There are probably not many English authors who can claim to have accompanied the launch of their book with a live set of Bulgarian folksongs. At the Helikon bookshop in Sofia this October, Christopher Buxton picked up his guitar and sang for the audience attending the Bulgarian launch of his novel Far From the Danube.
The guitar has been a permanent fixture since Christopher's teaching days at the English School in the Black Sea town of Burgas in the 1970s, where a whole generation of Bulgarians can still happily recite all the lyrics from the Beatles Complete Songbook. Christopher first arrived in Bulgaria in 1977, intending it to be his last port of call in Europe before continuing on to Latin America. However, as his eyes met those of a Bulgarian teaching colleague across a ping pong table, dreams of Latin America vanished and a Bulgarian love affair began, not only with his future wife, but also with the Bulgarian language and culture.
The couple have now lived with their two children for 25 years in Essex, where Christopher still works as a teacher. His interest in Bulgaria has endured, as has his frustration at the lack of any history books dealing with events before the birth of Bulgaria's first Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov. This may be partly why his first full-scale novel is a historical epic, in which the characters journey from Bulgaria along the Danube to France and England.
Far From the Danube follows the 15th Century journey of Maria Iskra from Bulgaria to Normandy. Like Iskra, many of the characters in the novel are based on real people, which necessitated a lot of research on the part of the author. "I travelled to Nikopol on the Danube, and from there to Belene, getting a feel for the landscape." Days were spent researching trade on the Danube at that period, visiting the Guiton residence in Carnet in northern France, and poring over archives and 15th Century parchments in the Kew archives near London.
Christopher was drawn to this particular story in this period of history as the heroine's journey "mirrors the loss of faith that occurred across Europe, but also symbolises a people's ability to survive". He believes that the events that took place then are still relevant today: "The nature of humanity determines that nothing much changes. The 14th and 15th Centuries, as now, were times of great unrest and questioning of faith. There was also the larger context of resurgent Islam overwhelming a Christianity weakened by corruption. Writers from this period share exactly the same concerns as those afflicted by medieval-style conflicts now".
Far From the Danube promises to be a novel of epic proportions. Read on to discover for yourself.
What the book is about
Far From the Danube is set in 15th Century Europe. It follows the story of Maria Iskra, a real life character whose journey took her from war-torn Bulgaria to the court of King Henry V. After her country is invaded and her father murdered, she rescues a Crusader knight, Gilles Guiton, from a Bulgarian battlefield and nurses him back to health. Together, they make the hazardous journey across Europe, beset on all sides by danger. Despite Giles's oath of chastity, Maria bears him a child, whom she brings to the Guiton residence in Normandy. There she receives a cold welcome, so the ever-resourceful Iskra presents herself to the English warrior king Henry V to ask for land rights for her son. Ultimately she is caught between two ruthless men and dies in a convent, largely forgotten, save for a scroll of English parchment. Her story is told in a series of vivid episodes that illustrate the turbulent and savage nature of the times and reflect the fortitude of the woman who survives them.
Far From the Danube, by Christopher Buxton
He stood on the spit, the island's wooded slopes darkening behind him, mesmerised by the relentless flow of the brown waters. The calls of birds wheeling for a while above his head brought him the vision of himself as seen from a terrifying height, lonely and far from home.
These waters fl owed against the way he had come - out through the reedy maze of channels at the river's mouth, past the quays of Lykostromo, out into the Black Sea, past the besieged walls of Byzantium, then out into the bigger sea and then to lap about his seven year home of Rhodes.
A huge branch swept slowly by. It looked like the body of an armoured knight. Time was passing and he had changed. Seven years of the Hospitalers' rule - his oaths of chastity, poverty and obedience - he fl inched at the memory and glanced back at the mass of trees. They stood there still as dark accusers pressing him towards the water. But the trees were to be felled. Isaac was to see to that. He gazed again at the river Danube.
Right now the fluid world looked so inviting. Could he slip into the icy cold water, grab a branch and so return to his life? It suited the role of weak sinner to rely on currents. On the voyage across the sea and up the river, Brother Thomas had kept them entertained in retelling the writing of an Italian poet. Brother Thomas was older, had come to the order late and was full of the world's wisdom.
