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In dreams

by Deyan Enev

Times Literary Supplement, 24 December 2010

The stories in Deyan Enev’s Circus Bulgaria bristle with life’s illogic. Wild, lawless and sad-funny, they are a kind of continuous discourse on the amorality and unknowability of life. A couple who live in a regime that forbids relationships are mortally stung by a swarm of bees; a boxer is recruited as a hit-man and ordered to kill his brother; an unemployed lion-tamer sells his lion, which once modelled for the national coat of arms, to a businessman in an Audi who wants to construct a private safari park; a policeman discovers in the pocket of a tramp who has frozen to death in a chapel a scrap of paper with the words, “Little Mister Sunshine, I beg you…”.

Anyone who has travelled in central Europe and the former Soviet Union in the last twenty years will recognise the extremity, surrealism and unpredictability of life that these stories describe. Democracy in Bulgaria has yet to deliver fairness or prosperity or a future most of its citizens can rely on, and this first collection in English by a prolific short-story writer who was born in 1960 (and whose life has therefore straddled Communism and its aftermath), is planted squarely in the soil of post-Communist realism and satire. His characters – orphans and rubbish collectors and nurses and convicts, abandoned husbands and disillusioned women – inhabit hospitals, shacks and brothels, and very often end up bereft or lost or dead.

Where Enev’s storytelling world goes further, however, is in its passionate mingling with Slavic folk-tale traditions. Animals – bees, rats, roosters, pigs – underline the cruelty that humans inflict on each other, and will remind some readers of Bohumil Hrabal’s baroque and scabrous collages in The Death of Mr Baltisberger and The Little Town Where Time Stood Still. Yet that comparison doesn’t fully embrace Enev’s folk-influenced imagination, or his contrary understanding of life. In his world, some existential schisms are permanent. Innocence is almost always lost, like that of the adolescent boy in “Koko” who rears a piglet and, returning months later from Sofia, helps slaughter it. Dreams, like the little rubbish collector’s – she gives in to prostitution, then finds a shoe-box full of money, but her appetite for wealth has been ignited and the damage is done – attract a high price. The greatest schism of all is between life and logic.

These stories, many no more than two pages long, dramatise inconsequentiality as a principle. Life’s most conspicuous trait is its absence of dénouement, and it is this sense of illogic that binds them to folk traditions. More of the stories deal with loss and failure than with success; but, as Andrei Sinyavsky has observed about Russian folk-tales, the profit comes from their turnover, not their capital. Progress or regress is immaterial. Losses are as valuable as gains. What matters is not the capture of reality but the story’s ability to regenerate itself, over and over again, driven by its own language and imagery.

As if to confirm this, not all of the fifty stories here succeed, and towards the end of the collection a sense of repetition – a brevity more meagre than suggestive, stories that are no more than inconsequential – creeps in. But where the language works, where the sky is “as clear as a teardrop” and the storm of life’s riddles rages full force, an exhilarating and unusual storyteller, at once pacifist and anarchist, is speaking. Bulgarian fiction’s reputation abroad may be revitalised as a result of Enev’s appearance in English (in a mostly excellent translation by Kapka Kassabova, who herself grew up in Bulgaria). It could hardly be less well known: Elias Canetti, the country’s most famous literary son beyond its borders, wrote in German. And should you be tired of too many well-groomed, linear, consequential and contained Anglo-Saxon narratives, Circus Bulgaria may revitalise you too.

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