11/09/2013 by Christopher Buxton
The most effective accounts of the tragedy of war have had humour and irony as their essential ingredients. Laughter sharpens the sense of pathos. Thus in the UK – especially for a younger generation lacking any direct contact with the realities of war, the comedy drama series Blackadder Goes Forth has done more to illustrate the grotesque absurdities of World War 1 than five viewings of All Quiet on the Western Front – however noble that film might be. In this context we should also mention Kurt Vonnegut’s take on the horror of Dresden, Slaughterhouse 5, Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Schweik and of course Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. The authors of such works always run the risk of being accused of a lack of respect for the heroic dead, poking their fingers into a gaping wound as though humour shows a lack of patriotic passion.
Such accusations have been leveled at Alec Popov following publication of his novel The Palaveevi Sisters – in the eye of the historic storm. This important book conveys the day to day surreality experienced by a Partisan group of fighters hiding out in the Balkan mountains towards the end of the 2nd World War, a war in which the Bulgarian monarchist government had allied the country to Nazi Germany.
There has been a long tradition in Bulgaria of young men taking to the mountains. It started when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire. Brigands feeding off the rich pickings from Ottoman tax wagon trains and ill-guarded merchants’ convoys, took on the status of latter day Robin Hoods and when the time came for rebellion, fitted easily into a national liberation mythology. The mixed motives of these bandit/freedom fighters was described brilliantly last year by Milen Ruskov in his work The Pinnacle. During World War 2 however the Bulgarian partisan movement was relatively small and ineffective compared to its Yugoslavian counterpart. Its ranks only swelled to bursting when Russian invasion was imminent.
In Alec Popov’s novel, the eponymous twin teenage sisters from middle class backgrounds are on the run from the authorities. They have joined a Partisan group based in the Balkan mountains. The Partisans are a mixed bunch of young and old communists and Peasant party members, all dedicated fighters against the Bulgarian monarchist regime and their German allies. Many have adopted colourful nicknames. Nail – short for final nail in the coffin of Capitalism – or Digger – short for Gravedigger of Capitalism. Others have adopted the names of revolutionary heroes – Botev and Lenin. There is a renegade monk called Tikhon. There is only one other female – white haired Extra Nina whose grasp of Communist ideology has made her the Commander’s trusted right hand Political Officer. The Commander Medved is a former refugee from the 1925 Bulgarian Civil Unrest, returned by Russian submarine eighteen years later to command local resistance against the Bulgarian government. He speaks Bulgarian with a heavy Russian accent. As Commander he can order the execution of any unit member who is suspected of class treachery or found derelict in duty.
Alec Popov’s warts and all depiction of the Partisans does not detract one iota from their bravery and the sincerity of their beliefs. No-one in history can be blamed for an inability to foresee the future, particularly if they die for a cause that turns out in the end to be as suspect as the extreme regime they were fighting against. And Popov cannot be accused of belittling the ruthless government forces led by the sinister Captain Night and the methods they will use to extract information from any communist sympathizer that falls into their hands. (Well of course he can be by critics like Professor Yulian Vuichkov who clearly has not read a line of the novel.)
The comic absurdity of the chapter on masturbation (translated with the author’s permission on my site) only increases the poignancy of a story whose context is a withering civil war. However shameful the subject of masturbation, the chapter ends with men and women preparing to die for their beliefs. The naïve foot-soldiers in this war would go on to be either sanctified or demonized by the mythmakers of the Communist regime which came into power after the Soviet invasion of 1944 and held on to power until 1990.
In The Palaveevi Sisters writer Alec Popov does what all writers must – tell the unvarnished truth as he has researched it. He has produced the first partisan novel since the fall of communism. (You can just imagine how many shelves were filled by novels and memoirs on this subject during the Communist years – enough to reflect the monuments that still stand in nearly every village). Popov has brought these stone statues to life and so has brought meaning to those generations who have only experienced communism through the hazy memories of their parents and grandparents. He has walked the tightrope between pathos and absurdity with aplomb – without a drop of cynicism. He made this reader laugh and cry.