A vision of hell - well, if the poet were right, he would find himself in the pit's first circle, buffeted and blown about, never able to rest because of his growing love for Maria Iskra.
Mary, Mother of God! Mary the chaste; Mary the virgin! Every day, every night, he prayed to her. Did the Mother of God now feel betrayed by her knight? - looking at the lustful shoots springing from his soul.
Her knight was now a friend of schismatics and Jews. It was getting darker and colder. It was high time to get back. But as he turned, Maria Iskra was running towards him, down the spit and Baba Kera was not far behind. Maria had returned to find him gone and she was angry. Ten yards away, she stopped and put her hands on her hips, her head tilted back and waited for him to come to her. If he had been a child he'd certainly have got a beating.
"You!" was all she said - at least to him. She had much more to say to Baba Kera, as they walked up the path through the trees. He pulled his cloak tighter, aware of his wounds, now healed but still aching. The cold was biting through his shoulder to the bone. His thighs ached and as he struggled to keep up with her, he became breathless. He had to stop.
*This is an excerpt from Far From the Danube by Christopher Buxton, published in Sofia simultaneously in English and Bulgarian by Kronos Publishers, 2006. Far From the Danube is available through Helikon bookshops
As soon as he did so, she stopped too and turned around, anger turning to concern.
"You... " she said again but with more tenderness this time. "Late! Late! And cold. Not well enough yet."
He slowed his rasping breaths as she gazed into his eyes. "Must get better. Must go home," he murmured in Italian.
"Yes but slowly. Slow...ly." She took his good arm, supporting him now as they started up the slope towards the woodman's hut that was their latest hiding place. Unbidden thoughts came again with her so close, her headcloth smelling of roses, her rising mounds of breast imaginable beneath the woollen cloth. Mary Mother of God. Maria Iskra.
"Eh, young one! You try your strength too far. Who says you should walking already? Takes time, takes time to heal - and yes it getting cold now. March - leaves long away - soon snow again. Have to stay close to the fire."
Isaac broke off to talk excitedly to Maria. It was as if he was angry with her. Gilles picked out the word "mad" - only because he had heard it so many times in her songs. He turned to Baba Kera, and, pointing to himself, tried the word. "Mad?" The old woman laughed so loudly that Isaac stopped his rant.
"Yes yes! Mad mad!" Baba Kera's hand fl uttered close to her head, then she pointed at him.
Later, as she fed him the soup, propped up against Isaac's broad back, Maria Iskra chided him. "Too soon - only a few months from picked up near dead! And why were you standing out there for any passing fisherman to see?" She pursed her lips, as once his mother had done. "You know how we have to hide you; how my cousin, Yanko, will not believe you dead and always talks to the Nikopol Bey. I have to be so careful with my comings and goings. He would like to seize me when I have not good men about me. I have some protection - thank God for my Father - but these are such times! And if you were seen and the news came to Yanko, Turks would be swarming on this island. There would be no escape."
He knew. He knew her bravery and resource. Gone for days, sometimes a week, she would return as today, to nurse him and gaze into his eyes. He had left the hut when Isaac had gone to get fish. So long cooped up - and the sun had shone weakly - making him hope that an early Spring was entering his body. Baba Kera had been feeding chickens then had disappeared on an errand of her own and he had slipped unnoticed down the path towards the river. The call of water - so irresistible - now made him ashamed. He felt shame because of the love that was pouring over his body as she searchingly helped him prepare for the night - a few days' absence and she was afraid for him. So much to do; so much to heal; so much uncertain in her, his, their future.
He fell asleep in shame. She lay long awake in worry sharing a bed with Baba Kera in an adjoining hut. Flickering shadows in the dark - he was hot now. He pushed back the blanket. Pain changes. No longer encased in heavy lead, his wounds breathed fire and throbbed insistently. Another pain - he needed to piss. He scrabbled around for the jug and with slow painful deliberation, got himself to his knees.
Minutes later, he was back on his back, breathless and heart beating. His body was burning and wet as it expelled all liquid.
