The Monk of Hilendar by Dimitar Talev

Cover of the book The Monk of Hilendar from above.

Vel’s Perspective

The Monk of Hilendar is written by Dimitar Talev, a very prominent contemporary Bulgarian author. He tries to portray the life of one of Bulgaria’s most famous national heroes – Paisius of Hilendar. Paisius is widely loved and venerated, he has been made saint by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, he is celebrated on the 19 June, his image adorned the 2 lev note, and now the two lev coin, which replaced it. Children learn of him in schools and there is hardly anyone in Bulgaria who can’t recite the opening sentences from his life’s work – History of Bulgaria ( [Istoriya Slavyanobolgarskaya], История Славянобългарска), which in English translates to something like this:

Oh, you unwise moron! Why are you ashamed to call yourself a Bulgarian and why don’t you read and speak in your native language? Weren’t Bulgarians powerful and glorious once?

Some strong opening lines there, as I’m sure you will agree! Let me try and provide some historical background, which may help to understand the need for his exclamations.
At the time of Paisius’ birth (Penko Baanov by birth name), Bulgaria was not a recognised country, it was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, and had been for centuries. Under slavery, the Bulgarian nation had shrunk into itself and for the most part concerned itself with one thing – survival. Procreation and preservation of traditions, cultural and religious, was the focus; hardly any new trends or thoughts emerged during that period in any area of life. So used was the Bulgarian nation to being oppressed that it had started to lose its identity and people widely believed themselves to be inferior – born only to labour, procreate and die like their forefathers had and like their children would. When Paisius wrote his history, the average Bulgarian was certainly pretty dull indeed – uneducated and used to being berated and paid less for their labour. Paisius’ work then was one of the first researches into the history of Bulgaria and is believed to have served as one of the initial and highly influential inspirations for the rise of Bulgarian nationalism and the following liberation.

How does a village lad become a saint? To me, this seems to be the underlying question of Talev’s work. His book isn’t a biography as such, on one hand there is little factual information available on Paisius, especially his early life, and on the other Talev has gone a long way into imagining Paisius’ young adulthood, and recreating in his own way the life of a trading family’s youngest son in 1700s in Bulgarian lands.
Talev has taken the approach which would appeal to the masses – Penko Baanov is portrayed in the best of lights, he sets an example both as a brother, friend and later as a monk. That is not to say he goes through life without hardships. As a young lad from the slave cast he is regularly humiliated, he cannot ride his horse through town, must avert his gaze from any Muslim and give way to them, must bow even to the Greek doctor who treats the Bulgarians he is stationed to cure with contempt and outright disgust. One of the hardest parts in the book for me was when Penko’s sister, Lenka, was abducted and raped by the ruling militia’s leader, whilst he was beaten and held prisoner by a few other law enforcers, not only due to what was done to her, but also because of their older brother’s reaction, who blamed her for bringing shame to their family by not protecting herself better. This was the second time I had to put the book down and silently rage for some long, long moments.

Revisiting the event later on, I am confident that Valcho, the older brother, whose name translates to ‘Wolf’, could have had no other reaction. Talev has shaped each character in his Paisius’ life very carefully, and Valcho is the epitome of the survival mode of the Bulgarian nation I discussed earlier. He would never run against the status quo, but would find ways to procreate and preserve himself, his mind only having survival as comfortable as possible as a focus. I am by no means excusing the blaming of a rape victim, merely stating such a reaction as inevitable from this character.

Paisius’ other brother is father Lavrentius (there are no other siblings, I promise!), who serves in the monastery of Hilendar. At least in Talev’s book, he is another carefully written epitome of the sinful clergyman. He gorges out during Easter fasts, acts with disdain and turns a blind eye to the suffering of the monastery’s workers by the hand of their own accountant, and generally looks for a comfortable and quiet survival, just like his brother Valcho, though this time in the house of God.

These examples might make you think Talev’s characters are very one-sided, which would do his excellent writing a disservice. Whilst the two brothers described above are definitely written in a way to make Paisius stand out as righteous and saint-like, when reading through the book they have well fleshed out characters, with many virtues to go along with their vices.

