Teodora Dimova’s The Stricken is a very raw and honest narrative of the days just before the 1944 Bulgarian coup d’état, which marked the end of the Kingdom of Bulgaria and the start of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria (led by the Bulgarian Communist Party), as well as the consequences of such a sudden shift from monarchy to a socialist state.
This is a very sore and difficult topic for many Bulgarians to discuss because it easily polarises those who discuss it. In addition, it brings up a lot of trauma for those who were directly affected by the subsequent persecutions. You still hear from time to time that someone’s grandparent has been among the ones dubbed reactionary elements, i.e. enemy of the status quo and the current powerholders. More often than not, such people were sent to labour camps and/or executed as part of their punishment.
The Stricken tells the intertwining stories of three women, whose husbands have been accused of being reactionary elements and have been sentenced to death. The tales are presented in the form of confessions, but each statement serves a different purpose. Let’s look at each of the stories individually.
Raina (Райна) is a beautiful and intuitive woman, who is the wife of Nikola (Никола), a writer, journalist and publisher of a prestigious literary magazine. Their life seems idyllic: an apartment in the capital, a villa on the outskirts of Sofia, two beautiful children, big garden, a fountain, a maid, an abundance of food, fortune, and time for leisurely activities. What more could they want? That was precisely the problem. Raina and Nikola represented the Bourgeoisie and hence everything a poor and common person at the time wasn’t.
The purpose of Raina’s confession is to have a last talk with her husband, despite him not being physically present to hear her words. She regrets not being “pushy enough” in conveying her fears of what the future holds to Nikola; she also feels tremendous guilt over the means he had to employ in the desperate hope of changing her husband’s fate.
Ekaterina’s (Екатерина) confession is presented in the form of a letter to her young children, who are still with her for the time being, but very soon will have to fend for themselves. She is the wife of the local village’s priest, which is the main reason her family is a target for the new government as it doesn’t approve of any religious practices.
Having read Nikola’s fate, one quickly learns that nothing better awaits Mina (Мина), Ekaterina’s husband. Her letter is an attempt to preserve Mina’s memory and the truth of his arrest so that her sons do not feel shame once they grow up. Ekaterina also wants to have a proper farewell with the little ones, because she knows her illness will soon claim her life.
I did find some parts of her story rather strange, such as Mina’s proposal of marriage. But I think it was an attempt on Ekaterina (and the author’s) part to paint a picture of whirlwind romance and a happy family life, which was cut short by the sudden political changes.
Victoria and Magdalena’s Story
Victoria’s family was probably a prime example of what the revolutionaries at the time were most opposed to. Her husband, Boris (Борис), was a prominent businessman in charge of a large cooperative shop and founder of several charity-related establishments. Victoria on the other hand, was a beautiful woman, obsessed with French fashion and lifestyle. So far, so good. However, both Victoria and Boris were unfaithful to each other throughout their marriage. And despite Magdalena being left on their doorstep as a baby, there were rumours she was one of Boris’ unlawful children. Just like the one who arrested him for being a reactionary element.
The Fatherland Front (OF), a resistance movement responsible for the coup, falsely accused Boris of burning his shop’s inventory and thus sabotaging the OF’s efforts to feed the hungry and the poor. As a result of his execution and the extradition of his family to the countryside, Boris and Victoria’s family fell apart.
There is a bonus story, which is not entirely separate, but it is a continuation of the first one. Most importantly, it focuses on the effects of the 1940s persecutions on the next generation.The loneliness, depression, desperation and hollowness of the ones marked by someone’s execution and the inability to discuss those feelings because you might get arrested for being a reactionary element yourself.
Alexandra (Александра) is Raina’s granddaughter and since she is two generations away from the atrocities of the 40s, she is unable to understand her grandmother’s grief. Initially, Alex is also unable to comprehend why her mother, Sia (Сия) is being distant and unwilling to accept that her daughter also grieves the untimely loss of her father, Mihail (Михаил), and grandfather. Her entire childhood was spent as a silent spectator and obedient supporter of other family members, who were so engulfed in their own sorrow, no one takes the time to look at a child, marred by depression. Alex’s existence is a symbol of all the children torn between the secrecy of the dangerous past and the inability to fit in the present.
