The fight for national liberation in the 19th century has been an important subject of many works of Bulgarian literature since Ivan Vazov’s novel „Under the Yoke“ (written 1887-1888; it was the first novel written in Bulgarian language).
While most of these works focus on the story of an individual, a small group of people, or a small town, the novel “The Medallion” by Galina Zlatareva (Arhipelag Publishing 2017, translator: David Mossop) is not limiting its scope to a micro-perspective – the historical plot of the book encompasses the period between 1840 and 1885, and it depicts several hundred characters of which not a single one in this historical part of the book is an invention; all characters that we as readers meet are historical persons, and the author invested several years of studies to come as close to these characters and their lives, motivations, and events in which they played a part as possible.
The story follows mainly the life of Georgi Benkovski, a central figure of the so-called April uprising in 1876; born as Gavril Gruev Zlatev between 1841 and 1843 in Koprivshtitsa, a wealthy trading town, he later assumed the identity of a Polish emigre. Benkovski was one of the organizers and propagandists of the uprising and had a rather adventurous life that led him to many parts of the Ottoman Empire, including Egypt. But while the reader follows this main thread of the story, the author skilfully weaves a series of other narrative threads that are equally important to understand the bigger picture.
The geographical scope of the historical plot includes also countries like Britain, France, Prussia, the Russian Empire, Italy, and even Japan and the United States. All these countries had a stake in what was going on in the Ottoman Empire, a huge and still rather powerful state, but definitely in decline; a fact that gave the Serbs, Romanians, Bulgarians and other Balkan nations concrete hopes to gain liberation from foreign domination and that also seemed to grant the chance for the creation of nation states along the same lines as all other European states. But at the same time, the foreign powers were already negotiating and scheming behind the scenes about future spheres of influence and about how to contain those countries that were considered a threat to the own interests. In the centre of all these diplomatic and political schemes, a little bit like a puppet master who pulls the strings: Bismarck, the great (and cunning) Chancellor of Prussia and later Germany.
This big panorama as presented by “The Medallion” makes one thing very clear: the Bulgarian fight for liberation was no isolated event, but it was embedded in many decisions by politicians, diplomats, and military strategists in many countries. And it was part of a wave of similar liberation movements in the Balkans and elsewhere.
The book begins with a meeting of Polish emigres in Paris in 1840 who discuss possibilities to organize a Polish liberation army to free their home country from foreign occupation (Poland being at that time occupied by its three neighbors). Later it becomes obvious that only the Ottoman Empire – whose main enemy was also Russia – would grant an opportunity to form a Polish battalion or army on its territory. But tragically, these Polish officers were later to become part of the units that would help to oppress the Bulgarians – what started as a project to liberate their homeland would become an instrument of oppression of a similar movement of a Slav brother population.
The main part of the historical plot is of course devoted to the April uprising, its preparation, the (unplanned) unfolding of events, and its tragic and bloody end. In the wake of the uprising’s suppression, Benkovski and the surviving members of his band (Stephen the Dalmatian, Zahari Stoyanov and Father Kiril) headed to the Balkan Mountains near Teteven. On 24 May 1876, the band’s location was betrayed by a local shepherd and the revolutionaries were ambushed by an Ottoman search party. Benkovski was shot dead in the Kostina area near Ribaritsa while crossing a river bridge. He was subsequently beheaded; his head was sent to Botevgrad and then to Sofia. The events were documented by Zahari Stoyanov and published in his “Memoirs of the Bulgarian Uprisings”; Stoyanov was the only one of the four who managed to escape.
As I mentioned, the author undertook long and very diligent historical studies; therefore not only the political and historical content is well-researched. As a reader, we learn also a lot about everyday life of people living during that period. How did the house of a trader in Koprivshtitsa look like, and how was his household organized, while he was away? How would people travel, and what kind of unforeseen difficulties could they face sometimes? What was the relation between the different ethnic and religious groups? How did news spread, and what did people consider as important information? What kind of games did children play, and what was the role of the women in the traditional society of Bulgaria? How was trade organized, what were the prices, and how and where did the trade take place? What kind of professions could you find in a village and how were these crafts performed? How would a man procure the services of a prostitute in a town he visited? These are just some of the questions about which the reader will learn by reading the book. So while the historical characters related to the April uprising will be very familiar to the Bulgarian readers, the book adds considerable value to its story by creating a panorama of everyday life that is extremely well-researched, but that comes nevertheless en passant while reading the book. The short chapters and interesting dialogues add to the qualities of the novel.
The book has a second plot, a story that takes place in the present times. A young American with Eastern European roots comes to Bulgaria and his path in a strange way intersects with the history of an old gold medallion… I will not give away more of the story here, but Galina Zlatareva’s “The Medallion” is a well-written historical novel, intertwined with a modern love and adventure story, and a real “page-turner”. Despite its more than 500 pages a fast and very entertaining read!
The last page of the book shows the only authentic photo of the historical Georgi Benkovski:
PS: I had the pleasure to moderate the official book presentation of “The Medaillon” at the Forum “International Dialogue” at the Frankfurt International Book Fair 2015.
Galina Zlatareva is a Bulgarian author and publisher of children’s and YA books. She graduated from Bulgarian philology at the Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. Her novel “The Medallion” (2010; English translation: 2017) was a bestseller in Bulgaria and nominated for several awards. Among her other recent successful works are “Vasil Levski: delusions and truths” (2011), the YA novel “A Drop of Blood for the Vampire” (2013), and the children’s books “The lame horse of luck” (2014), “For my dearest Mother” (2014), and “For my dearest Father” (2015). Galina Zlatareva is also owning and managing two publishing houses.
David Mossop has studied Russian and French at Bristol University and the former USSR. He has taught Russian at Bristol University, English for the British Council in Bulgaria and Bulgarian to corporate clients in Bulgaria. He has worked as a translator, interpreter and coordinator for a number of a governmental bilateral projects between the UK and Bulgaria, facilitating Bulgaria’s membership of NATO and the EU. Between 2000-2012 he worked for the Crown Agents, coordinating their project to assist in the development of the Revenue Administration of the Ministry of Finance of Bulgaria. He has a PhD in Linguistics specializing in Lexical Semantics.
Thomas Hübner is a German-born economist and development consultant with a life-long passion for books. He lives in Chisinau/Moldova and Sofia/Bulgaria. He is also the co-founder of Rhizome Publishing in Sofia, and translates poetry, mainly from Bulgarian to German (most recently Vladislav Hristov, Germanii, Rhizome 2017). He is blogging at Mytwostotinki on books and anything else that interests him.
Photo credits: Wikipedia; Elitsa Osenska; Galina Zlatareva; Translators Cafe; Cornelia Awear
This blog post is part of #BulgarianLiteratureMonth.