Street Without a Name, by Kapka Kassabova
Misha Glenny is impressed by a poignant memoir of growing up in communist east Europe
Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria
by Kapka Kassabova
352pp, Portobello Books, £15.99
Britons don't face too much grief when travelling abroad. Everyone has heard of Britain; English is almost ubiquitous and in times of need, most of us can manage a bit of Spanglish or Franglais to see us through. If we face a real crisis, our credit cards and travel insurance will eventually see us home in one piece.
Kapka Kassabova's experience was rather different. While most people in Europe have heard of Bulgaria, very few can claim to know anything about it, its culture and its people. She learned early on, after moving to England in her teens in 1990, that her Bulgarian heritage bred not interest among her classmates but contempt: "The chief heart-throb, Jamie, was also the chief bully. He had wavy blond hair and a rugby-player's jaw, and presided over a court of lackeys who laughed at his jokes. He didn't miss the opportunity to point out that I came from a country that wasn't a real country, but a character in a children's story called 'The Wombles'. In Phys Ed, Jamie mocked my cheap canvas sports shoes from the height of his bouncy Puma trainers. 'Are these made in Russia? They look like shit.' Jamie's lackeys sniggered. They all wore trainers like him. 'I'm not from Russia,' I said, 'I'm from Bulgaria.' 'Same thing,' Jamie said."
So when Kassabova leaves her disintegrating country, she has to leave behind most of her identity with it. She senses that Bulgaria after the fall of communism is becoming a very different place, in some respects much more interesting, but in others even more dangerous than before. None of this can possibly make any sense to the people she meets abroad.
In this autobiographical travelogue, Kassabova returns to her home country in order to find out what has happened, and whether the violent transformation it has undergone since the revolution has left any of her identity intact. She finds it shattered: and even the shards of her previous life that she comes across here and there can cut and scratch unexpectedly. So although she writes with good humour and the book is sometimes extremely funny, Kassabova is left cold and alone, feeling like an outsider both in her new environment and in the place she left.
This is not, however, a misery memoir, but a profound meditation on the depth of change triggered by the events of 1989 throughout eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. It is also poignant, unbearably so at times, as she tries, but often fails, to defy the fatalism that she marks as a particular Bulgarian characteristic.
Kassabova grew up under the ominous and literally poisonous shadow of Kremikovtsi, the largest metallurgical works in eastern Europe, in Bloc 3 of the housing estate known simply as Youth. The grotty high-rise reflected Bulgarian society - neglect and hypocrisy were eating away at the foundations of lofty ideals rendered senseless through ritual repetition. Even for those wielding power, the system had become meaningless.
Ordinary children generally knew that bureaucracy made life more awkward in eastern Europe than on the other side of the iron curtain. But they did not appreciate how profoundly inane the system was, or how ruthless it could be - unless, that is, their parents were actively persecuted, in which case they learned much too early in their lives about human cruelty (one of Kassabova's most shocking encounters is with a woman who was actually brought up in Bulgaria's gulag).
Kids also didn't fully grasp the discrepancy between the Communist party's triumphalist ideals and the atrocious living standards it actually attained; but what they did know was just how unspeakably boring life was in communist eastern Europe. There was nothing to do - few, if any, decent films to see (The Thornbirds, starring Richard Chamberlain, was the most memorable cultural event of Kassabova's childhood); never anything good on telly; crap pop music; rusty playgrounds; and few green spaces.
Kassabova's evocation of the tedium is a valuable guard against those who might feel occasionally dreamy for those stable days of the cold war. "At around that point," she writes of her childhood, "I began to suspect that something was wrong with us, or with where we lived. It was the mud. I watched my mother wash the pram from top to bottom every time we returned from an outing, because the mud managed to get even on to the pram's roof ... I summed things up with a cruel question one day, surveying from our balcony the concrete mudscape: 'Mum, why is everything so ugly?' To which my mother couldn't find an honest answer, except to hide her tears."
