Keder, like other words in the Bulgarian language, is of Turkish origin. It means sorrow, but also grief and sadness. The story goes that the ancient Turks believed when a person dies, he bestows to his closest forty sorrows, for each of the forty days after death. With each passing day, fewer sorrows remain, but the last remains forever.
Keder (Janet 45, 2018) is a collection of stories by the celebrated and award-winning contemporary Bulgarian poet and writer Yordanka Beleva. The stories in this collection are characterized by sorrow and salvation, or the eternal search thereof. At less than ninety pages, Beleva’s book is slim but packs the sort of gut punch usually reserved for poetry, of which Beleva is a master, and her poet’s temperament shines through in her prose.
The stories in the collection are otherworldly, like abstract canvases; evocative of emotion borne out of incongruence, they search for a redress—for an ultimate balance in the world. They are grand in the way life is grand, but also deeply settled in everyday life as to appear small, habitual. But what is more magical and more cataclysmic than the everyday?
As narratives, the stories stand alone, yet they are woven together through their very Bulgarian texture—stories that chart possession and loss, material and otherwise, through minimalist yet emotionally lush presentations of the home life; stories of virtuous grandmothers and envious neighbors; of chronically petty financial stakes; of groupthink’s awful intellectual defect; of the tricky relationships between women of different ages and statures; of family dynamics weighed by phantom relatives lost to death or immigration.
Because she’s a poet, Beleva’s stories say so much in so little space that it can be a shock to the system in how quickly things turn, as when, in the story “The Lady Cannibal’s Grandson,” a short tale about school girl adoration and infatuation, the writer takes a sudden sharp right off a hill and into a completely horrifying place. (That story has inspired a short film of the same name, by first-time filmmaker Dessi Nikolova, already winning buzz at Bulgarian film festivals.)
The stories all search, they ask questions, then give their answer and before you know it, the book is over. But not without taking your breath first. The shallow depth of the ostensibly short form is, of course, deceptive. You might think it’s a sandbar you’re stepping onto and foolishly get pulled in by an undercurrent instead. A mastectomy, for example, generates a striking, intricate web of aesthetically hallow imagery:
When the surgeons removed my grandmother’s breast, she began to cup her hands over the bare spot. The way you’d hide a physical discomfort. Her cupped hand, which I knew both as a den of endearment and as a unit of time, was now also the dome of a church. The dome of a church in ruins. We stood before the ruins and made out the details in the frescoes: the doctors’ late diagnosis, the belated human prayer. (From “Family Portrait of the Black Earth,” 5, my translation.)
For the author, there is no more precious figure than the Bulgarian baba, the grandmother, who, according to Beleva, in an interview for this essay, represents “a national and cultural treasure that ought to be protected by law.”
The Bulgarian grandmother makes many appearances in Keder: as the baba in “Family Portrait of the Black Earth” who loses her breast to cancer then repeatedly asks her husband to recover it and bury it in the garden, so she may mourn it; as the lonely but proud baba in “Barter,” whose children have left the country and do not call, yet for whom she waits, day after day, on her balcony; as the poor, reclusive baba in “Baba Tochka’s Luck,” who, absurdly, uselessly, wins a mini fridge from a mystery lottery, to the chagrin of the entire village. In all cases, the baba is a no-nonsense, stoic woman for whom there is no happy ending but there is no self-pity, either.
And then a different thing altogether bubbles up to the top in Beleva’s stories, and it leaves a trail from here all the way to the other side of the village: the Bulgarian zavist or envy. Here, the worst of the marked Bulgarian characteristics comes forth. The Bulgarian envies his neighbor’s clothes, covets his friend’s supposed riches and the contents of his fridge, he begrudges his classmate’s innate charisma and good looks, believes with all his heart the orphan is the godless one amongst him. It all leads to the same deplorable place: fixation to the point of ruination. This trait, this zavist, has for so long been the psychologically crippling crux of the Bulgarian that it’s hard to know which came first––bad luck or bad disposition. And yet, in showing us the worst of us, Beleva eschews judgement to somehow make us better people.
Like every word inside the book, the choice of title, Keder, was deliberate. In one sense, the eponymous story in the book is situated around the weight of unfinished things, of their life beyond the grave: “there is nothing more eternal than unfinished business,” says the narrator (68). But there’s something else too. The entire book carries, according to Beleva, “the weight of sorrow as a tractive force for the gravitational pull of the heart.” The book is dedicated to Emir, a Turkish child and the son of the writer’s friend, Nevin. It was in their home that the author first learned—and felt—the true meaning of the word keder.
Beleva’s stories in the collection always feature a narrator as a way to make the reader complicit in the pure and evil things the characters do; sometimes the narrator feels like the author herself, other times there’s simply a first-person interjection, as seemingly innocuous as ending a sentence with “Baba Tochka, from our village” (83), like a witness who’s there to add some equilibrium to the quietly building neurotic chaos that inevitably envelops most of the stories before climaxing and then abruptly ending.
The stories are buoyed by a language both lived-in and sharply modern. On the one hand, Beleva uses words with older resonance, like подир, meaning after or thereupon, but on the other, she employs transliterated English words like евъргрийн for evergreen, or ситуирал for situated. In one instance, the narrator of the story “Barter” says of her elderly neighbor’s footsteps above her apartment, “I hadn’t registered them before” (31), using that precise verb in Bulgarian, which feels almost American. There is a strangeness in reading these contemporary English words transformed into Cyrilic in shape only, without being localized. They stick out if you’re a child of pre-internet Bulgaria who no longer lives there. At the same time, that use of language is not inauthentic to Bulgaria today, who is very much also of two minds—linguistically, culturally, and economically.
Upon publication in 2018, the collection resonated with readers and critics. The book sold out of its print run and became a finalist for novel of the year in what are largely acknowledged as Bulgaria’s most prestigious literary awards, Helikon. A reader poll taken ahead of the awards pointed to Keder as the fan favorite. But the awarding jury didn’t choose it. In fact, it chose not to distinguish a single novel on the very list it had created. It awarded no one, and the 3,000 leva prize money was instead donated to a nonprofit dedicated to developing emerging artists.
Beleva was not impressed by the decision: “Communism must still linger inside the literary competitions, if all the books can be so completely and utterly equal that not a single one shines a little brighter. We might be right back where we started: forced egalitarianism. Perhaps with these twelve so equally worthy novels, we have achieved our ‘economic planning’ for 2018.”  The respected Bulgarian literary critic Mitko Novkov wrote with similar dismay of the nonevent: “It is strange, indeed mind-boggling, that the jury was unable to discover [Keder]. Strange because Keder is a talented book, literarily competent, and a book which maps out and sanctions a type of writing, which, I think, is ahead of its time in how it will come to define what we know of as Bulgarian writing.” Sooner or later, however, “regardless of what strategies are deployed to popularize even a small or quiet novel, I believe a good book will be discovered and acknowledged,” concluded Beleva.
And maybe even translated into English.
Beleva, Yordanka. Keder. Janet 45, 2018.
 Under communism, the USSR first deployed five-year plans in 1928, as an instrument of accelerated economic development and growth. Bulgaria adopted them in 1948, a few years after becoming a communist country.
Yordanka Beleva (b. 1977) is a Bulgarian short story writer and poet. She holds an MA in Bulgarian Philology and Library Management, and a Ph.D. in Library and Information Sciences. Author of Peignoirs and Boats (2002), The Sea Level of Love (2011), Her (2012), Keys (2015), Missed Moment (2017), and Keder (2018), she has won national awards for both poetry and prose. Her short stories and poems have been translated into several languages and published in numerous anthologies.