I received a review copy of this title from Open Letter Books. The book was written in 2006 in Bulgarian and this English version has been translated by Angela Rodel. This review is my first contribution to Bulgarian Literature month which is being hosted by Thomas at Mytwostotinki. Click on the following link for more reviews and to learn how to participate.
The narrative of this book takes places during the 1980’s and 1990’s as the communism regime in Bulgaria collapses and the government goes through a transition to democracy. The narrator jumps from one time period to another in an erratic and almost frantic method. The book opens when his father-in-law, a man named K-Shev who is the cruel dictator of Bulgaria, has fled to Germany. The narrator is visiting the now sick and dying old man in the hospital and delivering a giant suitcase of money that K-Shev stashed away before his hasty retreat.
The narrator spends his youth in a state of disarray and aimlessness. For a time he joins the army where he learns physical discipline and to be mute for long periods of time. He pushes himself by running to the point of pain and exhaustion in an effort to become a Cosmonaut or a pilot. During this time period when Bulgaria’s communist regime is falling apart, the narrator experiences his own identity crisis as he is trying to decide what to do with the rest of his life. He ends up in medical school where he meets his wife. But even medical school isn’t something that is able to ground him for very long since he is kicked out after his second year. It is in medical school that he meets and falls in love with his wife.
But his wife is not just any ordinary woman; he happens to fall in love with the notorious dictator’s daughter. She refuses to talk about her father and there are hints that she has had her own unpleasant and traumatic experiences with him. Her most unpleasant and disturbing memory of him is how he chose to deal with the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. He keeps the news of the reactor’s meltdown from his people and continues to let them eat the food and drink the milk and water that might be contaminated by radiation. K-Shev sends his daughter to the local medical facility to be tested for radioactive poisoning but he never does anything to help the rest of his people. It seems a fitting punishment from the powers that be in the universe that he dies of a disease that has essentially poisoned his blood.
K-Shev is a figure that constantly looms over the narrator’s life and gives him a never ending sense of unease. He writes, “The Boss’s circulatory system envelops us, every one of us.” When he is delivering the money to K-Shev he spends a significant amount of time jogging even to the point of vomiting. In his attempt to ease his mental anguish with physical exercise he also seeks out prostitutes during his time in Germany. He writes that even K-Shev’s death won’t offer any real emotional release: “To tell you the truth, I know that in the end his death will rob me of everything. It will leave me only the monuments, from which you can’t demand accountability, not for anything.” There is nothing the narrator can do to calm his roving thoughts; there is nothing he can do to erase the unpleasant memories of the past. Is there any way forward for him?
In the meandering and poetic prose, there is a larger message to be found in this novel about the lasting effects of a totalitarian regime. Even though the Party Headquarters are burned down, the dictator is exiled and his sprawling home is boarded up, the people will not automatically forget decades of oppression. The transition from oppression to freedom is not an easy one and the emotional scars never truly disappear.
About the Author:
Georgi Tenev, before penning the Vick Prize-winning novel Party Headquarters, had already published four books, founded the Triumviratus Art Group, hosted The Library television program about books, and written plays that have been performed in Germany, France, and Russia. He is also a screenwriter for film and TV.