What made Bulgaria different from most east European countries was that it had an extremely strong agricultural tradition that was only partially ruined by communism. Furthermore, the immigration into cities happened late in Bulgaria (mostly in the postwar period), so most Bulgarian children had one escape - to their relatives in the countryside. This afforded them the opportunity to run around a bit and experience a half-normal childhood. More important, it meant that they had access to the vitamins and protein that were so miserably absent from an urban communist diet.
Kassabova's relations also offered her a psychological escape. The Communist party didn't really give a damn what went on in the countryside, assuming, quite rightly, that the peasants were never likely to revolt. Living conditions were less cramped, and her grandparents and other relatives were delightful, so she had a greater sense of normality in a place in which local gossip was much more important than learning Marx or Dimitrov by rote. As one of the many descendants of Macedonian refugees, she also started to learn of a history that she never encountered in Sofia.
Back in the capital, Kassabova's one stroke of luck was securing a place in the French lycée, whose teachers, although mindful of the ever-watchful party, were nonetheless able to inculcate some pedagogical values that were absent in most Bulgarian schools.
Apart from the basics of Youth 3, we learn about most of her life in retrospect, as she visits Bulgaria in fits and starts during the 1990s and then more intensively after the millennium. She has an ability to describe in one or two pithy sentences changes that some of us have spent entire books analysing.
When she returned to Youth 3 from Colchester soon after Bulgaria had embraced the free market for the first time in half a century, she observed the dawn of gangster capitalism in her housing bloc's carpark: "Youth 3 ... had turned from the wild east into the wild west, and it was hard to say which was worse. Tiny cafes and shops had mushroomed among the panels. People sold contraband cigarettes and suspect alcohol mixtures straight from their underground cellars. The elder Melchev son was a racketeer. He was charging people for parking their cars in our communal carpark. But it's always been free, the bewildered neighbours protested. We've parked our Moskvich here for years. 'Well, things have changed. Pay up or piss off.' And he cracked the joints of his enormous fists ... Yesterday's bully was today's entrepreneur."
There are similarities between Kassabova's stories and those in Vesna Goldsworthy's Chernobyl Strawberries. But what I have often found particularly striking about the Balkans is that its nations tend to know less about their immediate neighbours than they do about France, Germany, Britain or Russia. This means that although Goldsworthy and Kassabova are exploring the same period of history, their experience is very different indeed (one of Goldsworthy's problems is that outsiders have too many fixed opinions of Serbia, whereas Kassabova's problem is the opposite).
Despite Kassabova's many difficulties in reconciling herself to her new and old lives, she has painted a rich but honest picture of a small, very beautiful, endlessly fascinating and sometimes violent country. She has also demonstrated, without indulging in self-pity, how hard it is to be one of the tens of millions who have been compelled in the past two decades for one reason or another to up sticks and reinvent their lives elsewhere. This is a very fine piece of writing.
Misha Glenny's McMafia is published by Bodley Head
July 27, 2008
So. You've written a memoir, but nobody has heard of you. In English, which is not your native tongue. And it's also a travelogue about your beloved homeland, Bulgaria. Where? Ah yes, the Wombles! Uncle Bulgaria...The Bulgarian umbrella murder. Wrestlers, or was it weightlifters? Men - and women - with moustaches. And you have a small following in New Zealand, you say. For your, er, poetry.
It is from this implausible position that Kapka Kassabova's bitterly funny, brilliantly clever journey through her childhood and her troubled country breaks down a Berlin Wall of indifference towards her compatriots. Observing that Bulgaria generally merits the shortest entry in any travel book, she resolves in her opening chapter “to write my own Bulgaria into being”.
