Edition Published: 2017, First Published: 2017
Language book read in: Bulgarian
I received a long-awaited parcel from Nelly around 6 March, and along the treats she always sends me was Milen Ruskov’s bulky creation – Chamkoria. I started reading right away. Though many days I was unable to revisit the book due to personal engagements, I managed to finish the book right before the end of the month. I would usually leave myself a couple of days to contemplate what I’ve read and try to sort the buzz of ideas I have, but as I have no time for such luxuries this month, I am putting down my biggest impressions of the book unrefined and slightly rough around the edges, for which I hope you will forgive me, my dear reader.
Edition and style
Chamkoria is a lengthy undertaking, which, as per the author’s request, is split into two volumes. My only guess as to why he would chose to do so is because in volume one we go through multiple flashbacks, and are brought up to speed with all the intricacies of the setting, characters and plot, and in volume two, which is significantly shorter, the events of the present moment take precedence. Now that we are fully equipped with knowledge of the past, the dramatic unfolding of the storyline takes place with no further delays. This split into two volumes made little difference to me personally, bar a sudden and not wholly welcome break in the narrative, as well as less weight to carry in my handbag when reading on public transport, which I was pretty happy about.
The stylistic approach is most unusual. There are no chapters. No breaks. No pauses for breath. Just the continuous, uninterrupted flow of thoughts of the main character – Slavi. This presented unfamiliar difficulties in reading for me, as there were no natural places where I could stop reading and then come back to. At some places, I was confused as to how does what I am reading currently ties into what the character was musing a few lines earlier. I even found myself spacing out on occasion, when the narrative jumped quickly from one thought to another or when Slavi’s thoughts went too deep into politics.
The book starts some minutes before Slavi, a professional driver, is about to set off on his last trip for the year from Sofia to Chamkoria (now called Borovets) and finishes about an hour after his arrival. This is roughly 3.5-4 real hours, though it feels much, much longer, due to the narrative jumping from Slavi having a conversation in his omnibus with his passengers, to his silent musings, to events which occurred a few months or years before the journey takes place.
I started off being quite fond of the main character, sympathising with him and the constant travelling he needs to do to earn a living for himself and his family. I found him witty, relatable, his mannerisms and slang made him quite endearing. I could easily recognise many distant and close relatives, as well as friends of mine in Slavi – and even myself on occasion – on one hand, in his philosophical musings, which occasionally reached inspired revelations, or in his attitude towards politics, even death; on the other hand – in his fondness of hooch and meats, his lack of will to change his habits and in his apathy towards his family. As Slavi’s journey progressed, however, especially as it neared the end, my endearment towards him had gone cold.
As I followed Slavi’s recollections, a disgust towards him started to rise and then prevail. You see, Slavi is a smart ass. A trickster. A crook. A fraud. His aim in life is to take more than he gives, to always end up on top, to never pay for anything – earned or not. To live life as easily as possible without much effort at all. So he lies, and cheats, uses his intelligence or brute force to get his way, without a care of who he screws over in the process – the country, other citizens, his fellow drivers or his friends.
Now, this might come as a harsh judgement, and it is indeed perhaps too harsh. I am under no delusions Slavi is living an easy life, or that he could have easily walked away from certain situations with his life or limbs intact. The book takes place in the 20s and the political situation in Bulgaria is highly unstable. There have been numerous changes in power, assassinations take place weekly, people are brought in by the police at the smallest sign of resistance, and are then beaten, imprisoned or made to ‘disappear’ on a daily basis. The prisons are full, as each new government goes on a sweep of their political enemies, releasing those retained by older governments to make way for those they wish retained in turn.
Even in his private life, Slavi is not having a good time. He feels a slave to his family, being the one earning a living for all of them, as his wife – who has aged with the births and care of their three children into a bitter and angry being – raises arguments every time he is home. He no longer feels any affection for her, and it seems he feels even less for his children, whom he sees as rarely as possible and even then pays little attention to.
It is also not to say there is no goodness in Slavi. On the contrary, when the terrorist attack on the biggest church in the capital, St Nedelya, occurs he readily gives his omnibus to drive injured people to the nearest hospitals asking for nothing in return. There are plenty of other examples where he has acted empathically and humanely towards others, of which I will share no further as to avoid spoilers.
Perhaps I am taking a higher moral stance than I would be able to maintain had I lived in those times myself. Yet, despite all good deeds and hardships, by the end of the book I felt hardly any compassion or sympathy towards Slavi. Because of all his sly trickery and shady doings, I distanced myself emotionally from him, much like I have from many people I have known in life. I feel so strongly about this for the simple fact that there has been little change in many people’s mentality in today’s Bulgaria – many selfishly seek to go around laws, charges, or regulations as if abiding by the rules will somehow make them less intelligent or satisfied with life, then complain how corrupt everyone else is.