(a chapter from The Palaveev Sisters by Alec Popov published by Ciela 2013)
© Alek Popov 2013
©Translation Christopher Buxton 2013
Context: Twin teenage sisters from middle class backgrounds are on the run from the authorities. They have joined a Partizan group based in the Balkan mountains. The Partizans are a mixed bunch of young and old communists and Peasant party members, all dedicated fighters against the Bulgarian monarchist regime and their German allies. Many have adopted colourful nicknames. Nail – short for final nail in the coffin of Capitalism – or Digger – short for Gravedigger of Capitalism. Others have adopted the names of revolutionary heroes – Botev and Lenin. There is a renegade monk called Tikhon. There is only one other female – white haired Extra Nina whose grasp of Communist ideology has made her the Commander’s trusted right hand Political Officer. The Commander Medved is a former refugee from the 1922 Bulgarian White Terror, returned by Russian submarine eighteen years later to command local resistance against the Bulgarian government. He speaks Bulgarian with a heavy Russian accent.
After a long period of inactivity punctuated by Police attacks, the group finds that one of their number Botev can no longer see.
Just five minutes later Botev regained his sight – just as unexpectedly, as he’d lost it. He was terrified, as if he’d been hauled out of a deep well full of scorpions and snakes.
No-one in the squadron had any specialized medical training. Some time ago Extra Nina had attended a midwifery course. Deaf Tanko (Vitan Churov from Churov Spring village) had passed an orderly’s course in vetinary medicine and so had been entrusted with the first aid bag. They called him “Deaf” he couldn’t hear anything in his right ear. He’d successfully cleaned up Lozan’s wound and bound it, but in this situation he just shrugged. Examination of Botev’s eyes proved fruitless – neither Deaf Tanko nor Extra Nina could find anything unusual or worrying.
“Have you eaten something off the ground? Have you drunk something? Did you fall on your head?” they pressed him with questions, like real doctors. “Has this happened before? Is there any blindness in your family?”
“Nnn, nnn, nnuh!” he mooed.
Just in case, they searched for the key to this mystery in his rucksack. Apart from assorted male junk and a considerable number of cigarettes, what fell out of the bottom was a white and polka-dotted rag edged with lace. Actually it hadn’t been white for a long time, it had achieved a yellowish tinge – Extra Nina lifted it up with two fingers and inspected it in incomprehension. Then she turned to the partisans grouped around her.”What is this…Comrades?”
The men shrugged with apparent disinterest.
“My knickers!” Gabriella shouted.
“Your knickers?! Why did you give them to him?”
“Nonsense! How could you think such a thing?” she cried. “One morning they’d just vanished into thin air. I thought that some magpie had stolen them…”
“Magpie!” Medved snorted.
Gabriella threw the knickers into the fire with a mixture of disgust and regret. It wasn’t clear what the exact connection was between the knickers and Botev’s sudden blindness, but everyone felt there was something – something not quite right.
“Vere did you get zo many zigarettes?” the commander asked in his severest tone.
Botev hung his head.
“Admit it! Admit it!” Tikhon called out spitefully “You’ve be trading in stolen knickers, haven’t you!”
“He wanted two cigarettes for that satanic rag, Tovarisht Kombrig! Ten minutes for two cigarettes. Capitalist! God punished him!”
“Tikhon!” shouted Nina.
“I meant to say Nature’” the ex monk immediately corrected himself. “The law of nature punished him.”
“I didn’t ask for cigarettes. They offered them to me,” whined Botev, who had at last come out of his stupor. “I didn’t want to appear uncomradely. I’d even have handed them over without any cigarettes. Isn’t that right? Go on tell them Maxim!”
“I, sort of…” the young man stuttered in confusion.
“And vy vere zeze tings zo nezizary for you?” the commander demanded sharply.
“They weren’t necessary!”
“Why? So they could rub themselves off, that’s why, ha-ha-ha!” Tikhon explained. “Come on let’s stop playing dumb. Admit it!”
“You can talk, you mean to say you don’t rub one off!” shouted Svilen.
“I rub off,” Tikhon stroked his beard, “But not so much. Up to five times they go to rub off, Tovarisht Kombrig! Night and day. I knew something bad would happen…In our village we had someone blind. They called him the Goblin. Not only blind but dumb too. Grandma would warn me that if I rubbed off I’d end up like him. If I just see your hands under the blanket. But who listens…how many stinging nettle strokes have these hands suffered, ey!”