Her communist childhood in the 1980s was marked by brilliant academic success (at 13, she could discourse in fluent French on the phosphate resources of the Balkans). But it also brimmed with loss, anger, an eating disorder and an odd autoimmune disease that struck in 1987, the year after the summer of Chernobyl, when “a festive radioactive rain” fell on her May Day parade. This undiagnosed illness left her behind the window bars of Sofia's Second Regional children's hospital for rheumatic diseases. She survived only because her parents spirited her out, persuading a retired professor of immunology to treat her secretly and illegally at home.
With the fall of the Wall in 1989, the family decamped to New Zealand. Fourteen years later, Kassabova returns to Bulgaria on the first of several visits, charting the shift away from the brutalities of totalitarianism towards those of capitalist opportunism. She takes us on a bumpy road. After a bus journey through the Shipka pass, she writes: “It's a glorious ride, but I'm too worried about our driver to enjoy it. Facial hair creeps up to his eyes from all sides, and a poster of a naked silicone diva covers most of his front windscreen. His eyes are in direct contact with the diva's pubic hair. I hope he's made small holes in her genital region to see through, otherwise we're in trouble.”
Yet nothing escapes Kassabova's own resolute gaze. Not the Serb and Macedonian gangsters who have moved into her family's building in Sofia and shot four people, including a baby. And not the fate of Vera (a young girl in her aunt's village), who has somehow survived being sold for 1,000 euros into prostitution in Germany, but who seems so trusting we can only conclude it will happen again. She is particularly sharp on the us-and-them dualities of her childhood. “Us” is families such as hers in a two-room flat in on an unnamed street in a concrete development called Youth 3, on the edge of Sofia. “Them” is the privileged communist elite living in the city itself. The peasants and gypsies forced off the land and into identikit homes are yet another “them”, as are the ethnic Turks compelled by the regime to flee the country or change their names to disguise their ancestry. Kassabova explains the history, but who can really get to grips with the complexities of a nation that in the 1940s declared war on Germany while simultaneously remaining at war with the allies? “Not bad for a country with everything to lose,” she comments.
Kassabova filters her story through the narrative of family drama. It is in the early chapters, where she spiritedly evokes the minutiae of ordinary life on the wrong side of the iron curtain, in the wrong housing, that the emotional consequences of growing up in Bulgaria's regime of “Socialism with a Human Face” hit home. You can smell it all, the cooking smells seeping through the thin, damp walls, the endless mud, the revolting lavatories.
Kassabova's parents, both engineers, were allowed occasional work trips abroad, but their freedom had a personal cost. Even as a child, camping in the Bulgarian mountains with her father visiting Dutch colleagues, Kassabova knew they were not meeting western families as equals: “They were going back to where we couldn't follow. They had packed up the world and taken it with them. They had given us a chocolate biscuit from that tin, and then put the lid on.”
The raw memoir is the first great achievement of this multifaceted book. The second is her meditation on nationality. Today we all live with the consequences of the tumbling of economic, political and cultural walls. In a globalised world, Kassabova suggests, we are all Bulgarians now.
July 30, 2008
Tale's from a writer's bloc
growing up in cold war Bulgaria, Kapka Kassabova returned to find things changed
for better and for worse
By Theresa Munoz
KAPKA KASSABOVA says she had the last childhood of the Cold War. "There aren't any accounts of growing up in the Eastern Bloc in those last 15 years," she claims. "But that's a story worth telling and worth remembering." Charming and petite, dressed in a green frock and pink trainers, she tells me her story in a café in Edinburgh's Broughton Street. Late morning sun brightens up our corner seat.
Street Without A Name: Childhood And Other Misadventures In Bulgaria is Kassabova's UK prose debut. It's also one of very few non-fiction books to emerge from Bulgaria, certainly outside the realm of academia, in recent times. Why does no-one write much about Bulgaria? Kassabova's laugh is light and capricious. "For the independent traveller, it's always been an obscure country. It's always been one of those countries associated with negative clichés."
