My Brother's Suitcase, Fathers Never Go Away and Stories From the 1990s
If you have stayed in Bulgaria for more than a week and have conversed with Bulgarians of a certain age beyond business transactions and polite small talk, you have probably heard them reminisce about something from their youth that you might find charming, mysterious and exciting, but hard to comprehend. It might have been something from the times of Communism, the period between 1944 and 1989, that despite its proximity in time and millions of living witnesses is getting increasingly mythologised. Or it could be the 1990s, the unhinged years that followed the collapse of Communism when hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians found themselves out of jobs amidst rampant crime. These were hard times; times when a whole young generation reaped the benefits of freedom, such as the capability to start a business, experiment with art or just leave the country, but were also totally unprepared for its dangers, like drugs and social uncertainty. The stories about Communism oscillate between two totally opposed narratives, the strongly negative They-Would-Send-You-to-a-Labour-Camp-for-Listening-to-Deep-Purple and the euphoric Everyone-Had-a-Job-and-Got-a-Two-Week-Holiday-at-the-Coast-and-in-the-Mountains. The memories of the 1990s are richer and more existential, as they usually focus on topics such as emigration, loss and finding joy, and creating art in a world that does not make sense anymore, but is nevertheless exciting. All of these unfold in a very specific historical, geographical and cultural context, as a result such stories are often hard to understand by anyone with a totally different background.
Three anthologies of personal stories make the Bulgarian recent past more comprehensible through the authentic voices of people who were young in the 1980s and the 1990s, and are now here to share.
The first book of the series, My Brother's Suitcase, entails 22 short stories. You are probably already familiar with some of the authors, like writers Georgi Gospodinov, the 2023 International Booker winner, and Kapka Kassabova, of Border and Into the River fame. The anthology is dedicated to one of the most typical phenomena of Bulgaria's recent past: mass emigration after travelling abroad became easier in the 1990s, and what present and former emigrants make of it now. Loneliness, often at an existential level, is a common topic, but there are also stories focusing on the freewheeling exploration of the outside world and its strange characters, and the child-like excitement to travel and see your native country after years of absence. A couple of foreign authors are also included, like Rana Dasgupta, whose mesmerising novel Solo is partially set in Bulgaria.
Stories From the 1990s gives more flesh to the idea of what was to be a Bulgarian living not only between two or more countries, but on the border of two historical periods. It is even broader in scope as it paints a picture of the whole country and nation in transition, through the eyes of the young authors, and the memories of their older selves. The stories are often unexpected, like the light-headedness of being a part of a lively and flourishing art and music scene where everything seems possible. Or of loving grandmother who bought her little granddaughter cheap nail polish despite the fact that money was tight, and then left for Greece to work as caretaker to help her family back in Bulgaria.
In contrast, Fathers Never Go Away is focused on one of the most intimate parts of one's life, the relationship with your parents. The figure of the father, be it a beloved patriarch or the absent figure of the creator of future traumas, looms large; many of the stories are hard to read for their unfiltered emotions.
The three anthologies are the project of ICU, a small Bulgarian publisher that is braving, against all odds, the tough local book market with a portfolio of established and lesser known, but important international authors delving in topics such as loss, emigration, travel and borders. After their success on the Bulgarian market, My Brother's Suitcase, Fathers Never Go Away and Stories From the 1990s were translated into English by Ekaterina Petrova, and published in 2020 and 2023.
As a set or individually, these books can be read as a guide not to the sites of interest in Bulgaria, or to its rich history and cultural heritage, but to the national psyche and its recent traumas. Or at least the psyche and traumas of people from the intellectual elite, as the selection of authors tends to gravitate to this demographic. Nevertheless, if there is a single message from the three books, it will be that all stories matter. The trio does this beautifully.
Find ICU books in the good bookstores and on www.icu-bg.com
Published by ICU
Edited by Nevena Dishlieva-Krysteva
Translated from the Bulgarian by Ekaterina Petrova