The discovery of contemporary Bulgarian literature has been one of the great gifts of my recent reading life. Though the books I’ve read can be quite varied, they seem connected by a combination of humor and soulful melancholy, a literary territory where trouble can perhaps best be endured by sad or bitter laughter, mixed with sometimes pitiless insight; this emotional literary landscape feels like a Balkan twist on the Portuguese idea of saudade.
One aspect of Bulgarian soulful melancholy seems linked to travel, or rather the reaction to the relatively recent lack of it. Perhaps, after nearly a half-century of travel restrictions by a communist government that feared mass emigration to the West (and killed thousands in their attempts to escape), Bulgarians now revel in the civil right of simply leaving, or at least moving about unrestricted. Travel seems to count as an important high octane of inspiration for writers such as Georgi Gospodinov, Angel Igov, Kapka Kassbova, and Georgi Tenev, to name only a few. Kassabova remembers the grim restrictions of the Soviet years when she writes in her excellent nonfiction book Border: “We had been chained like unloved dogs for so long behind the Iron Curtain.”
Bogdan Rusev’s novel A Tourist, He Thought, which he himself translated more than ably into English, could have easily been written to prove my pet theory. The protagonist—named only as “the tourist”—makes his living as a reviewer of hotels for an online journal, and his travels—to far-flung locales such as Malta, Sao Paulo, Istanbul, Djerba, Reykjavik, Lisbon—are all-expenses paid because his quirky reviews have captured a faithful internet following. But it turns out the tourist’s reviewing is merely a side hustle. His main gig is assisting the suicides of people who don’t quite think they can pull off their demise on their own. When he receives his assignments in a wide-ranging suite of cities around the world, he books a room in a hotel that looks as if it might inspire him to write another oddball review. The novel’s structure operates as two parallel sets of theme-and-variation: how many ways the tourist can describe various hotels, alongside the different ways he can help along those timid suicidal clients, and as the novel progresses, the parallel stories begin to intertwine.
Rusev thinks structurally as a novelist––it’s one of the great pleasures of reading him. Come to Me, his latest novel to appear in English (in a fluid translation by Ekaterina Petrova), also boasts an unusual structure: a three-part puzzle that unfolds in surprising ways. While Come to Me doesn’t share the macabre vibe of A Tourist, He Thought, within its far more realist purview we still find that melancholy tug between leaving or staying, which for me holds the essential, pleasurable sting of contemporary Bulgarian literature.
In part one of Come to Me, we encounter a trio of friends—Vera, a character nicknamed Charlie, and an unnamed narrator—who are traveling through the Strandja mountain range in a car that also has a nickname—Gollum. Wherever they are heading, they seem to be in no hurry, and it’s not entirely clear why these three are on the road together. With so much unsaid, any clues dropped along the narrative’s path are welcome, so when Vera observes to her companions, “Did you know that the grave of Orpheus is somewhere around here?” (6), the reader perks up. Though there are other places in Europe that lay claim to Orpheus’ burial ground, Vera’s comment reminds us that Bulgaria was once a thriving locale of the ancient world, its Black Sea coast popular as a vacation spot for Greek and Roman elites. Modern Bulgarians like to remind themselves of this heritage, while ignoring when possible their 500 years of Turkish occupation. Still, this observation could be something worth tucking away.
Eventually we learn that Charlie and Vera are heading for a beach party on the Black Sea, and after dropping them off the narrator will be picking up Dena, his ex-girlfriend, at a nearby airport in the seaside town of Burgas. She has emigrated to Germany, and though they haven’t seen each other in over a year, the pull of Dena, the very thought of her arrival, even if only for a single day, has been enough for our still unnamed narrator to break up with his current girlfriend, the “wonderful Bozhana” (17). In anticipation, he imagines a far distant future in which our descendants, long having conquered death, will reach back to our times and discover the remnants of our memories in atoms and waves, “like the pieces of an enormous puzzle,” and resurrect us. “Even if we wake up without the bodies we’re used to,” he imagines telling Dena while watching a descending airplane that may well contain her, “I’ll find a way to embrace you” (32-33).