He could feel the dressing sucking on his shoulder. Isaac was snoring. What part of the night was reached, he could not tell. For so long, every hour of the day had been marked and dictated by Divine Services and warlike practice. Perhaps even now in Rhodes, knights were stirring, listening for the next bell that would summon them from their beds to chapel. And will his and many other beds be empty in that dormitory room?
Keep your mind and body pure! - That the Blessed Virgin Mary would look kindly on it and protect it. Let his mind and body be dedicated to God; for the man who thinks fornication has committed it.
Brothers, guard one another from impurity in the dormitories. Let no one sleep alone or in pairs. Gaze not on your own naked body or on others'. Do not linger in the bath house or the latrines, lest rumour spread.
"Bless me father for I have sinned."
"Speak, my son."
"Impure thoughts, Father."
"Have you shared these thoughts with anyone?"
"Have you committed any unclean actions?"
"With anyone else?"
"How many times?"
"Once Father... it was in my sleep... it came in a dream... beautiful woman... she looked at me... she lifted her dress..."
"My son, these dreams are sent by the devil - to pollute your body that you have dedicated to God and the Virgin Mary. These dreams must be purged and the devil cast out. Spend this night in the chapel. Employ your scourge and say a prayer for me. I absolve you. Go in peace."
Isaac stopped in mid snore, grunted and turned over. Where was his Father-Confessor now? - spitted by a Turkish spear and hacked down in that first charge. Of his dormitory mates, he had only seen Brother Lawrence die - an axe through his helmet. He was breathing with difficulty again - must stop thinking of the battle. That is what Maria was saying each time she saw him frown: "Stop thinking about the battle."
Maria - did she love him? Why else would she... look after him so long, so gently, travel so far from home, court so much danger? Up to now he had taken her for granted. A woman has a soft heart and cares for wounded creatures, cares for wounded men. But now he was with Isaac, she had done her main work. But she was still close by. And whenever she left, it was always with the promise of return.
He felt her proximity - lying in the next hut beside Baba Kera. Could she be in love with him? She had seen his body, smashed and pitted.
She had bathed him. Was this the devil's work? - To inflame impure thoughts.
But she was so modest. Her eyes avoided long looks. Her words were proper, yet soft. She took great care with her clothing - always so neat and trim. She could be no devil but he sensed her body beneath the woollen clothing - a body as beautiful as Eve's in paradise - and she had looked on him with his torn flesh and broken rib.
What did Adam feel when he first saw Eve? He had seen no woman to compare with her. Eve walking round him; Eve bending down to pick the flowers to weave into her hair. Stop! Stop! Rid the thought and clean the mind. How many sins had spattered the white of his soul since his last confession?
He must clothe all bodies in his mind. He was a knight of the Cross - a knight who should appear in armour shining, reflecting the light of his soul - ready to protect the world and be protected from it.
Sir Tristram was grievously wounded when he fell into the gentle hands of la Belle Iseult. He had changed his name to conceal from her that he had killed her countryman - her uncle even. But Maria knew. But she still cared for him. The angry young man had come and shouted but she had withstood the tempest - eyes down but determined. He half guessed at what had been said. And now they were hiding out on this island, away from the angry young man and away from the new Turkish rulers of these lands.
Sir Tristram had lain months in the hands of la belle Iseult. She had washed him, caressed him with her fair hands as he lay helpless, spoken to him in her Irish tongue, sang songs - all up to that fateful day when she gazed at his sword and noticed the place where the blade edge had splintered on helmet and bone, and fitted the half moon of missing metal found in her uncle's brain. Had Iseult's heart beaten faster at the thought that she had served her uncle's killer. How much harder had Maria's heart beaten in caring for a knight whose compatriots had killed her father in cold blood? The angry young man! - that was why he was shouting.
Brother Thomas had shouted and raged too - trembling in his Franciscan cloak. Here is Sodom and Gomorrah! Here are the tented circles of hell. He railed at the army strolling at leisurely pace along the banks of the Danube, but a skimmed stone's throw away from barges full of sweetmeats, barrels of fine Hungarian wine, hams and cheeses and women.
