Located in south-eastern Europe on the Balkans, Bulgaria is known for its deep cultural roots and heritage. In the 4th century A.D., the first Christian monastery was established in central Bulgaria. Persians and Ottomans have laid claim on the region and it has witnessed severe Christian persecution. Even though it was a Stalinist state for a while, Bulgaria finally evolved into a democracy. It is still known for corruption and inefficiency in the systems and has one of the lowest population growth and birth rates. It has not fully recovered from the economic collapse of the post socialist era. It is a market based economy and is one of the biggest exporters of IT products.
Bulgaria is home to one of the richest folk heritages in the world and to Pre-Slav and Orhid literary schools. It is also the place of origin of the Cryllic script, the second most widely used in the world. Worked gold is said to have originated here. One of the unique cultural distinctions is the indication for Yes and No that differs from the rest of the world. Short left and right shake says yes and top to bottom nod says no. Bulgarians pride themselves on hospitality and neighborliness.
While there is a huge body of literature available for reading from Bulgaria, I am writing about a book I love – Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You. It uniquely blends the trials of homosexuality and economic despair in current day Bulgaria, without making the reader feel miserable for it. More about it in the review.
What Belongs to You is a story about a man’s search for love. That the man is gay is incidental. Bulgaria itself plays like a character in the story. The protagonist is an American, teaching in Bulgaria. He frequently looks for sexual gratification through male prostitutes. During his tenure in Sofia, he falls for Mitko, a Bulgarian much younger than him, whom he meets for a sexual transaction in the public bathroom of the National Palace of Culture. Although the story is laced with violence, poverty, sickness, the one overwhelming emotion that you retain on closing the last page is tenderness, like:
‘for the first time I caught, beneath the more powerful and nearly overwhelming smell of alcohol, his own scent, which would be the greatest source of the pleasure I took from him and which I would seek out.. at each of our meetings.’
The narrator – whose name we do not get to know – develops an incredible fascination for Mitko. What the narrator feels is love, though, is never reciprocated by Mitko:
‘There’s something theatrical in all our embraces, I think, as we weigh our responses against those we perceive or project; always we desire too much or not enough, and compensate accordingly. I was performing too, pretending to believe that his show of passion was a genuine response to my own desire, about which there was nothing feigned.’
Mitko is from Varna:
‘a beautiful port city on the Black Sea coast and one of the centers of astonishing economic boom Bulgaria briefly enjoyed, before, here as in so much of the world, it collapsed suddenly and seemingly without warning.’
He makes dates with other men using the narrator’s laptop, which is clearly a luxury for him, just like his cell phone and iPod. There has been someone significant in Mitko’s past too, as the narrator gleams from a set of their pictures together:
‘there was an intensity to Mitko’s gaze that convinced me this camera, too, was held by someone who elicited his look;….They were so young, these boys in the frame, children really, and yet despite their eagerness for each other it was as though they were documenting something they knew could not last. Of course there were no witnesses in their small town to what they were together, neither their families nor their friends, not even strangers passed on the street, since none of the photos were taken outside. Except for these photographs, these digital memories he scrolled through now, nothing would have survived of those embraces that for all their heat had come to an end….Of these two men locked together on the screen, then, one left, buoyed by talent or means or both, and the other stayed and was transformed from a prosperous looking boy to the more or less homeless man I had invited into my home.’
Mitko is slowly spiraling into poverty, alcoholism and despair. With each of their interactions, his demands increase and the narrator tries to put a stop to their meetings, but fails. He finally acquiesces for a weekend getaway with Mitko in Varna. It does not go well and ends in violence. They lose contact for a while. The next time they meet, the narrator is finally in a steady relationship. His partner R knows about Mitko:
‘like everything else in my past he was part of the story that had led us to each other.’
But when Mitko comes back, the narrator is unable to not let him into his life again. Mitko is sick. The narrator helps him out and Mitko pays back with a brief sexual encounter:
‘I thought of R., though it shames me to recall it, as though our life together, open and sunlit and lasting, were entirely without substance; I felt it disappear, simply disappear, like a flammable shadow, and part of me was glad to feel it go.’
Their final encounter is one of much indifference and pity – signs of a relationship that has lived its course. This book is about coming to terms – with the relationship between father and son, brother and sister, friends, lovers and between a person and his country; acknowledging the missteps that makes one the person he is today. It is about the slow discovery and coming to terms with one’s sexuality. A winner of the 2017 British Book Awards and definitely on my wall of honor.
Other Options from Bulgaria:
Under the Yoke – Ivan Vazov
Bulgarian classic about the Ottoman rule
The Physics of Sorrow – Georgi Gospandinov
A narration of the nostalgia of sorrow