Part two of the novel, titled “Ode to My Family,” is something quite different, the family history of a character named Bogdan (who may be the author, or our heretofore unnamed narrator who perhaps shares his author’s first name?). This history of course predates anything in part one of Come to Me (no sign of Vera, or Charlie, Dena or even Gollum), going as far back as Bogdan’s great-grandparents. Are we suddenly in a work of nonfiction, or is this book not a novel but a story collection? Rusev will eventually reward the patient reader, but before then we follow the thread of Bogdan’s love of his family, now mostly dead or scattered, on to his dissolute university life in the years before Bulgaria’s release from Soviet thralldom, and his further dissolute life afterwards, when he discovers the power of DJ-ing Techno music, a skill that gives a certain grounding structure to his life in this new, free world Bulgaria finds itself in.
Part three of the novel, titled “À L’ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs,” finally introduces us to Dena, and then Dena to Bogdan (now nicknamed Bobby). They seem utterly fitted for each other, until one day they’re not—Dena leaves Bobby, and the country, for reasons unexplained but which we can eventually guess.
Devastated by the loss of Dena, Bobby muses on “the dangerous charm of leaving” (96):
Every day, hundreds, even thousands of young people were getting on trains, buses, and airplanes, and leaving their homeland. Most of them never came back . . . The few who did come back were changed to the point of seeming like different people altogether, or like some artificial shells with which the foreign lands’ inhabitants had replaced the erstwhile friends and loved ones. (96-97)
When Bobby decides to chase after Dena and perhaps convince her to return with him to Bulgaria, Come to Me now reveals itself to be a modern Orpheus and Eurydice story. That little tucked-in comment about Orpheus in the early pages has paid off after all!
Bobby tracks down Dena and her new life in Germany, which is not so different from her old life in Bulgaria, and after a few days he convinces her to return. “I’ll come back to you,” Dena says. “I’ll change my entire life around. But you have to give me something equally big in return” (103). The deal is that Bobby has to quit messing around with other girls. Only then can they build a long life together. “If you ever as much as look at another girl the way you look at me, you’ll never see me again” (103). He agrees—in fact he vows three times in a row—and they set off for a popular Techno club to celebrate. We know where this is going, don’t we? Once there, Bobby’s promise doesn’t last more than a few hours. Dena catches him flirting with a woman by the bar, and so she disappears from the club and from his life.
Though not forever, it turns out.
Now Rusev’s novel finally morphs into the novel it has perhaps always aspired to be: another modern retelling of another ancient tale—the story of Persephone. Just as Bobby cannot live without Dena, so it seems she cannot live without him. So, in the summers, she leaves what Bobby considers the Underworld: Germany—though really, the entirety of the rest of Europe—and she comes to him, for a day, a week, however long, before returning to her foreign home. Yet from Dena’s perspective, perhaps Bulgaria is the Underworld, which she visits only because Bobby lives there, her untrustworthy but essential Bobby.
All this is told in a conversational tone that seems another hallmark of contemporary Bulgarian literature. Georgi Gospidinov’s The Physics of Sorrow and Angel Igov’s A Short Tale of Shame, to offer just two examples, achieve the intimacy of the speaking voice in Bulgarian literature’s trademark humor and soulful melancholy, and a conversational entryway to those two works’ larger ambitions. Those achievements come alive in English by the limpid translation skills, in both cases, of Angela Rodel. Ekaterina Petrova’s translation of Come to Me displays that same virtuosity and welcoming ease, which encourages a reader to relax and brave the puzzle pieces of Rusev’s touching and expertly constructed novel.
Rusev, Bogdan. Come to me. Translated by Ekaterina Petrova. Dalkey Archive Press, 2019.
Philip Graham, a Professor Emeritus of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction