the local and the foreign or, in other words, the concern that foreign influence will destroy the national identity comes forward every time the Bulgarian culture tries to broaden its horizons and deal with universal issues, not just what is Bulgarian. For example, in the early days of modernism, autochthonous discourse supported the thesis that Bulgarian literature and art in general should reproduce the national specificity, the “Bulgarian spirit”, identified with local problems and themes, in order for Bulgarians to know themselves. The famous confrontation is reactivated even when Bulgarian writers start writing in a postmodernist style. The novels that you mentioned and that I analyze further in my thesis do not exclude the local tradition, but  rewrite it, like Gospodinov’s poetry and novels. Interestingly, paradigm shifts have occurred, but postmodern writers remain devoted to the past. In their novels, they raise the issue of the marginality of Bulgarian culture and update the traditional theme of relations between Bulgaria and the West. 

Milen Ruskov’s novel Height brings to life the 19th century and the National Renaissance, a heroic and at the same time difficult period, when the country transforms and evolves. Ghicho and Asencho, the two postmodernist protagonists of the novel, want Bulgaria to be a free country and its citizens to become true Europeans or at least semi-Europeans. They are always making comparisons with the idealized West and want to get there. Ghicho believes that foreign influence is not bad, but the Bulgarian needs to become more educated in order to recognize valuable things. That way he won’t be vulnerable and easy to manipulate, as is actually the case in Mission London. 

From Alek Popov’s novel comes the idea that even today Bulgaria is not a developed European country, with well-educated and honest citizens, as Ghicho and Asencho wanted. The characters of this novel are Bulgarians from the post-communist transition period who emigrated abroad. Once in the West, after which they have always longed, they do not understand its specific values. The traits that define them are impudence, opportunism, exaggerated concern for their own image, lack of confidence in themselves and others and they remind us of Bai Ganio’s flaws. In a world of relativization of values, the demystification of the truths considered until then absolute about the Bulgarian canon, about the myths that contributed to the formation of the national identity, about Bulgaria and the West is something natural. I believe that postmodernism has been healthy for Bulgarian literature, because with its help it exceeds its known limits and achieves what it has always pursued: diversity and global validity.

How much do you benefit from mastering the Bulgarian language and writing this in-depth research? To what extent does your openness to the Bulgarian space make your life more interesting, more precious and full of meaning in today’s Romania?

I graduated in Bulgarian at the Faculty of Foreign Languages ​​of the University of Bucharest, then I followed, within the same faculty, the master’s degree in translations and I continued writing my doctoral thesis on the postmodern Bulgarian novel. Each of these stages was important for me and for my training. The satisfaction of speaking the language of another culture, especially of a neighboring culture, which we, Romanians, do not really know even now, is special. I want my work to be published soon, because contemporary Bulgarian literature deserves to be known to a greater extent, especially since it stands out through many original things.

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