Edition Published: 2013, First Published: 1980
Language book read in: Bulgarian
I have much to say about this book, and even more left to ponder before I can formulate it into coherent sentences.
Up until this point Nelly and I challenged each other with books in English, most of which in the Gothic genre. I was almost considering suggesting we change this blog to deal with reviews of Gothic literature, as we were moving away from the initial premise – to challenge each other with books we might not sit to read ourselves. Then, luckily, Nelly sent ‘Boxwood ash’ through the post.
I must admit, regretfully, it has been some time since I’ve read in my native language, Bulgarian. Boxwood Ash presented a further challenge in terms of language, as it has many archaic words, Turkish misnomers, regional expressions, dialects and slang. This only got me to appreciate the beauty of my native language, and made me eager to read more from Bulgarian authors.
As an overview, Boxwood Ash is not an easy book to read, I will never call it a ‘page-turner’ or would consider re-reading anytime soon. This is not because of poor writing, or simple plot, or weak setting – quite the opposite.
The characters were incredibly well built and realistic, could easily be my neighbours or relatives, yet they were broad enough to capture an entire ‘type’ of personality – the fighter, the miser, the materialist, the oppressor. In this way the author highlights the issues bubbling up in Bulgarian society around the freedom wars in a personal, intimate manner. For anyone who has lived in Bulgaria or knows people from there relatively well, the character progression was almost predictable, yet powerful in its gradual playing out and inevitability.
The plot was more of a challenge – shifts in time, shifts in pace, detailed descriptions followed by skips of a couple of years. The book is not edited, and perhaps not meant to be, to reflect this rapid and sudden change of pace. Whilst halfway through the book I could start guessing the outcome, I could have never imagined the intricacies of the logical, yet regretful development of the story.
The setting is broken down into opposites – the stunning beauty of the nature and simple way of living of the core Bulgarian population on one hand and the oppressors leeching off the land and people; they are the degraded ruling class, who have become lazy and fat due to bribery and favours, who entertain themselves in excess and degradation – torture, dancers, food. The Bulgarians as a nation have split in two as well – those who despise all pleasures, because they are only accessible to the oppressors, and those who crave the wealth, status and power they do not have as if they are the highest achievement in life. There hardly exists a middle path.
Several things made a strong impression on me, I will mention only a couple for the sake of brevity. Firstly, once trade with Europe picks up, we immediately start exploiting our rich natural resources, such as furs and wood. Whilst Bulgaria still has a rich and beautiful nature, it has much diminished, many species have been driven to near extinction due to lack of regulations, bribery and illegal culling; the same is happening with deforestation. Whilst Western Europe has started waking up and realising natural resources are finite and must be protected, many Bulgarians are still using the diminishing beauty of their land to make quick profit. Secondly, I have come to the realisation the foreign oppressor has now been replaced by a native oppressor – those Bulgarians who craved the status, power and wealth of the Ottoman ruling class, have continued to enforce bribery, favouritism, and egotism as a day to day reality. Those who played the role of fighters would now find it a lot harder to fight against their own nation. Bulgaria has been its own country for over 140 years, yet the Ottoman way of living remains.
In summary, Boxwood ash invoked strong and deep emotions in me. These are not something I will easily forget, and my mind has been set into tracing causes and consequences apparent in today’s society. In fact, what shocked me the most was the fact the struggles from around 140 years ago are still playing out today. There are many men I know who place their hopes in unattainable virtues, who believe they aim for something worthy of glory, and when they either fail to achieve it, or do not get the recognition they believe they deserve, they turn to apathy and a blank existence. Many more men and women whose only aim is the acquisition of material comforts, whose difficult childhood has not served to make understanding and compassionate people, but quite the opposite – there are people who would get their way or make those around them miserable. And many others who are hard-working and get taken advantage of by the former. Others still, who only care to survive without any higher ambition. Boxwood Ash offers little hope, in my opinion, as the next generation gets all the benefits of foreign education, yet does not know how to act. This also applies to my generation, so for nearly a century and a half we, as a country and a nation, have not found a way past the satisfaction of base desires and apathy gripping us. The events of Boxwood Ash could have been playing out yesterday…
I stumbled upon Boxwood Ash quite on accident, but since I try to challenge myself by occasionally reading books that are outside of my comfort bubble, I decided that this book would be my one odd book for July/August. Boxwood Ash falls somewhat in the “out-of-the-comfort-bubble” category, because despite dealing with a very significant and interesting period of the Bulgarian history, i.e. the few years before the end of the Ottoman rule and the subsequent turbulent times of power struggles, wars, reforms and coup d’états afterwards, it is similar in its style to the books that were mandatory in school. And it’s not that the mandatory books were not interesting, but most of the time you were required to learn (sometimes by heart) the interpretations of “established” literature critics and then regurgitate those ideas in your own essays.
What grabbed me from the beginning was that the book was written only 40 years ago. I was curious as to how a relatively modern author would tackle a topic that was only barely taught in school. By “barely taught” I mean that so much of the history lessons in Bulgaria revolve around the Ottoman rule that only one semester is dedicated to what happens afterwards up until the beginning of the communist regime in 1940s. It would have been difficult to find detailed information about the post-Ottoman Empire period at the time I was a student, because most of it was covered by the 50-60 year rule for classified information. Furthermore, the following communist regime did a lot to withhold information and for a long time there was an “official narrative” for everything. I was born right at the end of the communist regime (the beginning of the 90s), therefore anything communist regime-related would have still been classified, and anything dating to the period before the 1940s would have been under scrutiny, mainly in regards to the validity of “the official narrative”. Much of the information and documentation pertaining to the political situation in Bulgaria from the 1930s to the 1990s had been destroyed or hidden, because, again, some of it pertains to the aforementioned civil unrest, mass public prosecutions and coup d’états, or it still affects people, who are currently part of the “political elite” in Bulgaria. Ivan Trenev, however, took the more universally human approach. His story describes how certain people thrive in times of desperation, poverty, hunger, oppression, but also suffer in freedom, power, and wealth, and vice versa. Thus, making the story timeless, whilst still being locked in a specific period.
This leads me to a very good point that Vel made that all of the characters felt both very traditional in a very old-timey nostalgic way (especially to an expat) and at the same time you can easily recognise a friend, a neighbour or a relative in the face of any of Trenev’s characters. There are recurring themes of fighters for freedom and justice in the face of a big adversary; materialistically-oriented people, who take advantage of the people and circumstances surrounding them; as well as those, who eventually go with the flow as bystanders for the remainder of their lives. Unfortunately, like Vel said, such individuals existed in the past and they exist to this day. The corrupt atmosphere of exploitation, nepotism and debauchery is also present.
I admit that I sent Boxwood Ash to Vel not only because the story is compelling, but also because I wanted to hear her thoughts on the subject as an expat, who has been away for almost 10 years.
P.S. I would have loved to dedicate the whole blog to the Gothic genre, however its purpose is different. 🙂