interview by Anthony Georgieff; photography provided by Kapka Kassabova

Arguably Bulgaria's best contemporary English-language writer, Kapka Kassabova lifts the curtain on Pavlikeni, Slivarovo, the French school in Sofia and how life in New Zealand has a bearing on Bulgaria

kapka kassabova.jpg

In case you wondered what Vasil Levski's gnomic witticism "Time lives inside us and we live inside time" meant, you'll be bemused to find out you weren't alone. It took Kapka Kassabova years to decipher. Along the way she found out things that you've been exposed to, but have rarely been able to understand. One example is the persistence with which an avowedly Socialist president and the leaders of the far-right Ataka vie to be photographed kissing the hands of some gilded patriarch, either here in Bulgaria, or, even better, in "brotherly Russia." Another is the sternness of Sofia Airport staff (and staff elsewhere in Bulgaria, for that matter). If you are willing to get the epiphany — and if you can survive 300 pages of Bulgarian angst amply peppered with Bulgarian humour — Kapka Kassabova is the must of the season.

Where, how and why did Bulgaria's Transition fail?

The partial failure of Bulgaria's Transition has, in my view, a lot to do with the failure of civil society. There has been very little civil society in Bulgaria until now, which is the legacy of 45 years of Communism.

The system of oppression created and encouraged passive rather than sustained, organised forms of resistance. In that civil vacuum, the 1990s took place. The Transition cocktail of open markets, corruption, no social welfare and rapacious capital accumulation by the few, coupled with abject poverty for the many, created an ugly man-eat-man society which has left its stamp on the face of modern Bulgarian society. A society without a middle class is doomed to be a banana republic, which is what Bulgaria was in the 1990s. But I do believe that the country is coming to the end of its Wild East era of cowboy capitalism, and the middle class, the backbone of any civil society, is growing stronger and more prosperous with every passing year.

Kapka Kassabova

Still, the single irreversible failure of the Transition has been the failure to protect the environment and stop the monstrous property development that has uglified and defiled the country. Natural beauty is Bulgaria's greatest asset, and it breaks my heart to see concrete and steel in the midst of almost every wilderness. To fight against the lumpen forces of raw capitalism is also the duty of a civil society, and the success of the "Save Strandzha" environmental campaign last year was a heartening victory. There are still wild places in Bulgaria, and they must be protected at any cost.

Where, how and why did Bulgaria's Transition make any achievement?

After the trauma of Communism and the trauma of the post-Communist freefall, the country is still going. That's an achievement in itself, isn't it? To make the Transition peacefully, unlike some of our neighbours, has been Bulgaria's greatest feat, I think.

Three places or things you would advise visitors to Bulgaria or expats to go and experience?

The Rhodope with its caves, villages and otherworldly Orphic music. At least one mountain monastery, for example the Preobrazhenski Monastery outside Veliko Turnovo. Home-made traditional food, like banitsa, cheverme or kapama. And, if possible, experience the Orthodox Easter in a church or cathedral. I am anti-religion, but the choral chanting is mesmerising.

Three places or things you would advise visitors to Bulgaria and expats to stay away from?

Most of the Black Sea coast: it is monstrously over-built and very crass. Exceptions are the still unspoilt far north and far south. Chalga? No, really, it's toxic. Many foreigners find it exotic but that's because they don't get the words.

Does Bulgaria need a museum of Communism? If yes, what should be in it?

Of course it does, and enough time has passed to start thinking about it seriously. My first choice venue would be the former Communist Party building which is, I believe, partly vacant. A sample of the things that should feature: all of the Kremikovtsi factory; an empty, concrete town square with a broken bench and a malfunctioning water fountain; the disintegrating monolithic monument near the NDK, built in record time in 1981 to commemorate 1300 years of Bulgarian State; hard chewing-gum called "Ideal"; translucent red lollipop sticks in the shape of roosters; the pioneers' uniform with its blood-red tie-scarf; a queue of freezing citizens who don't know what they're queuing for; jars of pickles; rooms full of very boring, alphabetically classified files; a room full of public signs along the lines of "The Hero Is Always Present!" – the soundtrack should be a recording of political jokes. It should be bitter-sweet, though perhaps more bitter than sweet. But I wouldn't like it to be as grim and humourless as the Budapest House of Horrors.

Kapka Kassabova

Does Bulgaria need a museum of the Transition? If yes, what should be in it?

Not yet, the Transition is still among us. Surely only dead things can go into a museum, otherwise it's not a museum but a temporary exhibition. Still, as a start, I would suggest mummifying some chalga singers and placing them there as exhibits.

Is Bulgaria "just unique," as the government-sponsored TV ads tell us, is it only "unique," as you seem to be saying in your book, or is it not unique at all when considered against the background of the former Communist states?

Bulgaria is unique in the sense that every country on the planet is unique. But it's also more unique and attractive than most people realise, because perceptions of uniqueness and attractiveness are often a matter of branding and self-image. Bulgaria hasn't been properly "branded" until now, and it's had a poor self-image. It's precisely its fusion of Orient and Occident, rural and urban, distant past, recent past and messy present, that make it such a troubled and attractive place.


Street Without a Name


Street Without a Name

Published by Portobello Books
ISBN 978-1-84627-1123-6

Kapka Kassabova was happily raised in Sofia and educated by her scientist parents, the French school and two New Zealand universities. In 1990 her family moved to England, and later to New Zealand. From New Zealand, Kapka made year-long escapes to France and Germany, but four years ago she moved back to Britain and now lives in sunny Edinburgh.

She considers herself a happy cultural mongrel. Kapka has published several books of poetry, including Someone Else's Life and Geography for the Lost. Her first novel, Reconnaissance, is a road story set in New Zealand and Bulgaria. It was published in New Zealand, Japan and Israel, and won the 2000 Commonwealth Best First Novel Award for Asia-Pacific.

In the last few years Kapka has turned to travel writing and journalism. Her travel essays were twice awarded the New Zealand Cathay Pacific Travel Writer of the Year Award, and she writes an occasional travel guide to keep her head above water and her feet on the road. Her latest is the Globetrotter's Guide to Bulgaria, in which the photo captions were created by her South African publisher and are therefore quite entertaining. She is a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement and BBC radio.

Her travel memoir of what she calls the "last Cold War childhood" and her love-hate relationship with her native country, Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria, has just come out in Britain and Bulgaria, and will be out in the United States next year.


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