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Circus Bulgaria by Deyan Enev – review

Tibor Fischer is intrigued by an enigmatic collection

Bulgaria must be the EU country that impinges least on British consciousness. EU membership has probably added cheap package tours on the Black Sea to the other Bulgarian commonplaces of poisoned umbrellas on Waterloo bridge and endowing the English language with the word “bugger”. In contrast the Romanians fare much better with their Dracula industry and a colourful uprising complete with dictator-shooting.

Very little Bulgarian literature has made it into English. I enjoyed Georgi Markov’s memoir exposing the venality and boorishness of Todor Zhivkov’s regime (which was, along with his radio broadcasts, to cost Markov his life), and Atanas Slavov’s novel With the Precision of Bats. There’s also Kapka Kassabova’s memoir, Street Without a Name, but since that was written in English it’s slightly cheating.

So I was rather looking forward to a bulletin from the frontline in Sofia, Deyan Enev’s collection of short stories Circus Bulgaria. Born in 1960, Enev is old enough to have profound experiences of the old system, but has lived through 20 years of post-Soviet life. Originally published a few years ago in Bulgaria, the book’s emphasis is on life after the changes, and how “democracy” (such as it is) and freedom don’t equate to happiness and prosperity. The title story, “Circus Bulgaria” (a title open to all sorts of interpretations), sets the mood by relating how a desperate lion-tamer, down to his last lion, sells the beast so that both can survive the winter.

There are 50 stories in the collection, and many are so short they could easily fall into the category of flash fiction. Enev also has a taste for the mysterious or surreal ending, necessitating more than one reading to try to get a grip on the story (though, very often, rereading made the codas no clearer). Such oddities would be excellent for discussion in a reading group or a creative writing class, but I suspect that many readers will find several of these pieces too slippery for recreational purposes.

Take “The Return of the Prodigal Son”. The narrator goes to visit his mother in hospital, then returns home, where he starts flicking through the family photo album. His brother, who has been away, walks in and announces he will be staying for a while. This is the last paragraph of the story: “In a few minutes, the room filled up with rats. They stood to attention, in thick tidy ranks, and their tails formed straight lines. Their lead eyes were fixed on my brother’s. Their black bodies shivered. My brother said something incomprehensible and, screaming and squealing, the rats started jumping out of the window. When the last rat was gone, my brother rubbed his red eyes, sat on the bed and began to tell his story.”

Several of the stories have these baffling endings, though there is at least one, “Rider Girl”, which adheres to the classic Roald Dahl “twist in the tail” formula, and which will probably feature prominently in anthologies of erotic fiction.

Only one story really qualifies as a fully-fledged narrative, the closing piece “Over the Mountains”, in which an English film-maker visits Bulgaria in order to investigate an appalling story of cruelty in the remote countryside, which turns out to be appalling in a completely different way (or not, depending on which of the characters you choose to believe).

Whether it’s faithful to the original or not, I have no idea, but Kassabova’s translation is so smooth and idiomatic that you have almost no sense of “otherness” (for example, a Bulgarian general talks about “cracking on” as if he’d been at Sandhurst). Can you translate too well?

Enev also has a strong lyrical streak, which the poet Kassabova renders beautifully: “Suddenly her face shrivelled up and darkened like burning paper.” The overall tone of the collection, despite the general grimness of the panorama, is gentle and serene. You feel that Enev is a man at ease with hopelessness, who has made his accommodation with failure. I’d have weeded out some of the shorter pieces to make it tighter and less enigmatic, but there’s no doubt Enev is a talented and entertaining writer.

Tibor Fischer’s Good to Be God is published by Alma Books.

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