In the opening chapters of Mission London by Alek Popov (Istros Books, November 2014, translated by Daniella and Charles Gill de Mayol de Lupe), the staff of the Bulgaria’s UK Embassy awaits the arrival of the newly appointed ambassador.
“They sat fidgeting … beneath the map of Bulgaria, with its cold pink and yellow colouring. Malicious tongues had it that the map had been put there not so much to arouse patriotic spasms in the employees but to serve as a reminder of where they came from and where they could be returning if they were not sufficiently careful.”
Second Secretary Kishev, who had been in the UK for more than two years, “liked life on the island,” but Ambassador Varadin Dimitrov viewed his staff “as a gang of good-for-nothings, parasites living on the back of the state.” He felt he needed to “remind them that this job was not a winning lottery ticket.”
Despite their overseas assignment, the embassy staff retains a deep love for their homeland, although they prefer to live outside its borders. Their patriotic duality plays background to Popov’s political, diplomatic satire. The book’s wry humour wisely stops short of slapstick, but one can’t help but smile at the humorous situations it describes: Embassy cook Kosta’s misfortunes handling a freezer of stolen ducks. The double life of housekeeper Katya who has to “grind around the pole and discard bits of her outfit” to make ends meet. Ambassador’s Dimitrov’s stress dealing with a shady PR agency organizing the Queen of England’s appearance at a major Bulgarian charity event.
Mission London is a comedy of errors reminiscent of the British political satire sitcom “Yes Minister”. Based on Popov’s experiences as Bulgarian cultural attaché in London, Mission London has been widely acclaimed as “the funniest contemporary Bulgarian novel” for its sardonic portrayal of the Bulgarian diplomatic elite. The 2010 film that came in its wake was hugely popular in Bulgaria.
In Popov’s second novel The Black Box (Peter Owen Publishing, April 2016, translated by Daniella and Charles Gill de Mayol de Lupe), two Bulgarian brothers, Angel and Nedko, receive an unusual package from the United States – a black plastic box carrying the ashes of their father. Fifteen years later, that black box is still very much on their minds. Angel imagines his own ashes arriving on the threshold of his brother’s apartment in America while Nedko imagines his ashes being shipped to Angel’s home in Sofia.
Nedko sees himself as a “Successful Bulgarian Abroad, SBA” for his work as a consultant in a New York corporation. Angel, a failed book publisher, has remained in Sofia and belongs to the NSAB – “the Non-Successful Asses stuck in Bulgaria”. When Angel wins the Green Card Lottery he sets off to join his brother in America but in a comic twist, Nedko’s company sends him off to Bulgaria on business. While Nedko may be “an eminent representative of [the Bulgarian] diaspora in the States”, he is not a true member of CSB – the “Club of Successful Bulgarians.” The brothers may have changed places but their struggles to find their place in these fictional acronymic societies continue.
Things come to a head in a dog-eat-dog battle between two dog-walking trade unions and the dramatic rescue of Angel’s troubled girlfriend, who may or may not be a dog-walker herself. In the end there is also resolution to the mystery of the ashy contents of the black plastic box that started it all.
Mission London and The Black Box are both examples of wry, eastern European humour that will be appreciated by anyone who leaves a beloved homeland seeking a better life, whether temporarily or permanently. For all readers, Popov’s satirical novels give comical insight into Bulgaria’s efforts to transition from a communist state to a modern democracy.
Alek Popov is a Bulgarian novelist, dramatist, essayist, and short story writer. Born in Sofia in 1966, he has written in many different genres, including horror, erotic sci-fi, political satire, and adventure. His novel Mission London was first published in 2001 while his second novel, The Black Box, was first published in 2007. In a revised English edition, The Black Box won the 2013 Bulgarian novel contest of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and Peter Owen Publishers. (His third novel The Palaveevi Sisters (2013) has not yet been published in English translation.) Additionally, Popov is recipient of many other literary awards. He serves on the board of the Bulgarian PEN and is part of the editorial body of the literary magazine Granta Bulgaria.
Charles Edward Gill de Mayol de Lupe was born in London. He was educated at Winchester College, and went on to study French and Spanish at St Catherine’s College, Oxford. He moved to Bulgaria in 2000 and makes his living teaching and translating.
Daniella Gill de Mayol de Lupe was born in Sofia, Bulgaria. She finished her secondary education at Lycee Francais ”Romain Rolland” and has a BA in French philology from Sofia University. Following her graduation, she moved to England and did a Film Studies course at Oxford University and a BA in Modern History at Oxford Brookes University. She is currently living in Sofia, where she teaches and translates from/to French and English.
Ellis Shuman is an American-born, Israeli author, travel writer, and book reviewer. Shuman’s writing has appeared in The Times of Israel, The Huffington Post, The Jerusalem Post, The Oslo Times, and Israel Insider. His job in online marketing was relocated for two years in Sofia and upon his return to Israel, he began writing about Bulgaria in both fiction and travel articles. His novels Valley of Thracians (2013) and The Burgas Affair (2017) are both suspense thrillers set in Bulgaria. His blog Ellis Shuman Writes is featuring frequently reviews of Bulgarian books.
Photos: Contemporary Bulgarian Writers; English PEN (2x); David Katz
This blog post is part of #BulgarianLiteratureMonth