This time, I expected it would take me a month or two to write this. There were too many pages to explore in the meantime, and I managed to collect quite a few tidbits, some of which I now offer. Number 1: The wonderful Yordan Radichkov has been translated into Italian. Number 2: Magdalen College Cambridge definitely knows how to hold a grudge (for centuries). And number 3: A recommendation to read Truman Capote’s short story “A Christmas Memory” is the best virtual gift I can manage this holiday season.
The bookshop I visited in September and the overall mood of that trip definitely had the opposite of a festive snowy feel. I spent a week in Burgas, a city on the Southern coast of the Black Sea (in Bulgaria). I have been there many a time, and there is always a little window of memory opening up to a scene – discovering Baricco’s Ocean Sea for the very first time in a now vanished café; spending a night on a friend’s floor watching “Almost Famous” for the millionth time; attempting to see it all through the words of Hristo Fotev, a poet forever in love with that city.
This particular bookshop was no stranger. Helikon is a chain so any hipsters out there who have to have it indie might want to shiver now. I didn’t manage to get a good perspective – the square behind was being renovated, so try as I might, I could only step back as far as this. Inside, it is slightly impersonal, like most chains, but the black-and-white photos of staff and customers that line the walls by the stairs to the second floor are a lovely touch.
The title I chose translates as “At the Sea’s Entrance.” The reason I picked Emiliya Dvoryanova’s book was mostly due to the combination of the title and where I was. The Black Sea has something about it, or something that I keep bringing to it and expecting from it. It promises myths and reinvention and a conversation with its depths in a language without pesky grammar or pronunciation tricks. Its waves crash like an invitation.
In the book, Anastasia goes to a sanatorium to heal and hopefully have the cast on her arm removed. She’s been in a car accident in which she miraculously only broke a finger. She brings The Magic Mountain with her, and just like in that book, she meets all sorts of people. They are customers rather than patients, though – departure is possible at any time, but then again, none of them wishes to leave. The doctor is a mysterious character who holds everyone in thrall and access to whom is strictly limited. The two most interesting people are Hanna and Ada. Hanna wears a colourful turban on her head from time to time, listens to Schubert when she can’t go to sleep, and so Anastasia eavesdrops and then dreams a green dream. Ada is an artist, and one day she will draw an angel, if she can only get the arm right. (In Bulgarian, her name is written and therefore pronounced like that of Nabokov’s heroine, i.e. “She pronounced it the Russian way with two deep, dark ‘a’s, making it sound rather like ‘ardor’.” “Ada or Ardor”)
I was curious about the religious elements of the book. Anastasia’s excuse/alibi for being in the sanatorium is that she wants to write a book about St Teresa of Avila, after all. I found an interview online where the author explains that her intentions were to weave the Christian motif within the story itself, as a metaphor. But also, to my delight, she acknowledges the reader’s role in creating other meanings that will be different from the writer’s illusions (her words). It wasn’t the religious references and allusions as such that made a lasting impression on me. The stream of consciousness here is a slow trickle, and yet, once away from the book, the garden around the sanatorium, the bowls of fruit in the restaurant, the mud and the air of the sea, that space within the bigger but abandoned world, all spring up vividly. Towards the end, the words disturb a long buried confusion, bound up with the inevitability of making a choice. Dvoryanova talks of the constant relentless expectation in the Now, relating this to its religious significance. In the sanatorium there is, there could be, something else, too – a desire to recover from infinity, from the need to answer questions that the world poses, that sometimes the self repeats, automatically – who am I, am I what I want to be, what do I think of this person, what do I want from this day? Why am I asking these questions? Why am I anywhere? This world apart is full of time that is gifted, unhurried, permitting contradictions.
“ignorance [(or not-knowing), depending on how you want to translate it] is a time for stories…,” so goes the book. Away from the pages, I know the sharp chime when some rudimentary, vague self registers that this, this butterfly of a breath, this takeoff of the pulse, is incoherent with everything else that the sum of the parts has ever been. But back between the covers, there’s mostly the tick, the tock, the slow dripping of the sea, all the way to the horizon.