childhood and other misadventures in bulgaria

July 11, 2008

Kapka Kassabova took the long way round to Edinburgh, growing up in Bulgaria and with pit stops in Essex and Dunedin, New Zealand, apparently without losing her sense of humour on the way. The Guardian has an excerpt of her book, below. Bulgaria is a place I know far too little about, and Kassabova seems to be just the person to hold my hand while I learn. I’ve already sent a pleading email to the library to buy a copy. This sounds like a book they definitely need!

Kapka Kassabov grew up in 1980s Bulgaria where her beloved grandmother Anastassia and tryannical grandfather Kiril both shaped her childhood. But then Chernobyl changed everything.

The Guardian, Saturday June 28, 2008

Three things happened in the year of Chernobyl: my grandfather died of heart failure, my grandmother died of breast cancer, and I grew up.

In Bulgaria in the spring of 1986, a rumour circulated that there had been a nuclear incident somewhere in the Soviet Union. Later, much later, the state said that there was no cause for alarm. To be alarmed was to give in to western propaganda against the Brotherly Soviet Country.

But Toni’s father next door was a physicist at the Academy of Sciences. His job was to measure radiation levels and he was alarmed, very alarmed. He told my parents to stay away from fresh food that year. My parents’ life took on fresh meaning: to source rare foods such as powdered milk and tinned feta cheese.

Many people said, “What radioactivity? I can’t see anything.” Many people also became suddenly ill and died that year. One of them was my paternal grandfather, Kiril, who died suddenly a month later. He and my grandmother Kapka lived in Pavlikeni, an “exemplary socialist town”, where my grandfather worked as a vet.

I liked grandmother Kapka, although she was on Valium and was a little erratic. I could see why: 40 years of coexistence with my grandfather Kiril had destroyed her personality.

The phrase the family used to describe him was “short-tempered”: shorthand for a one-man terror regime. From the mosquito-netted window on the ground floor, he stood like a bulldog at the kennel’s door, and greeted passersby with a smile. Then, as they moved out of earshot, he held forth on their suspect spouses and scrofulous children, and the illnesses they deserved.

It was simple: everyone who wasn’t of his blood was an enemy, and women were doubly so. Women were the fertiliser from which sons grew in order to continue the bloodline.

My sister, my elder cousin and I were girls, but we were also of grandfather Kiril’s blood, which presented him with a dilemma. He tried to be nice to us. He once took us along on one of his veterinary calls where he injected a huge pig with some drug, and it squealed and kicked so violently that I ran, in the grips of my first phobia.

Grandmother Kapka took me and my sister on walks. We went mulberry-picking in the park, to see the scabby animals in the zoo. She often seemed absent, as if she existed somewhere on the periphery of her own life.

When Grandfather Kiril died, no doubt in the middle of a shouting fit, the wake was in the stuffy living-room which was full of half-rotten flowers and melting chocolates. He lay in an open coffin in a dark suit. Grandmother Kapka, her head covered in black lace, flung herself on top of him with tearless wails. Public grieving was expected of a dutiful wife, and she had always been dutiful.

But there was something stranger than my grandmother’s wailing. It was the sorrow of the man who had been a chauffeur at the veterinary clinic. He stood at the back of the small congregation, raked by silent sobs, black mascara running down his cheeks. Nobody commented.

It took me many years to understand that my grandfather Kiril had been a deeply unhappy man. That he victimised those weaker than him not only because of his tyrannical character, but because he too, in his own unnamed way, had been a victim of something bigger than him. After all, there was no homosexuality under socialism.

Another thing that didn’t exist under socialism was terminal illness. My other grandmother, Anastassia, had been wearing a wig for some years now, and I sensed that there was a breast missing somewhere, but the word cancer was never uttered. And because I loved her best after my parents, I preferred to pretend that she would get well again. But I knew from the way that my mother waved from the bus to the two figures on the seventh-floor balcony – one of them half-blind, her wig slightly askew – and from the way my mother then wept inconsolably, that she wouldn’t get better.

After Chernobyl, Grandmother Anastassia took a sudden turn for the worse. We didn’t visit her any more. My mother and her father became full-time nurses at home. Since terminal illness didn’t exist, neither did hospital wards for the terminally ill. We hardly saw my mother – from work, she went straight to my grandparents’ place. Or accompanied her to the hospital. My sister and I were evacuated to Suhindol that summer.

Suhindol was half an hour’s drive from our paternal grandparents’ house in Pavlikeni. It was where my great-uncle and auntie lived. Uncle was Grandfather Kiril’s brother, but they might as well have never met. Auntie had the strength of a bull and the cheekbones of a Tartar. She came from a line of sturdy, wealthy, educated peasants. She knew how to cook, toil in the field, run a big house, and make you feel loved.

