Category: Bulgarian

A selection of 2023 favourites

I don’t know why it happened, but there were times this year when I just fell out of the habit of reading. This is not what I want, and my aim for 2024 is to find my way back in – with this space to help. For now, though, I’m looking back on 2023. It didn’t feel right to do my usual countdown of twelve books, so instead I’ve picked out six favourites, in no particular order:

Appius and Virginia (1932) by Gertrude Trevelyan 

It sounds as though it will be whimsical: the tale of a woman who buys an orang-utan with the aim of raising it as a human. What it becomes, though, is a chilling exploration of the unbridgeable gap between one mind and another. 

Whale (2004) by Cheon Myeong-kwan
Translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim (2022)

I won’t pretend I always knew what I was reading with this book, but I do know I enjoyed it. Whale is a dance through recent Korean history, with trauma, violence, humour and magic all present in the stories of its larger-than-life characters. 

Is Mother Dead (2020) by Vigdis Hjorth
Translated from Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund (2022)

Johanna returns to Oslo after almost thirty years, speculating intensely over what may have happened to her mother. What I found most striking about this novel is how it transforms our perception of Johanna without changing the essential tone of her narration. 

Gentleman Overboard (1937) by Herbert Clyde Lewis

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this portrait of a man whose layers of gentility are literally stripped from him when he falls into the sea. I found it quite powerful, especially in how it highlights that the smallest things can be both significant and insignificant, depending on the viewpoint.

War with the Newts (1936) by Karel Čapek
Translated from Czech by M. and R. Weatherall (1937)

A shape-shifting satire in which intelligent salamanders are first exploited by humans, and then rebel against them. I was pleased to find that the novel still has considerable bite, and appreciated that it couldn’t be reduced easily to a single metaphor or interpretation. 

Time Shelter (2020) by Georgi Gospodinov
Translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (2022)

I love how the canvas of this novel widens, from a clinic that helps dementia patients by recreating the past, to a whole continent retreating into nostalgia. Time Shelter examines the dangers of becoming fixated on the past, and the narrator’s memory fails him, suggesting there is no shelter from time after all. 


There are my reading highlights of 2023. You can find my round-ups from previous years here:

2022, 2021202020192018, 20172016201520142013201220112010, and 2009.

You can also fined me on social media at Instagram, Facebook, Bluesky, and X/Twitter. See you next year!

#InternationalBooker2023: Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov (tr. Angela Rodel)

I don’t know whether I’d have read this Bulgarian novel if not for its International Booker listing. I am so glad that I did. 

Gospodinov’s narrator (a version of the author) meets a mysterious figure named Gaustine, who seems preoccupied with the past. With dementia on the rise, Gaustine’s idea is to set up a clinic whose rooms recreate periods of the 20th century, to help jog his patients’ memories. 

It’s an idea that works well for some people, less well for others (and too well for a few). There are striking sequences, such as those where a secret policeman has become the main source of memory for the man he once pursued, because he remembers more about the man’s life than anyone else. 

It turns out that everyone wants a taste of old times. People without memory loss are admitted to the clinic for a hit of nostalgia. Then, the vogue for the past spreads out across Europe, with countries holding referendums on which time period they should revert to. Gospodinov handles this beautifully, illustrating the dangers of being too fixated on the past. Here, his narrator reflects on how the lived present transforms with hindsight:

I presume that 1968 did not exist in 1968. Nobody back then said, Hey, man, that stuff we’re living through now, it’s the great ’68, which’ll go down in history. Everything happens years after it has happened…You need time and a story for that which has supposedly already taken place to happen…with a delay, just as photos were developed and images appeared slowly in the dark…Most likely 1939 did not exist in 1939, there were just mornings when you woke up with a headache, uncertain and afraid.

Translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

Gospodinov adds another layer to his novel by undermining the narrator, whose own memory starts to fail him. He can’t be sure whether Gaustine was real or his creation (or even whether he, the narrator, was Gaustine’s creation). Nothing is certain within the pages of the book, and there is no real shelter from time, after all. 

Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2023 International Booker Prize.

Best European Fiction 2015: Raud and Evtimova

ReinBestEuro Raud, ‘The Demise of Engineer G.’
Translated from the Estonian by Matthew Hyde

The narrator tells of his old friend G. – engineer, philatelist and gourmet, who threw the most fabulous dinner parties in an age when ingredients were scarce for most people. He also had shelves of literature: books he never really read, but which often had curious printing errors Somewhere in all this is the key to the riddle of how G. died.

Rein Raud’s story is delightfully oblique, shorn of the specific details that might enable us to work out exactly what’s going on: it’s mostly just G., his friends and his food. And what food it is:

In his masterfully planned menus one delicacy followed another, such that the most subtle nuances of flavor of every dish created a marked contrast with those of the succeeding course…at exactly the right speed for each subsequent taste to cut into the previous one at the very last moment, when the surface of the tongue, slightly straining, still wanted to keep the fading aftertaste in the mouth, so that the first new aromas had the best possible impact.

Though Matthew Hyde’s translation is capable of bringing to life sensations like that, there’s a certain fustiness about it which gives the sense of a tale being dredged up from the past, complete with the distance that implies. We can hazard a guess as to why G. met his fate; but all we really know is contained in the tale’s wry closing lines.

Zdravka Evtimova, ‘Seldom’
Translated from the Bulgarian by the author

A translator walks up the drab grey street, thinking about all the men who’ve forgotten her, and the banal novella that she’s translating. She comes upon a familiar-seeming car, whose driver turns out to be the author of that very novella. He offers the translator a lift to her office; but, as the car only moves when its passenger is happy, it could be quite a long journey…

I enjoyed this story. Zdravka Evtimova’s prose is unassuming and understated, which only adds to the sense of ordinariness:

I thought one could hardly  dub “town” the dozen ramshackle houses and the narrow, asphalt road that touched the apathetic buildings and climbed to the black sky in the distance.

Of course, what’s going on – be it hallucination or something more mysterious – is far from ordinary; but the lightness of Evtimova’s touch makes her tale entirely persuasive. When the abrupt final lines come along, it’s like waking from a dream – for reader and protagonist alike.

Read my other posts on Best European Fiction 2015 here.

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