interview by Anthony Georgieff; photography by Shruti Kapur

Indian writer takes a scathing look at what made Bulgaria the mess it is at the moment

Rana Dasgupta.jpg

No one likes spam, but many of us, for one reason or another, keep casting a curious eye on those little by-lines some people include at the end of their emails. "Faith is believing what you know ain't so" someone quotes Mark Twain to me while someone else keeps asking me do I really need to print this email. "Jesus loves you! Don't give a shit."

What stuck in my mind recently was different, however. It described, as if in a film tagline, the general attitude to what this journal has been about since its very inception three years ago; the universe of the true Vagabond: "I'm an ex-citizen of nowhere. And sometimes I get mighty homesick." It was the ending to the emails of Rana Dasgupta, the Indian-British writer Salman Rushdie describes as "one of the most original and unexpected voices of his generation."

A vagabond – one of that peculiar breed who finds himself somewhere other than their place of birth, and who take in the world with eyes wide open. Sometimes with pleasure, sometimes with apprehension, the True Vagabond trudges on – and sometimes he meets other vagabonds at snowed-in airports, and they swap stories. They ruminate about a fabulously rich Arab prince who orders a tailor to sew him a robe but never buys it from him, or a Nigerian boy who writes notes to a girlfriend signing them "Steven Spielberg" and "Queen Elizabeth." There's a Turkish girl who ends up in the house of an eccentric mapmaker in Germany or the hypothetical son of Robert DeNiro, and who pals up with the hypothetical daughter of Martin Scorsese and Isabella Rossellini. Yes, Tokyo Cancelled (2005) is mesmerising in its premodern story-telling set in a post-modern world where airports are the latterday equivalent of kervansarays. Described as a combination between Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights as if written by Márquez, with a touch of Kafka and Jonathan Safran Foer, Tokyo Cancelled, a collection of thirteen tales of love, incest, virtue and vice, disguised as birds emerging from human throats and humans transforming themselves into successful shops, told by passengers stranded at an unnamed airport, has emerged as one the best English language novels of the 2000s.

However, what really makes Rana Dasgupta so interesting to Vagabonds in Bulgaria is Solo, his second novel which came out in early 2009. To describe it in a sentence one would be unable to avoid the commonplace: in its 350 pages it depicts Bulgaria and what all of us now know as the "Bulgarian condition" better than most Bulgarian-born Bulgarian-language writers have done in the course of years.

But what made an Indian writer, born in Canterbury in 1971, who grew up in Cambridge, studied in Oxford and now lives in New Delhi, interested in Bulgaria in the first place? Why spend four years of his life obsessed with a country to which he had no connection and which he hadn't even visited before he started his research for Solo?

Perhaps it began long ago. It was when I was a child in England that Western Europeans began to go to the Bulgarian coast on vacation. Tales filtered back about bland food, bad hotels and listless service. Bulgaria entered British culture as a kind of smirk: it was a byword for everything that was shoddy, humourless and uninteresting. Perhaps this impression also came from the faces of the Bulgarian wrestlers who were so prominent in the Olympics at that time – I don't know. But I have always taken a keen interest in the things other people label "uninteresting," so this proverbially uninteresting country probably piqued my curiosity from an early age.

Later on, I became one of the millions of people around the world who bought Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. This stark Bulgarian music was startling to someone who hadn't heard those sounds before, and I got very interested in this tradition. I realised it went in many directions: I met a software genius who told me that he used to run a Bulgarian folk dancing club at MIT in the 1970s – mathematicians were intrigued, it seems, by the numerical complexity of Bulgarian rhythms. In this country so full with music, I was fascinated by the way the Communists banned so much music when they came in – stifling the centuries of Gypsy music, Turkish music and so on, that had passed through Bulgaria. It seemed a rich metaphor for contemporary life: in the moment that the nation is created, the world goes quiet.

It went on from there. The more I read about this country, the more I identified with it – the more I felt that this was the story I wanted to tell. I have newspaper cuttings and notes about Bulgaria dating back to 1997, so it's been in my mind for a while.

Rana Dasgupta

© Shruti Kapur 

Some parts of Solo take place in Georgia and some of the characters are Georgian. Why Georgia in relation to Bulgaria?

Serendipity, really. I met some Georgians on a bus from Istanbul to Sofia, and became interested in their stories. The first half of Solo features a young man, Boris, who is half Bulgarian and half Georgian. Nations are never complete: there is always movement, migration. There are always more histories than just "history." So I wanted another place to be part of this story.

When did you travel to Bulgaria for your research?