Kassabova confirms some of these negative clichés in her book. Part memoir and part travelogue, the first half describes growing up in Sofia in the 1980s. Kassabova, her sister and her parents, both academics, lived in a two-room flat in a long concrete block. As the title suggests, their street had no name. Outside were fields of mud. "This was Youth 3," she writes. "And here I spent my youth."
But there's affection in these chapters. The family had their own balcony, fridge and bedroom curtains. Each block had a butcher, baker and bottle store. "So what if the butcher only had mixed mince and bloody legs that she wrapped up in coarse brown paper? Or the bottle store only sold lemonade and beer? It's not as if you lacked for anything. After all," she concludes, "you didn't know there was anything more to want."
Kassabova's consumer innocence didn't last long. In a chapter called East Meets West, her parents return from a business trip in Holland bearing exotic gifts. The family fixed up their flat with canvas blinds and a silver Phillips TV. The girls were given pink pencils and pens. And when Kassabova's father's Dutch colleagues arrived in a gleaming campervan for a Bulgarian holiday, she remembers her visitors "were like aliens. They were people from another universe. They looked different and wore different clothes. That's how divided we were."
For those in the Balkans, the Berlin Wall seemed like less of a place and more like "a state of mind". Though young, Kassabova internalised her suffering. "The Wall was already inside me," she writes, "in the bricks and mortar of my 11-year-old self." She became used to the feeling of being walled in. There was even a sense of security in that feeling. Living in Youth 3, she says, was like "living a nice big camp". But it was a place the Kassabovas desperately wished to flee.
And leave they did, but not without difficulty, and not right away. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Kassabova's father got a two-year university fellowship in Colchester. The family was forced to return to Sofia after their UK visas expired, but only for one last, miserable time. Kassabova fainted when her father announced that the family was moving to New Zealand. That country, she discovered, was at the bottom of the world. "I don't know where the hell I'm going, but I never want to come back," was her reaction. And with those words, the first half of Kassabova's book dissolves into unexpected silence, as if the family jumped off a cliff.
Why Kassabova does not include her experience as a migrant, is simple. "The focus of the book is Bulgaria and my return to it," she says in her gentle, mixed accent. It makes sense. Talking about her other life would counteract Kassabova's objectives in the book's second half, which are to discover how Bulgaria is coping 20 years after the Cold War, and to get in touch with her Bulgarian past. "All these years," she says, "I felt disconnected. If you leave home when you are young, there is a break between the life before and the life after. And you will always be broken until you connect those two paths."
And for years, she admits, she used to tell people she was a Kiwi. "People never believed me anyway," she shrugs. By denying her origins, she disassociated herself from a country people either thought negatively of, or knew nothing about.
So 16 years after leaving Bulgaria for good, Kassabova bridges her past and present. For six weeks, she travels around the country that is shaped like an animal hide, with the head facing Europe and the back end in the Black Sea. She searches for symbols of identity in a country that was added to the European Union just last year. She tours the Macedonian border, the Balkan Ranges, the Rodopean mountains. She stays in some rough hotels and speaks to locals, some of whom refuse to talk about the past.
In Sofia, she sees the city through a tourist's eyes. The golden statue of Sofia with a crown bearing the city's motto: "She grows, but never ages." She describes the air-conditioned shopping arcades, the American Bar And Grill, the Grand Hotel Sofia, the National Palace of Culture. She seems surprised at how the city is thriving.
Kassabova also visits old family and friends. We meet her generous auntie and uncle who drive their car in tandem; her old school friends, most of whom live abroad too and come back just to visit. Near the end of the book, Kassabova also returns to Youth 3, which has sprouted rows of trees, shopping malls, pizzerias and parks. And now their street has a name: Transfiguration Street, which seems fitting.
What Kassabova finds is more or less what she expected. Bulgaria is a wonderful place for tourists, but still a difficult place in which to live. "Let's simplify," Kassabova says thoughtfully. "It's a free place now. You can come and go. You can speak your mind. There is freedom now, in a social sense. But there is no protection. As a civil society, Bulgaria is not quite there yet. There is democracy. And democracy without civil society is the Wild West. Free enterprise thrives, but civil society is in its infancy. Is that better than before? I'm not sure."