He flexed his four stubby fingers and shook his head sadly.
“ Me too, they beat my hands with stinging nettles,” Kochan moaned.
“It doesn’t just make you blind” added Digger. “In our village we had this Manol, a whole fifteen years lying paralysed. Mum said: rub yourself off if you want to be like Uncle Manol, rub one off, but I’m not going to clean your shitty bottom afterwards…”
“Well they told me that you get fits from it,” said Lozan. “Illness epilepsy if you’ve heard of it…”
“If a child rubs himself off at home on St Ignat’s day,” whispered old Metodii, drawing on centuries old folk wisdom, “the year will bear no fruit. Billy goat’s seed will be watered down and not catch on. Hens will lay less and cows won’t bear calves,
A painful silence fell. In everyone’s memories there lurked some whiskery grannie dressed in black, with stinging nettles in one hand and a birch switch in the other. And now this hunchback belligerence lifted itself out of forgotten corners, stepped out bold and ready to fight, only as ancient grannies knew how, when they have to chase off the demons tied up in human nature. With waxy faces and glaring white eyes they poured out terrifying warnings and heavy prophesies of impending doom, family curses and painful death.
The knickers burnt with a low flickering flame.
“How long has this outrageous behavior been going on?” asked Extra Nina.
Botev pointed at the girls: “From the moment these came…”
“What?” Gabriela and Monika stared in shock.
“You’re a lying bastard!” Bushy shouted. “I’ve seen you rubbing one off even before that! Back at Trichavo when you were on sentry duty…You infected the others!”
“Well you don’t mean to say you’ve caught scabies?” interrupted Gabriella. “What is all this rubbing off about? We haven’t brought scabies into the unit, we’ve never been ill with scabies. We’ve had measles which is awfully itchy too, but that was a long time ago.”
Now at last everyone giggled uncontrollably. Even something like a smile drifted across Medved’s face. But who knows why Extra Nina blushed and the girls looked at each other in confusion.
“Can someone explain the meaning and the significance you place on this verb: to rub off?!” Monika’s eyes flashed with fury.
An embarrassed Extra Nina drew them to one side. She really wasn’t an expert on the subject, in spite of the midwifery course, and that’s why her explanation sounded quite strange. A few minutes passed before the twins understood exactly what the fuss was about.
“Oh that was all!” Monika exclaimed.
“We’ve read a lot about masturbation,” Gabriella announced, “In one of my mother’s magazines there was an article by somebody called Shtekel, an Austrian academic. He maintains that masturbation is a completely normal human activity..”
“Yes, completely normal,” her sister confirmed, turned towards the men and cried: “There’s nothing to be ashamed of Comrades. You don’t go blind because of this, you don’t go deaf, you don’t get fits. For centuries masturbation has been demonized by reactionary forces, so as to suppress the broad mass of the people. Today’s science completely rejects these filthy lies and even thinks that they have brought irreparable harm to the human psyche. Long live free masturbation. Down with the tyranny of superstition!!”
No-one dared take up the new slogan, however attractive it sounded. The men lowered their eyes as if they feared some kind of trap. Or joke. The Grannies didn’t give up so easily…Medved realized that their eyes had now turned towards him. It was only a matter of time and he already guessed what the question would be.
“How do they address the issue of masturbation in the Soviet Union Tovarisht Kombrig?” Screw asked timidly.
Medved pulled at the ends of his tunic, coughed and spoke importantly: “Issue of mazdurbation does not appear on daily agenda in Soviet Union. Soviet people have more prezzing tasks to purzue. They cannot allow zelves to fritter energies on zuch frippery. I advise you too to zave your zdrength. Ve cannot rely on regular supplies. Every calorie is ezential for our zdruggle’s goals.”
Extra Nina waited for his words to sink into the minds of the fighters. Then she shouted: “If the people of the Soviet Union can, then so can we!”
“Why do you have to stick your oar in?” Lenin muttered.
“Comrades!” Screw leapt up with a voice trembling with emotion. “As secretary of the Youth Organization, in the name of all our conscientious members I swear a solemn oath that we will stop this practice!”
“We swear, we swear…” chorused some uncertain voices.