Once in 2002 and again in 2004. I spent most of my time in Sofia, but took a trip to Varna and Burgas too, and also drove up to Ruse.

What were the most useful sources you found for information about Bulgaria?

I read books, of course, and spent a lot of time looking at things online. But the most important sources by a very long way were the people I met in Sofia – and indeed Bulgarians in other parts of the world – who told me incredible stories of their families and of history. I didn't know anyone in Bulgaria and I emailed people out of the blue from Delhi – people whose names I found online – academics, journalists, and so on. Those people were amazingly kind to me: they took me on walks around Sofia, they cooked dinner for me in their homes, I met their spouses and children – and an enormous world quickly opened up.

I realised finally what my initial attraction to Bulgaria had been about. For some reason, I'd always known there would be stories of this intensity waiting to pour out of this place, and there were.

Sofia, 2002. It was my first trip to the city, and I didn't know anyone to talk to. I took photographs of all the walls, because they seemed to have a lot to say themselves. This woman, buried by layers of newer posters, is still haunting / © Rana Dasgupta

Sofia, 2002. It was my first trip to the city, and I didn't know anyone to talk to. I took photographs of all the walls, because they seemed to have a lot to say themselves. This woman, buried by layers of newer posters, is still haunting © Rana Dasgupta

Three Sofia gems you would recommend to visitors to Bulgaria?

I have strange tastes. I love that massive mural in the railway station – is that still there? That was the first thing I saw when I arrived in the city, late at night – and I found it awe-inspiring. Sofia is a not a large city – it feels like you're arriving in a modest place – but the scale of that mural, and of its heroic images, is humbling.

The contemporary art scene is very interesting in Bulgaria. There's a lot of compelling work about Bulgarian history and experience, but also a very specific sense of humour and the absurd. Some Bulgarian artists, of course, like Nedko Solakov, have become major figures on the international art scene. So I'd recommend the Sofia City Art Gallery, which has a contemporary art collection. I'm sure that a lot of private galleries have also opened since I was last there.

Finally, like all tourists, I love the flea market near the Alexandr Nevskiy cathedral.

Three people in Bulgaria expats and foreigners should know about?

There are brief biographies available online of Elizaveta Karamihailova (1897–1968), a prominent Bulgarian physicist, who may be compared to Marie Curie. Her life is fascinating.

Ivo Papazov is, of course, world famous. Justifiably so: his music is astonishing.

Geo Milev is one of those amazing and tragic figures of modernism whose biography really provides insights into the madness and horror of the 20th Century. Artist, poet, and publisher of radical magazines, Milev was one of the great talents of European modernism. But he lost an eye in the Great War and, at the age of 30, was murdered during the wave of state terror that followed the massive 1925 terrorist attack on the St Nedelya Church.

Outside Devnya, not far from Varna, 2002. I rented a car in Varna and spent some days driving around industrial complexes in that area. Some of them were falling apart; others had been bought by foreign companies and were still in operation. The descriptions of the factory and countryside in Solo are based on this trip / © Rana Dasgupta

Outside Devnya, not far from Varna, 2002. I rented a car in Varna and spent some days driving around industrial complexes in that area. Some of them were falling apart; others had been bought by foreign companies and were still in operation. The descriptions of the factory and countryside in Solo are based on this trip © Rana Dasgupta

Three pieces of advice you would give to someone who wants to explore Bulgaria and Sofia in-depth?

Talk to people wherever you can. Bulgarians are great storytellers, and they have epic stories to tell. Ask philosophical questions.

Read May it Fill Your Soul by Tim Rice (University of Chicago Press, 1994). It's a fascinating history of Bulgarian music which tells so much more than just musical history.

See the documentary Born with the Century by Eldora Traikova (available from the Open Society Archive in Budapest, who are very good about sending copies of their films out on DVD). It's an amazing set of interviews with Bulgarians born around 1900, about their life experiences.

Three books by Bulgarian writers you would recommend to anyone interested in Bulgarian literature?

Georgi Gospodinov's collection of short stories And Other Stories. Georgi Tenev's recent novel Party Headquarters (not yet published in English). Voices from the Gulag: Life and Death in Communist Bulgaria by Tzvetan Todorov and Robert Zaretsky. Todorov, of course, is one of Bulgaria's great intellectual exports – like Julia Kristeva – but in this book he brings his analytical eye to bear on Bulgarian society itself, and in particular the place of the forced labour camp in the symbolic universe of Communism.

Tokyo Cancelled and Solo, both published by Fourth Estate, are available on amazon.co.uk


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