Away in the dark now Isaac's snores reached a crescendo, a choking rasp, silence, then a groan as he rolled over. He hoped Maria Iskra was sleeping too. He wished her pure refreshing healing dreams - for she too had much to forget - monstrous things that he remembered - monstrous things that made her caring for him so hard to understand - if it were not love.
And what should a Knight of the Hospital know of love? The answer burst like a cut artery: the love of the Lord Jesus Christ - his Sacred Heart beating with love for humanity - beating even on the cross - a warmth of love radiating from his emaciated chest; then the love of Mary - Mother of God, Mother of us all, ready to intercede for all of us sinners; then the love of the Knights of the hospital in caring for the sick and wounded - the vows to care for all prisoners - "Lord, when did we visit you in prison?"
Love Full of the love of God, the crusaders fell on Oriahova, even though its inhabitants had surrendered the town. Full of the love of God first the French, then the Germans, Hungarians, Walachians and Italians satisfied their love of blood: a swipe of a sword made a human fountain; a baby on a pike made a human kebab; some rope and pegs made a courtyard of bared legs and bottoms - opened out for repeated casual lust - their owners choking in their turned up dresses that covered their faces. Houses burnt - only in one quarter, the houses were guarded by order, the houses of the rich who were to be held for ransom.
And Maria Iskra had seen all this. Disguised as a boy, she had seen all this - as, with her father, she had been marched out of town between pike men. She had heard the yells and screams of her own servants grow more distant.
Gilles had been close to Eugene that morning. They had been together at the skirmish with the Turkish soldiers on the bridge leading to the town gate. Fighting side by side, Eugene had parried a blow that would have smashed Gilles' head; Gilles had severed an arm that had threatened to stab Eugene's throat.
But then the townspeople from the walls signalled that they had overcome the Turkish garrison and opened the gates. Gilles then lost sight of Eugene. He had disappeared with some roaring Italian knights. Whatever dark alleys Eugene then found, Gilles never understood for he searched for his companion through flames and rubble, past scenes of mass enforced slaughter. Full of disgust and remorse he had made his way back to the river and the Galley.
It was not as if he had not witnessed cruelty. He was a young man of much experience, but outside the heat of armed combat, he still felt some queasy principles. He had taken part in armed raids on Moorish ships and Levantine ports, where some of his fellows had indulged in orgies of slaughter. The very galleys were powered by slaves. But these people in Oriahova were Christian and had tried to help the Crusaders.
He did not see Eugene till the next day. His companion had changed.
He laughed excitedly at nothing particular; then grimaced; seemed defiant then scared; unable to sleep the following night and parried all questions about events of the siege. This state lasted but two days and, as from a cocoon of spider's thread, a new reckless Eugene emerged.
Gilles understood now. His companion, with others far more experienced, had slaked his hitherto secret passion on the bodies of the helpless and unwilling. Eugene's resolution to take and debauch Maria on the eve of battle had sprung from whatever had happened a week earlier. The resolution led more immediately to unwanted disclosures.
Love - it was on one of the following days that Eugene, swearing him to secrecy, had confessed his love for a young squire of his cousin's. Gilles, not understanding fully the nature of this love, had laughed, and counselled a bath - a suggestion that Eugene had accepted with alacrity.
Upstream from the camp and its pollution, they lay naked in the brown water shallows of the Danube. Eugene splashed him and he kicked water back - water to wash away sins. They wrestled in the water.
Gilles felt Eugene's knee press between his legs as his arms were clasped. But Eugene released him as they heard voices from the bank. Jean and Henri were stripping off their clothes to join them. Without knowing why, Gilles felt relieved at their company. The four of them relived childhood romps in French streams. A memory stirred even now in his bed of pain - the memory of the miller's daughter, Solange and the stream. Solange looked down at him and in her eyes a boy turned to a fish and hid his tail.
Lying on the prickly dry grass by the river bank - embraced by the sun - still so hot in these eastern southern lands, he closed his eyes as he closed them now on his bed of straw.
Through the warmth of the sun - orange behind his eyelids, she was seeking him. Maria Iskra, spark of his soul: a woman who knew more than he did! Every evening he learnt more about her. Isaac had said much but now he himself was asking gentle questions.