Perhaps Bulgaria will never know what Kassabova really thinks. This autumn, she will be launching the Bulgarian version of her book. "I've re-touched some things, shall we say, for the Bulgarian version." Some parts have been omitted, and other bits have been added. It's a different market in Bulgaria, she explains. "This style of satirising your own life and your family is a very Anglo-Saxon device. In Bulgaria it's very unusual and is considered completely disrespectful and arrogant."
When asked how her family feels about the book, she laughs. "Generally, they have been very accepting. They have humoured me." And it is to her family that Kapka Kassabova has dedicated this finely written, emotionally rich book that reveals how connected we are to the land in which we are born.
The New Zealand Herald
Poignant, personal tour of Bulgaria
By John McCrystal
Street Without a Name: Childhood and other misadventures in
By Kapka Kassabova (Penguin $28)
I first learned of the existence of Bulgaria from a handsome stamp in my childhood collection - larger than most, featuring strange writing and the head of a striking-looking black and white dog, like a kind of friesian Scooby-Doo. If Kapka Kassabova is to be believed (and there seems little reason to doubt her), that dawning awareness meant I already knew more than most about her homeland.
For most people in the West, she maintains in her delightful memoir Street Without a Name, Bulgaria was either a style of yoghurt or a Womble. For its neighbours - and even for Bulgarians - it has been a strangely contingent entity, with its borders and its precise ethnic make-up dependent on which period of history and which particular overlord was reinventing it at the time.
Much of its present day territory has been Turkish, Macedonian, Greek, Romanian or Serbian at some time or another; from the end of World War II until 1989, it was part of the Soviet Bloc, and today it is trying to come to terms with the implications of being the latest face at the European Union's family table.
Kassabova's memoir occupies three timeframes: her childhood as far as adolescence, when her family managed to escape to Britain and thence to New Zealand; a return trip with a Kiwi boyfriend many years later; and yet another trip back last year, just as her homeland was granted membership of the EU.
Kassabova was born and grew up in Bulgaria's capital, Sofia, nestled at the western end of the Balkan range, while the Communist regime of Todor Jivkov - "socialism with a human face" - was at the height of its Orwellian powers.
For most of her young life, her family occupied a two-room apartment in a bleak tenement in a district of the city known as Youth 3 (as it replaced Youth 2 and Youth 1).
The young Kapka was subjected to a range of indoctrination programmes, including instruction in the violence done to Bulgaria and Bulgarians by the Turks during the reign of the Ottoman emperors.
A cardinal episode of these years was the "Revival" movement, where with a truly Balkan sense of ethnic hygiene, the regime forced the Turkish tenth of Bulgaria's population to adopt Slavic names and to speak Bulgarian rather than Turkish, forcing many to flee to Turkey - to go on "a long holiday", as Kassabova recalls the official line.
After years of being miserably aware of what the West enjoyed and Bulgarians were missing out on, the Kassabovas finally made it into exile, finding their way to New Zealand in 1992.
Kapka was a bird of passage in our literary scene - she published two novels and a couple of volumes of poetry here, before departing for Scotland - but a welcome one. She has also made a name for herself as a travel writer, and in as much as the past is a different country, she is an astute and charismatic guide through her former Bulgaria.
Despite - or perhaps because of - the adversity of her youth spent in Youth 3, the best part of Street Without a Name is the section dealing with her childhood. She writes with poignant honesty and a scalpel-sharp satirical wit about the weirdly distorted lives of people under socialism "with a human face", and since.
But her two subsequent traverses through Bulgaria, travelling anticlockwise, as she notes, as though turning back time, are fascinating, too, as she records the struggle her homeland faces making the transition from communism to "man-eat-man" capitalism and dealing with the legacy left by centuries of intolerance.
