In case the allusion behind my post title doesn’t ring a bell, let me clarify that it draws from “The Animal Within,” an episode of British TV mystery drama Midsomer Murders, which, apart from having kept me company during the first, and the most sleepless, months of maternity back in 2008, also showcases beautiful English countryside and not a few of the eccentricities of the English national character.
It is also a story of the Oedipus complex of a son who was unable to accept the wild youth of his beloved mother who, in her more mature years, had gained global renown as a Christian missionary. The morale was that we’re all human – an animal species essentially – despite our aspirations to sanctity and occasional feats of kindness, love, or empathy.
In my mind, given to seeing similarities rather than differences, the same concept holds true also of our national identity. Despite our very different backgrounds and views on the world, about nine million people on this planet are Bulgarians, and this indelible part of their identity is what binds them together, genetically, consciously, and unconsciously, whether they like it and acknowledge it, or not.
However, being Bulgarian, similarly to belonging to any other socially construed group, goes much beyond being familiar with the images (facts, events, or personages) of this communion, and is in fact a personal experience made up of one’s life events, memories, and even senses. I was reminded of this last week, when, on the occasion of my birthday, I received a great photographic album called The Bulgarians by Anthony Georgieff, a photographer and novelist with a career spanning several continents.
Georgieff’s playful, cheeky or disturbingly upfront photographs of Bulgarians engaged in their mundane activities, so obvious that their clashing details often go by unnoticed, serve to highlight their objects’ different perceptions of Bulgaria, united by a haunting sensation of standing still, of grinding to a halt at the proverbial crossroad of Bulgaria’s geopolitical, economic, and moral location. Remember how I told you my mentality was straddling two worlds, here? We’re talking about the same now, only at a larger, and much darker, scale.
So where does Bulgaria belong to? To Europe, or to Russia? How come it has never come to terms with its Ottoman heritage? Is its future lying with the secular state, or would it give in to some form of papocaesarism, and if the latter, would it ultimately light candles to Jesus or to Muhammad? A very pertinent question that one, given that we’re a nation which has adopted Christianity but has never quite abandoned paganism, has been forced into industrialisation but has never quite given up its artisanal ways, and has embarked on an adventure of democracy while never having quite given up its dreams of an almighty Tsar, or an almighty Party.
When would Bulgarians agree on which is better – democracy, with all its injustice and inequality, or communism, with its forced labour camps made up for by modest but secure salaries and free healthcare? Is there really anything apart from socially construed fiction binding Bulgarians of the few big cities to those who are daily robbed and raped in the depopulated villages, and those who live alone in the vast sweeps of border-region wilderness?
And even within Sofia, a city of about 1.3 million, the world of the people frequenting Tsar Ivan Shishman Street, all early 20th-century buildings, crafts shops, arty fashion, and romantic bakeries, is poles apart from the world of those living or working at Tsar Simeon Street, all dilapidated buildings, cheap clothing and curtain shops, and Arab food groceries. Against the backdrop of Unity is Power, the national motto engraved above the parliament house entrance, Bulgarians seem almost irreparably divided indeed.
According to Georgieff, and to culture scientist and media expert Georgi Lozanov who wrote the album’s most excellent foreword, the Bulgarians of today across the affluence spectrum are fixated upon surviving at all costs, a skill they have perfected over the past 1,000 years or so when they have not been masters of their fate and were subjects to foreign interests instead. Thus, the Bulgarian mind is in constant opposition against “them” – an unidentified, all-encompassing group that might be the Great Powers, the neighbours, the minorities, and even their, or our, own state. This in turn gives rise to a specific form of individual survival, or freeloading if you will, and that’s the conspiracy of the private individuals, otherwise known as corruption.
In the words of Georgi Lozanov:
“The situation (meaning the subject of the photograph above and Georgieff’s work as a whole) evokes the famous 1939 photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson in which a group of people appear to be having a carefree, happy time on the Marne (river) without any premonition that soon the men will be dying on the front lines and the women and children will be bombed. It depicts with unashamed starkness why Fascism, and for that matter Communism, were possible: while everyone was busy in their own small worlds, the big outside world made decisions about everyone’s future without anyone’s participation. The picture, like many others in The Bulgarians, depicts private individuals who fail to understand how they have turned themselves into victims because they hope that history will leave them unaffected, that in a conspiracy between themselves they will manage to outsmart it.”
I leave you now to ponder what Bulgaria, or your own country, is to you, while offering a fun list of things that Bulgaria seems to be to the protagonists of Georgieff’s pictures, according to Lozanov.
I’d be curious to know whether you’ve managed to identify your own association of Bulgaria, or your country, among the following: a hairy chieftain capable of wild love, a bottle of cold beer, a piece of sky, someone to blame for one’s troubles, toil without pleasure, oblivion, disillusionment, a foreigner to marry, an innocent girl, the USSR, cheap booze and indiscriminate sex, a drunken husband, or the Orthodox faith?
And since I asked, let me answer too:
My Bulgaria is a geranium for the shadows, a grapevine for the sun, and a rooster’s cry for a new beginning,
PS. Your musical greeting now – I Believe in You by a 1990s Bulgarian band called Kiora. (The photo of Megadeath’s Dave Mustaine is a nice touch too.) Lyrics say that the protagonist believes in the girl he loves not because of what she is in particular, but because he can’t believe she’ll ever walk away. I guess I believe in Bulgarians in kind of the same way too.