“There are very few people with the capacity to change the world. Jesus Christ was one, Karl Marx was another.”
Such thoughtful, meaningful and expressing words to start a novel*: Bulgariana (Dragon Books, revised edition, 2014), featuring Bulgaria’s recent history. Having lived in Turkey for a few years, I encountered in Çorlu, Turkey a few ambitious students who had dual citizenship – Turkish and Bulgarian. At that time I was able to understand a little bit about Bulgaria’s geography, economy and scenery through their eyes. Then I had another encounter like that one when a friend of mine asked me if I would be interested in reviewing a book for Bulgarian Literature Month and I said yes. It is so great to know a country not through Google or YouTube or an article, but by reading a novel, Bulgariana. It was sheer magic when I went to Bulgaria through the eyes of Randall Baker’s diaries.
At first glance, the reader will think that Bulgariana is just a daily record of a professor who has lived in Bulgaria since 1990 and has witnessed the long days and nights and also its complex changing situation in every way. Randall Baker, who is an international expert on historical perspectives, a professor and very passionate writer, found he had no weapon or tool to talk about Bulgaria’s financial and social problems, except words – he spent night after night to filling tens of pages into one great book. Thus, the reader finds himself/herself in front of a great literary work where the circumstances, destinies, fates and events of that time played an essential role in shaping it. Randall Baker has the ability to not only clearly capture events, but he also vividly describes them as well. He furthermore gives life to his characters which are taken from common reality.
It is worth mentioning that the writer has the characters marry in cities that are like the characters. In other words, the cities and characters are alike – having the same features and characteristics. Along this line, the whole novel is written in a sensible yet humorous style. Additionally, there are many photos making the book easy to read and to think about the characters. Not to forget the footnotes which are super helpful to understand and read more deeply between and behind the lines. This literary form that Baker adopted is maybe not very unique, but for sure it puts all the mental abilities in one humorous voice to be heard loudly. He describes a wondrous period in the world of death, dreams and hope in conflict with the self which wants to get rid of the border between the two worlds.
One of strongest pages of Bulgariana revealed that Randall Baker could be one of the most successful humorous and realistic writers in modern literature. He states that the society needs to strive to find a solution to its problems, and I indeed saw that in the book through the relationships between the characters in general, and Violetta and Boyan in particular. Randall Baker had me by the end of the novel and I hope this book will be translated into more languages very soon. What a timely book written by a passionate, well-mannered and super educated professor who witnessed some of the worst atrocities in recent memory.
*Editor’s Note: Bulgariana 2 and 3 are already existing in manuscript form but are not (yet) published. Bulgariana can be read as a diary (non-fiction), but also as a work of fiction.
Randall Baker (b. 1944 in Wales) is a an environment historian. He is Distinguished Professor of New Bulgarian University (NBU), and received the award of Doctor /Honoris Causa/ from NBU. He holds also honorary degrees from Moscow State University and Baku State University. He is also a Professor Emeritus of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, where he was a professor for 22 years. Professor Baker is the author of 17 books, and over 200 papers. He has helped to build universities in Seville, Madrid, the UK, Bolivia, Azerbaijan, Lesotho and Bulgaria. Randall Baker has worked with the World Bank, UNESCO, UNEP, and the Fulbright Commission. He moved to Bulgaria permanently in 2008, after being involved with the country for almost two decades. His latest book, The Lost Balkans (2017), has been published so far only in Bulgarian.
Nuri al-Khalaf is from Aleppo, Syria. He studied English Literature at Al-Bath University in Homs, Syria and received his CELTA certification from the University of Cambridge. Currently, he lives in Istanbul, Turkey. Nuri is an English teacher and a translator. He is also a literary editor for the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative. He wrote Arabic short stories ‘Ahmed’ in 2010 and ‘Amineh’ in 2014.
Photo credit: Randall Baker; Nuri Al-Khalaf
This blog post is part of #BulgarianLiteratureMonth.
One thought on “Randall Baker’s Bulgariana: A Review by Nuri Al-Khalaf”
I enjoyed reading your review and I share your thoughts about the novel and the author. I would like to add a comment that could have been made in the conclusion of your piece.
Reading Bulgaria is both an informative and entertaining way for a foreigner to discover Bulgaria. I can even say it is a must. Meeting the author in Sofia for book signing and a talk over a chasha cherveno vino (glass of red wine) could be a follow-up of the reading process. I have read the manuscript of Bulgariana 2 and I even started translating it. I am optimistic about it.
Whereabouts is this Bulgarian Literature Month?
If you have not been to Sofia, you should start making plans to visit. I will be happy to meet you in person.