I have written a fair bit about the men in Paisius’ life, and now I would like to discuss the three women who have had the most influence over him as well. Firstly, there is his mother, who is another personification of the desire to survive, build a family and live well overall. When Penko expresses his desire to travel to Hilendar with his brother, she feels remorse – another son lost to the Church, another child of hers who would never marry and breed. Yet she is loving and caring, a provider, even if unable to understand her son’s higher feelings of pride and desire for more than a comfortable existence.
The second woman I have already mentioned – Lenka, is the closest to understanding Penko’s love for the Bulgarian countryside, people and mostly for the blind Sandra. She is always there for him to confide in. After the rape and the rejection she receives from Valcho, she tragically ends her life in the nearby river, and turns into a symbolic martyr of all the misfortunes and hardships faced by the Bulgarian nation at the time.

And finally, Sandra herself. A beautiful woman, who has had the misfortune of going blind. In the 1700s, this meant one thing and one thing only – she would never marry and bear children, as she has a perceived defect. It hasn’t been long enough that people with disabilities have started to be considered as equal and meaningful members of our society, and in those times, Sandra would be given no further thought past her beauty and blindness. But Penko falls for her in earnest and despite his occasional unease when looking into her blind eyes, his feelings are pure and deep. It is not meant to be for them however, as when Lenka kills herself, Penko murders her rapists as revenge and becomes a fugitive, with his only salvation to flee to the far away monastery of Hilendar. Sandra remains in his heart, however, and becomes his muse, encouraging him on his quest to uncover the history of the Bulgarian people.

These three women, the mother, the sister and the lover are a common pattern in such tellings of national heroes and hold deep meaning in Bulgarian folklore, which is quite beyond the scope of this review. Outside of their metaphorical roles, all three women mentioned, as well as other female characters in the book, are treated pretty poorly when it comes to our (or mine, anyways) understanding of gender equality. For example, Lenka and Valcho’s wife are shooed out of the room when the men discuss finances, lest their blabbering mouths gossip, even Sandra, who is a symbol of all things beautiful to Penko, bowls her head to him when he insists they marry despite her initial protest. As the author had expressed it – submission to a man was all she had ever known a woman to do, so submit she did.

All these characters and events work to deliver a shaken and disillusioned Penko into the monastery of Hilendar, where he initially joins as a worker, and later becomes a monk and takes the name Paisius. He stumbles between pushing himself through hard physical work on the monastery fields, and wholehearted dedication to his monk duties, putting him at odds with many of his peers. This is until he finally comes to realise his great task is to collect and write a history of the Bulgarian people, a task to which, with his typical single mindedness, Paisius dedicates himself to the point his body begins to betray him from exhaustion and malnutrition. When the Ottoman military has mostly forgotten of his murdering one of their ranks, he is sent to collect donations for the monastery, a task he jumps to readily, as it allows him to seek further parts of the Bulgarian history but also to bring the book he is writing to others who would read it and copy it, even bringing it to his hometown and his older brother.

The book is received readily – not only in Talev’s story but in reality, Paisius’ work sparks much curiosity, discussion, contemplation, but most importantly – it sparks the desire to know more about oneself, ones family and people, to look up for oneself and to feel pride for who you are. Whilst nationalism taken to the extreme births conflict and justifies horrendous crimes, a nation which doesn’t know its own history or feels no pride of itself is no nation at all. In this sense, Paisius’ history gives back the self of the Bulgarian people, and with this it plays no small role in Bulgaria being its own country at present.
Overall, I enjoyed Talev’s book The Monk of Hilendar. It provoked many strong emotions in me, though perhaps not all as the author had intended, and it made me think on a number of existential questions on survival, love, drive, religion, and others, some of which I have shared with you. But above all, it made me curious to learn more about my nation and to read from more Bulgarian authors.

The side cover of The Monk of Hilendar.

Nel’s Perspective

Would it sound strange if I said I finished reading the book while I was on my way to Vel’s? Travelling and flying to a different country sounds so strange nowadays due to the current hard times. But having and holding onto those good memories during the lockdown is something that keeps me motivated and hopeful one day I will be able to visit Vel again.

Dimitar Talev is one of my favourite Bulgarian authors for many different reasons. For one, his writing style is not pretentious at all. It’s a bit archaic, often sprinkled with colloquialisms and foreign expressions, and always beautiful in its simplicity. Although his novels are often set in Ottoman Bulgaria or just after Bulgaria’s liberation from the Ottoman Empire (1878), he doesn’t directly express his political and social views, as well as personal beliefs, but rather lets his characters speak for him. In the most simple and down-to-earth way possible. Talev’s approach to the socio-political issues of the day, while carrying on one single message throughout the novels, is one, which shows the various nuances and many different sides a story can have. Thus, his characters are not just good or bad, each character is motivated by different things: sometimes they act according to the belief system they adhere to, other times they act irrationally and very often counter to their own well-being.