She is at once central to the story, yet unobtrusive - a neat trick indeed. Realised in her lively and endlessly creative prose, Street Without a Name is a rare treat, striking just the right balance between bitter and sweet.
New Zealand - LISTENER
July 26-August 1 2008 Vol 214 No 3559
Call of the past
by Jolisa Gracewood
STREET WITHOUT A NAME: CHILDHOOD AND OTHER MISADVENTURES IN BULGARIA, by Kapka Kassabova (Penguin, $28).
After years of roaming the world, a gentle poet of rootlessness, Kapka Kassabova finally confronts the past that needles her “like an infirm relative calling out from a darkened room at the back of the house”. Street Without a Name is her humorous, measured answer to the question inevitably addressed to even the most cosmopolitan soul: where are you from?
She’s from Bulgaria – a place most likely, in her experience, to evoke avuncular Wombles and umbrella murders, rather than recognition as the crucible in which Tartars and Slavs forged one of Europe’s oldest nations. This book offers a vivid portrait of her birth country that is “almost always personal and almost never flattering”, partly, she admits, an “act of exorcism”. It is also a riveting tale of a journey from childhood to adulthood, through a country in the business of reinventing itself yet again.
Street Without a Name is really two books in one. The first half reconstructs the author’s childhood, up to the fall of communism and her departure for New Zealand. Life under communism is unremittingly grim, ugly and deprived. It’s no wonder that the girl who grew up in a anonymous concrete tower block went on to write wistful lines such as: “All my life, I have wanted this:/... to have a street with a name and a corner shop.”
Encounters with the outside world only intensify the bleakness. Kapka mother breaks down upon seeing the pristine public toilets in Holland. Clueless visitors from Western Europe scoff candy while enthusing about the charming simplicity of communist society. A trip to East Berlin confirms for young Kapka that the Wall is more tan bricks and mortar: it was “already inside me”.
The year of Chernobyl brings greater misery: elderly relatives die and Kapka succumbs to a mysterious auto-immune illness. But her admission to the French Lycée provides an alternate linguistic universe and a peer group with whom to share the ritual teen rebellion. Meanwhile, the machinery of the state grinds on, as hundreds of thousands of Bulgarian Turks are forcibly renamed and more or less expelled.
Following the fall of communism, New Zealand is the booby prize when Kapka British visa is not forthcoming. The grief-stricken teenager locates her new home in the atlas, “two small accidental splashes of land at the bottom of the world’. Ironically, her only previous glimpse of New Zealand was an alarming film seen while on a childhood holiday with her grandparents, in idyllic Baichik on the Black Sea. Billed as A Factory for Old Iron, the movie was all “anger and bad hairstyles” (not a bad summary of Smash Palace, come to think of it).
Revisiting Baichik as an adult, Kassabova finds everything changed, the holiday cottages crumbling and deserted. You can’t go home again: this is the expat epiphany, painful and liberating in equal parts, explored in the second half of the book.
Her ambivalent travels to childhood haunts, tourist spots old and new (many of them hilariously hapless), and friction-filled border zones with Bulgaria’s neighbours, reveal a place that is familiar and yet utterly strange.
She converses with Bulgarians of every age and background, Christians and Muslims, Turks and Gypsies encountering varying degrees of amnesia and forgiveness in a nation still caught between past and future. Most poignant are her visits to her beloved great uncle and aunt, a childless couple who dote on her; their decline Is heartbreaking and emblematic.
The writing which bears the endearing trace of an accent is lovely. Provocative and epigrammatic — “So it turns out the past isn’t just another country. It is another country where someone like us, but not us, lives” — it’s also improbably funny, despite the gloomy material. If prose could shrug, that’s what this book would do. Upon finishing it, I wanted to read it again just to marvel at how jauntily Kassabova sketches history’s great tragic heft.