So the next few days as he and his Hospitaler companions were sculled gently down the Danube, she and her father had marched in the dust of an army - pressed and barked at, counted and prodded - to eventually be penned like animals within sight of the towers of Nikopol. At nights she had cradled the head of a remarkable man - her father, the Boyar Ivan. Isaac spoke of him with wonder - truly a man of the changing world, distrusted by many for his consuming energy and curiosity that had taken him from the Levant to Italy, a speaker of many languages, owner of a library now burnt, a man whose wealth depended less on the brutal cycle of crops and beasts and peasants, because he had seen the opportunities of trade, seized the Genoese, the Venetians, the Jews, the Armenians by their lapels and beaten out deals on counting house tables by every jetty from Vidin to the mouth of the Danube. Yet for all his crude energy and rude directness, he was liked as honest and his knowledge revered. And this was the father of Maria Iskra, the father whose head was to be smashed by an axe, as he ineffectually tried to protect the Jew Reuben - Isaac's cousin, also a man of travel and learning.
And the Boyar Ivan had brought up Maria Iskra like a son - or companion in every part of his life - at least for the past eight years, since the death of her mother. This had caused some comment in the larger family - particularly when, in the view of many, Maria Iskra reached marriageable age. Everyone knew of the Boyar's wealth - spread some said as far as Italy - enough for him to sit back in his forest lodge or his main house in Ruschuk. Where did this relentless energy come from that would drive him still to haunt the quays and jetties, taking his daughter with him to hear the sailors curse in every tongue? This daughter had learnt hardly any female accomplishments and was a direct young woman that would need some taming by whatever young man was eventually approved by the father.
Her aunt had said in the baths at Cherven that a good beating would do the trick.
From Isaac, Gilles understood too about Yanko. The angry young man, so often spurned by the Boyar Ivan, now saw himself as Maria Iskra's protector, tamer and husband to be. "Self regarding cockerel" - Isaac had shaken his head but one who in these times had powers to cause mischief. Isaac had heard that Yanko was spending much time with the Bey in Vidin, and had even entered the courtyard of the temporary mosque to talk to the Imam. At the same time, his bands were robbing on the roads - the same roads Maria Iskra now had to pass secretly, often at night, in order to secure some of her inheritance before it was all seized.
A sigh of pain.
Bless me Father for I have sinned. I have looked at the women of the camp and seen their lithe bodies twined around our knights and I have felt.. have felt stirrings. Bless me Father for I have seen men - honest peasants, with wives in distant homes, queue in the dust before a brothel tent and imagined myself one of them.
Bless me Father for I walked in hell - men seizing for free what they had previously paid whores for and I have felt loathing for my fellow Christians. Bless me Father for my roommate turned strange, made strange friends and planned to abduct an innocent boy.
Bless me Father for this boy is a woman who has saved me like an angel and even in my bed of pain I long to hold her.
Love - would the Blessed Virgin rather I had died... ?
And all this while, in the adjoining hut, Maria Iskra lay awake with the weight of chains. She would have to leave her lands. Every new day brought new dangers of kidnap, betrayal and rape. It was true, her father had prepared for this time, with all his dealings with Italian merchants. He had long planned for their eventual removal to Italy. He had foreseen Bulgaria's fall and had begun to transfer funds to Venice, but had not imagined it would happen so quickly, brought on by the crusaders' rash intervention. She knew all this.
Her cool lonely self dictated her actions - her every journey and negotiation, her every bribe and calculated obfuscation.
But when she lay alone but so close to him, hot fears, doubts and passion ambushed her cool lonely self. So many more days and weeks to journey, to take risks and to think of him too - still weak - shaking after a short walk to the river. Wax, honey, wood and grain - gather up last remnants - see her villagers right - so many scared faces, scared to see her come, scared to see her go, still sufficiently grateful to her father not to betray her. Never tell them when she was coming next. Never accept an invitation to sleep. And him - her wounded Sebastian, almost whole now but still weak. How she envied Kera's washing him every night, running her hands over his body. Stop thinking like a peasant girl! Just think about how to get yourself and him to Italy. From there on, she did not know. He had a way of lifting his eyebrows and such a well drawn face - especially now he had shaved. He was her Knight and her boy.