Who is Paisius?

The Monk of Hilendar is, as Vel mentioned, about Paisius of Hilendar: one of the Bulgarian revivalists, who managed to light the spark in the average Bulgarian and resurrect the idea of national identity and belonging needed by the Bulgarians in order to fight their oppressors as a single unit. These people are called buditeli (будители), literally “those who wake (enlighten)” and they are celebrated each year on the 1st November. As such, Paisius is a revered and emblematic historical figure for many Bulgarians. Thus, making him the main character of a novel and telling a story, which does justice to the importance of Paisius’ work, is a difficult task. Especially when so little is factually known about him as a person.

Since Vel covered most of the plot I will concentrate my review on the portrayal of Paisius. I think Talev did a marvelous job. Not only by honouring Paisius’ work, but also by channelling the same energy and message throughout his own novel: Don’t forget your roots, remember the past and learn from it. Talev does all of this without the (sometimes) unnecessary pathos seen in other literary works written before or around the same time.

Delving into the actual story: I love the portrayal of Paisius. Talev made him into a fully-fleshed out individual with his own flaws, who needs to overcome some of his shortcomings, find the purpose of his life and focus all of his pent-up anger and energy into the quest of his life. Despite the oppressive times, Penko, as he is initially known, is a member of a big, financially well-off family. His oldest brother’s (Valchan/Valcho) trading and negotiation skills have managed to lift the family into prominence, so much so that every time Valcho returns from his months-long journey across other countries to buy and sell goods, the whole village gathers to pay respects upon his return and, hopefully, receive gifts. Compared to many of his contemporaries, Penko has the privilege of continuing his brother’s work, if he so wished. He would have lived in luxury, as well as the opportunity to marry the best girl in the village. Rather than being tempted by everything life could materially give him, Penko turns to a more idealistic, spiritual and non-tangible future.

However, this other path is marred with uncertainty, anger, and escapism. Instead of portraying him as a wise and pious individual right from the start (like other Bulgarian authors might try to portray him), Talev chooses to show Paisius’ unbridled youth. Penko runs from his family responsibilities and defies his brother Valcho on top of having strong reactions to the abuse he sees every day. At the same time, he is tempted to leave a mark in the world and be forever remembered in the annals of history and as a result
switches into both emotional extremes – either completely isolates himself or lashes out at any perceived injustice. Finally, Penko is often unable to channel all of his thoughts and feelings into a constructive activity.

In a way, this character sounds like your average teenager. The only difference is, this teenager lives in the 1700s. And just like any teenager searching for the purpose of his own life, Penko doesn’t actively start working in this direction, until his life is turned upside down. He can’t marry his lover, because she isn’t perceived as fit by society due to her blindness. Penko also fails to help his sister Lenka from being raped and is made witness to the horrendous abuse. Moreover, he is prosecuted for trying to defend his sister and has to deal with Lenka’s her tragic death. Penko’s only hope at this point is Father Boris – the old hermit monk in the Hilendar monastery.

Father Boris is the first person who seems to “speak Penko’s language”. The old man does not cower in fear when the Oppressors are mentioned, nor does he care for what anyone thinks of him, including Penko. As the first person, who doesn’t try to teach the main character how to act, how to talk or live his life, Penko gradually takes a liking to him. Later, he recognises Father Boris as his mentor and actively seeks the old man’s advice on a myriad of situations. This is when the transformation begins and Penko grows into the Paisius every Bulgarian is familiar with today.

Final Thoughts

The Monk of Hilendar is one of Talev’s shorter novels and is a lovely way to get to know the author. The book is a great window to 18th century Bulgaria and all the struggles Bulgarians had at the time – both at the hands of their Oppressor and society due to long-established traditions and biases. I knew Vel would have strong opinions/reactions to parts of the story, such as Lenka’s fate. But I think it’s important to get exposed to such narratives, because for every bad apple, there is someone like Father Boris, whose spirituality, understanding of human nature and attitude towards his fellow humans seems so simple, yet so ahead of its time.

Edition Published: 1972, First Published: 1962
Language book read in: Bulgarian