But Auntie and Uncle were childless. All their lives, they had tried to make up for this terrible socialist failure by giving everything they had to my father and his twin brother, treating them and us as their own children. Auntie and Uncle had a field where the biggest, juiciest watermelons and tomatoes in Europe grew, and their house overflowed with great excesses of cooked and stored food.

That summer, our two cousins were there. The matter of Grandmother Anastassia’s imminent death was never explicitly named, which allowed me to pretend that I was too young to understand what Auntie meant when she said, sorrowfully shaking her leonine head, “the worst might happen”.

There was nothing to do but eat. In the vine-shaded coma of that white-hot summer of boredom, budding hormones, and waiting for the worst to happen, my first cousin and I spent the days wolfing down ovenfuls of Auntie’s pastries. We swallowed watermelons the size of small planets, peaches big as heads, lettuces like forests. It was a fertile year, 1986.

By the end of the summer, my cousin and I were small, round versions of Auntie. The only thing that still fitted was our pyjamas. When my father came to pick us up, he didn’t recognise me. But Auntie was overjoyed to have fed us so well.

Back in Sofia, in the doorway of our apartment, stood a spectral apparition in black. This was my mother, and she saw that overnight I had risen like dough. Now I suddenly awoke from my Suhindol coma, I was a pig who’d spent the summer in Auntie’s kitchen trough, while my mother had been transformed into a saint. I was so disgusted with myself that I forbade myself from being sad about my grandmother Anastassia to whom, there was no denying it now, the worst had happened.

In the summer of Chernobyl, I was desperately clinging to something slippery that was drifting away. In retrospect, it was childhood.

But soon, these existential worries were put into fresh perspective when I was struck down with a bizarre auto-immune disease. It filled all my joints with fluid and slowly blew me up into something resembling the Michelin Man. Rheumatic fever, the doctors said, and wheeled me off to hospital.

It was necessary to perform tests in order to diagnose and treat the disease but everyone was on holiday. The only staff around were young nurse apprentices who practised freely on me before eventually informing my mother that my condition was untreatable. They didn’t know what it was. They could do nothing except monitor me, and my parents should expect the worst.

My mother used all available connections in the medical world to arrange private appointments with expensive specialists. Then she arranged more expensive private tests to rule out horrific degenerative diseases that the first specialists had suggested I might have.

It was my parents’ angry despair that saved me. After a month, they took me out of hospital and I was put into the private care of a famous old professor who came to our flat. Private practice was illegal, and both he and my parents risked trouble if the other turned out to be an informer. He refused the extra cash my desperate parents kept offering him and took only the small, state-fixed rate.

The professor suggested that my disease might be related to that nuclear incident the previous year. By now, he said, many children were suffering from freak diseases, and the word “Chernobyl” was whispered in hospital corridors. I thought of the enormous lettuces and the watermelons at Auntie’s house, the peaches and the honey.

My father drove me everywhere by car, to protect me from infections on the crowded buses. I observed this strange world of healthy people from inside our orange Skoda, like a party functionary gazing through the tinted windows of a limousine.

The Michelin Man had deflated and come back to earth, and the earth looked a changed place. It was a place without my third favourite person in the world and without the guarantee that bad things wouldn’t happen again. Childhood was a distant memory.

· Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria by Kapka Kassabova is published by Portobello Books at £15.99.


4 Responses to “childhood and other misadventures in bulgaria”

  1. Way cool excerpt.. I wonder where else the name Kiril will pop up. My fantasy character does not have a unique name. *wah* =)

  2. Tracy Says:

    Just finished one of her earlier books ‘Love in the Time of Midas’ (no, nothing like García Márquez’s tome). I think her prose was a little sticky at points, but the story was very enjoyable. Judging from the reviews of ‘Street’, I suspect her voice has gotten stronger and better. Let me know your views on it! Also, you may like this one by a Malaysia author and longlisted for last year’s Man Booker: Gift of Rain
    As ever, love reading your musings.

  3. sunburn Says:

    so cool, i asked the oslo city library to buy this book for their collection (and so i could read it) and got an email back that they would! i will be sure to report back. thanks too for the tip off on the gift of rain, had not heard of that. did you read tash aw’s the harmony silk factory? also booker longlisted, a fantastic read. i’m so glad we can share!

  4. looks fantastic! Will definitely read this next. Here’s another Malaysian author, she’s speaking at the Edinburgh book festival, though haven’t read her book yet: Evening is the whole day
    Will let you know my thoughts on Harmony Silk Factory, can’t wait to get started!

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