Medved scratched his head in some disbelief. Botev was slinking by the fire with his head cast down. Walking past him the Commander stopped and fixed him with that heavy unblinking gaze that everyone avoided. “It is not nice to zdeal Comrade.”
“I haven’t stolen. I just borrowed them,” the unfortunate man wept. “I was going to return them the first chance I got.”
“Today you reach out for knickers, tomorrow a comrade’s bread. Just zo you know, nyext time ve’ll shoot you.”
In the evening the temperature fell fast. The partisans pulled on every pullover, sweater, jerkin and woolen over-breeches that came to hand, snuggled under covers and huddled up close to one another. The fire gradually died out. Only the paraffin lamp in the General staff’s tent continued to flicker. In front of the tent flap Stoicho stood sentry with a bayonet stuck into the ground. Medved had called the squadron’s officials together. From time to time the clicking sound of a typewriter flew through the air. It was clear to everyone that vitally important questions were being discussed, leading to strategic decisions which perhaps quite soon would change their fate.
The two girls brought the tips of their noses together to warm them up.
“Do you know,” whispered Gabriella, “whatever that Shtekel rabbits on about, this still doesn’t seem at all comradely to me…”
Monika stayed silent a few seconds and then whispered in her turn: “I wonder though whether we’ve provoked them in some way to behave like this?”
“How would I know…Perhaps we’ve secretly wanted them to like us? We’ve shown some feminine coquetry or other weakness, which has aroused particular desires, inappropriate for the struggle?”
She paused for a moment.
“We allowed them to see us naked!”
“It wasn’t on purpose!”
“No it wasn’t”
There followed another few minutes of silence. A soft warmth stole between their noses.
“When we die heroically in battle, they’ll understand we weren’t that sort… growled Gabriella. But it’ll be too late.
And with that thought both girls began to weep simultaneously.
Not a stone’s throw away from them the peasants snored, rolled into one another like pumpkins. Botev was shivering on his own under a rug, shunned by everyone as if he carried the plague. Bushy had his own bag, lined with sheep skin, into which he wound himself tight as if it were a cocoon. Tikhon had latched himself on to Digger and Uncle Metodii because he was cold. For comradeship’s sake they took him in and in gratitude he farted for them under the canvas. On Uncle Metodii, who had been swimming in another reality for some time, the stink made absolutely no impression. But Digger couldn’t even think to cover his head. His ears were frozen under his thin cap. Apart from this, he was upset that Lenin had been invited to the meeting and not him. His ears took in the muffled voices of the youngsters, lying behind the bushes.
“And so what’s the upshot of all this now?” Lozan called out. “It’s that they’ve lied to us like village idiots.”
“And it’s not just you” Nail added grimly: “your father and your grandfather…to the ninth generation they’ve been lied to and may be more.”
“It’s not as if it’s the only lie that’s been spread about!” sighed Dicho.
“You’ve always got to ask whose interests this serves.” Screw pointed out.
“The exploitive classes!” a group whisper flew up.
“They’ve got the most beautiful wives, they’ve got mistresses, not just one apiece, they allow themselves all kinds of pleasures…” Screw continued pitilessly. “And what about the people? Two bare hands. And that disgusts them!”
“Yes, masturbation is a proletarian activity” agreed Nail.
“But this business with the knickers, there’s something not quite comradely…” said Lozan. “We’re just insulting our comrade women. What will they think of us? A band of mutants!”
“They said we could.”
“Well may be we can but it’s not comradely,” Dicho broke in. “In the Soviet Union they don’t behave like this. They’re brave girls and they deserve respect. We have to find a way to make up for this awful impression.”
“We’ll make up for it,” Svilen spoke quietly.
“When we die.”
“Come on, rub one off and go to sleep, mates!” Digger couldn’t stand any more.
“Never!” the answer flew back. “We’ve given our word.”
Alek Popov, author of satirical novels Mission London and The Black Box, appeared recently at the New Literature from Europe Festival in New York. We were proud to launch The Black Box, Alek’s second novel in English translation, earlier this year. This darkly funny book has had an enthusiastic reception, and you can read book blogger Chelsea McGill’s review here and an entertaining interview with the author here: Seven Questions for Alek Popov.