All of the stories are very heart-breaking to read because Dimova does not spare the truth and her descriptions of the horrors suffered by the accused. She has a good way of conveying the overarching sentiment of a society, forced to be silent in order to preserve its existence. As the daughter of a very famous Bulgarian author, who was also compelled to alter one of his novels so that it pleased the Bulgarian Communist Party, Dimova does a wonderful job of protecting the memory of the persecuted for generations to come.
The Stricken is a collection of stories which are told (almost) exclusively from the main heroines’ perspective, who are either the wives or daughters of men who have been taken by the Communist Party in some way, and have had their life uprooted. In the years that follow, they are humiliated, suffer from mental illness, fight for their loved ones or surrender to abandon. There are many differences between them and how they handle their misfortunes, but they are all stricken by deep, unhealing grief.
This was a book I wanted to read even if it didn’t make it into our selection for the blog. Through reading more diverse literature, I have found I thoroughly enjoy recounts of historically significant events – I care not so much about the official history or statistics, through I welcome a bit of that as a starting point; instead, what affects me a lot deeper is a first person recount, preferably from someone who has witnessed the event first hand, and if not – a well researched fictional story. The Stricken is the latter – Teodora Dimova has done a lot of homework not just by reading contemporaries, and statements, and others, but by interviewing people who have either lived through the events themselves or are the immediate children of people who have.
Nelly has done a fantastic job in summarising the main points of each character’s story, and I hope to provide just a few of my own thoughts to hopefully further whet your appetite.
Weeks after her husband is forcibly taken from her, Raina counts on Petko (Петко), who is part of the communist party, yet has thus far preserved his good heart and remembers the benevolence of Raina and her husband, to give her updates on Nikolay’s wellbeing. Through Petko, Raina manages to arrange a meeting with her husband which shakes her to her core, and spurs her onto meeting with one Metody Zhelqzkov (Методи Желязков), who has frequently written to her husband with the hopes of being published in his prestigious magazine, to no avail. Metody is now responsible for Nilokay’s fate, and Raina takes it upon herself to try and better that fate. Her story, a retelling of happier times initially, alludes to what she has had to do to try and spare her husband the tortures awaiting him.
Three other members of the Party are introduced, Vasa, a pardoned murderer, Yordan, the local bully, and Angel, who seems a bit out of place. They are the ones who take Nikolay away to await his sentence.
This tales starts from afar, with a recount of Ekaterina’s grandmother, whom she is named after and her gentle rule over the extended family, as a peacemaker, provider and arbiter in their daily lives. Later on, I must admit I found myself a little irritated by Ekaterina, and her complete lack of care in the world. This was, of course, in the years prior to 1944, as her life turns bitter after Vasa, Yordan and Angel intrude on their lives causing misery and pain.
Ekaterina writes a letter to her sons, telling of happier times, but the closer she gets to the end of her strength due to a lung illness, the more troubled her recount becomes. She puts such impossibly high hopes on her sons – to be kind, courageous, pure, like their father was in his fatih. I kept thinking this was a tall order, for the fatherless, and now motherless children, to grow up removed from all they know and hold dear. I wondered if the author will make mention of them later on, not knowing at that point how entangled the tales are.
Victoria and Magdalena
The story of the mother Victoria and her daughter Magdalena starts off in a dazed and confused way in which Magdalena remembers how their father was taken from them, their forced extraction from their home, her mother’s labour and her following illness.
Victoria is a pianist, an incredible one, but the patriarchal way, which is the norm in those times, means she cannot play as a career. She dreams of France, so enamoured with the Parisian’s fashion and way of life, and their taste in culture. She feels deflated and the following hard labour she is subjected to to earn her living causes her mental state to deteriorate rapidly.