There are quite literally hundreds of threads I can pick from the book and write about at length – Slavi’s drinking problems, the hardships with his wife, his attitude towards women / politics / work / competition / etc. I feel myself pressed for space to do any of these topics justice, and will consider whether to post a follow-up article which might involve mild spoilers to address some points raised by the book about which I feel most passionately about.
Overall, Chamkoria is a worthy read. Whilst it was lengthy and took some mental fortitude to read at places, I found it thought provoking and greatly educational, as it was a visual and emotional plunge into that era of Bulgarian history. I highly recommend it not only to those who wish to know more about the 20s in Bulgaria, but to everyone who wonders why Bulgarians are the way they are – both with their charms and follies.
This time I decided to challenge Vel with something thought-provoking, but also fun and less depressing – Chamkoria by Milen Ruskov. Compared to Boxwood Ash and Sworn Virgin, the narrative in Chamkoria has a little bit of everything: comedy, drama, historical facts, relatable characters, and pearls of wisdom. In short, reading it is a rollercoaster of emotions. So the main question is what is this book about?
Chamkoria tells the story of Bay* Slave (бай Славе) or Slavi – don’t worry, the name is read a bit differently and it definitely doesn’t mean slave – who is your average Bulgarian trying to live his life in a post-Ottoman rule, specifically the 1920s, and earning his livelihood by being a taxi/omnibus driver. The book is told from first person perspective and is a good attempt to make an objective commentary of “contemporary Bulgaria”. Events and people seemingly pass by, while Bay Slave reminisces about the last few months when his life took an unexpected turn. He starts by describing his thoughts on life in general; how he decided to become an entrepreneur and start his own bus service to Chamkoria (from Turkish: çam – pine tree; Turkish/Bulgarian: koria – forest), now known as Borovets; as well as his sudden meeting with the Djinn, a gangster who asked Bay Slave to hide him from the police. At the same time, he shares his opinions regarding the current state of politics; how to beat the system while manoeuvring through loopholes in the judicial system; and how to live without getting deeply involved (killed) by one political party or another.
As I’ve mentioned in my Boxwood Ash review, information regarding the few decades between the Ottoman rule in Bulgaria and the reign of the Bulgarian Communist Party was filtered at some point. It was a time period mentioned only in passing during history lessons. So having a story set in the 1920s Bulgaria seemed like a very interesting read to me, because the time period was politically-tumultuous. This is when events like the 1925 St Nedelya Church assault and the 1925 attack against tzar Boris III of Bulgaria at the Arabakonak Pass occurred. Being a taxi/omnibus driver gives Bay Slave the opportunity to meet people from different walks of life – teachers, clerks, university professors, the tzar himself, common tricksters, gangsters, soldiers, etc. As a result, he manages to look at the surrounding world objectively. He not only critiques his colleagues’ political preferences, but he also tries to show the weaknesses of his political party of choice.
Bay Slave is the quintessential opportunist, but with a consciousness and willingness to help people. Whenever he has the chance to better his and his family’s life, he does so with a hint of pride and without thinking too much. His ability to think quickly on the spot and to keep his mouth shut are the reasons Bay Slave manages to get out of trouble most of the time. The main character actually reminds me of many people I know, including family members. And it’s not only Bay Slave, I can find many real life examples of the other characters too – the Djinn, Miss Mitsi, all of Bay Slave’s colleagues, and even tzar Boris III of Bulgaria.
What strikes me the most is how thing haven’t really changed. Many Bulgarians dub the beginning of the 90s as the Transitional Period (from communism to democracy), and its generation as the Children of the Transitional Period, hoping that by being unburdened from the communist regime, they will change things for the better. I believe that the post-Ottoman Bulgaria was also a transitional period in itself, because Bulgarians had to learn how build a government from scratch. This led to the few politically turbulent decades and later the communist regime.
Both Vel and I are Children of the Transitional Period. I don’t know about her, but I have my observations regarding my generation and the one after me. I see parents teaching their children how to become just like Bay Slave – “You must work for no less than X amount of money. But if there is a side deal worth more, go for it, even if it falls in the legally grey area”. This philosophy hinders many from pursuing their dreams to build a sustainable governing system, based on meritocracy. Being an ambitious opportunist, in my opinion, shouldn’t be your life goal, especially if you have nothing to show for it. But enough about my opinions, read the book. 🙂
*Fun fact: I thought it would be interesting to explain the bay part in Bay Slave’s name. Bay is actually a word in itself and technically not part of the main character’s name. According to an entry from the 1971 edition of the Bulgarian Etymological Dictionary (part 1, page 26), bay (бай/бае) derives from the word бате (big brother). It is a respectful term used to address an older man. Currently, bay is used mostly by people, who fall into the 40+ category or individuals, who have lived a major part of their life in a village. Remote places in Bulgaria, such as villages, have predominantly aging population and are the main places, where many archaic and dialect words like bay can be heard.