Aleskandra’s story occurs 20 years after the initial events of 1944, her mother is Sia, Raina’s daughter. By far, this recount was the most relatable to me, and as the final story it served the purpose of a conclusion as well – follow through not just with Aleksandra herself, but with her mother and grandmother, with Ekaterina’s sons, we even learn of some circumstantial events regarding Victoria and Magdalena. Aleksandra grows a lonely, neglected child. Her father, a popular painter, dies from a heart attack, following much contradiction, in its root caused by the Party. Another tragedy, one from which Sia, Aleksandra’s mother, refuses to move on from. This grief and misery, in which Sia finds so much comfort, creates a chasm between her and Raina and Aleksandra respectively. Raina, as already discussed, sacrifices much to provide for her two children, yet Sia dumps her daughter onto her and refuses any responsibility for her. It is a difficult moment – Sia’s grief is raw and deep, just like her mother’s was, but she finds such comfort in the pity of others and her own self pity, that she completely surrenders herself to it. And Aleksandra grows up with her grandmother, starved from attention, with no friends or close connections.
We also experience the world briefly through the eyes of Angel, whose consciousness torments him after all, and we learn of his compatriots’ stories too – Yordan and Vassa. These three characters, along with Petko, mentioned in the first story, provide an all encompassing spectrum of the foot soldiers of the Party – the ‘troikas’, the threes. Vassa is a pardoned murderer, loyal to the Party to his grave for regaining his freedom and ready to commit any atrocities willingly, whilst Yordan, as we learn, is the bastard son of Boris, Victoria’s husband, who refused to take any responsibility for him or his mother.
Yordan has grown with many humiliations, which he refuses to forgive or move on from – his mother begging for work, stalking and pleading to Boris for money, never having anything to call his own. He grows fatherless, has no role model, and grows up with much anger, which leads him into the ready hands of the Party. Yordan is conflicted and his fate is tragic in its own right, but it is his refusal to look the truth in the eyes, to forgive and move on which makes him a villain in my eyes.
Angel, on the other hand, simply seems to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, he conforms and goes with the flow – deep down he knows what he does is wrong, otherwise his sleep would be as sound as Vasa’s. But he lacks character, and will, to oppose the Party, and he knows full well what happens to “traitors”, so he conforms. Finally, Petko, at least from what we glimpse, manages to appear as a full member of the party, yet seeks to repay kindness done onto him by others, preserving his humanity, giving us hope the good in people is still there.
I found the best way to read the book was to read through a single story in its entirety and then break, even if I had time to read more, so I could focus on the plights of each individual character. Otherwise, the recounts easily blend into one, the images of the women become blurred, their sorrows mingle, perhaps apart from Aleksandra. The bottom line is the same – the forced removal of the fatherly figure breaks the family apart, leads to grief, yes, but also to degradation, lack of wholesomeness and closure. I think it is important to keep in mind that it is the way in which these husbands and fathers have been taken – snapped at night, tortured, ridiculed, shot and buried in an unmarked shallow grave, which keeps the wounds from closing and healing – the Party is everywhere, and even talking through one’s feelings can lead to another relative or friend to be snatched.
For me The Stricken was a thought provoking book, which led me to much reflection and analysis of things I’ve experienced myself or have heard from others – my grandparents, who grew up during the Communist regime, my parents, who have embraced capitalism, my contemporaries, who have told me stories of their families’ experiences during those times.
It felt like I had only just dipped the tips of my toes into the topic, and I am quite eager to read further – Teodora Dimova provides a two page long list of books she found inspiration from, some of which I found quite tempting.
Dimova has tried, and mostly succeeded, to provide enough differences between her heroines, with their individual quirks and fates, and she makes them believable and human. I would recommend this book to those who wish for a more personal account of the events of 1944 in Bulgaria and the following years, and I would advise to dedicate some time to pause between reading each character’s story, and to reflect on it a little before moving on. I hope the book is translated into English so it reaches a wider audience.
Edition Published: August 15th 2019, First Published: August 15th 2019
Language book read in: Bulgarian