Transki Stories and Balkan Suite by Petar Delchev

Front and back cover of Transki Stories by Petar Delchev

Edition Published: 2019, First Published: 2013
Language book read in: Bulgarian

Vel’s Perspective

Transki Stories is used as the umbrella name for two separate sets of stories – Transki Stories and Balkan Suite, which have been collected under one edition. The two sets of stories have many similarities – they take heavy inspiration from Bulgarian folk stories and are centered around the lives of ordinary people in the countryside. The edition we read is soft cover, with a beautiful watercolor artwork at the front of a snow covered hut – a perfect setting for the six Transki Stories.

Part one – Tanski Stories

Tran is a small village in south Bulgaria, and provides the setting for six stories, which I was pleasantly surprised to discover were connected. The name Transko comes from the word tran (трън) – thorn, and my mind made the unlikely connection between the Bulgarian Transko and the English Thornaby – though there truly is nothing other than the word their names are derived from which connects them. Peter Delchev does a masterful job of creating all speech in the text in the Transki dialect, which I found pretty easy to read, but I know Nelly struggled with it at least initially. This couldn’t have been easy, but I commend Delchev for doing it, as it added volumes to the authenticity and appeal of the characters.

The first story in the series, The Oath, depicts the occurrences which set the events in all future stories in motion – and as all good stories, this one starts off in a pub. The cold is fierce, the snow is deep, spirits are high on rakia (Bulgaria’s version of vodka, or whisky, and better than both if it’s been made well) and the high-life of Tran village are debating whether a man can kill a wolf barehanded. It’s all innocent chatter until one of the wealthier villagers puts his two oxen on the line for anyone who manages this feat, then a volunteer promptly puts himself forward and sets off in the night.

The deed is done, though with the murder of the wolf, there is also the accidental murder of the boastful villager and the merry band of drinking men find themselves pretty sober and faced with a tough decision – what to do with the wolf (and accidental man) killer, and what to do with the wife and children of the villager whose husband was murdered. The wise man of the village (the one truly responsible for the whole disaster) decides the widow is to marry the murderer of her husband, so her young children don’t grow fatherless. He swears all present to silence and they vow an oath – in front of God, and signed in wolf blood.

I must admit, as I was reading the story I thought it was pretty comical and was greatly entertained by it. Having read the whole series of stories, however, I get reminded of sayings such as “you reap what you sow” whenever I think of it now.

The next story in the cycle is The Astraliets (A’stralian)- a bastardised pronunciation The Australian, and refers to a breed of sheep, which was imported to improve the pedigree of a local villager’s wealth. It felt like another anecdotal story, which you struggle to take seriously at first. It provides a snapshot of the daily life of the community and gave me a good laugh.

The following stories – The Meeting and The Faith – are also in the same vein of ‘slice of life’ – the former one focusing on a young boy coming to manhood when he faces a wolf eye to eye, and the latter details the life of a priest who takes Transko under his wing to guide them to God. These two stories were my favourites from this series, especially The Faith, and I would be grateful if this story in particular was translated in English so I can give it to many of my non-Bulgarian friends, as it explains at length what I mean when I say that Christianity was only a very thin layer on top of folk beliefs, especially in rural areas (think oaths to God signed in wolf blood as an example).

The Mother and The Canadian bring the conclusion to the series by going back to that fateful night when a man and a wolf were both killed. The main character of The Canadian reminded me of Yordan from The Stricken by Teodora Dimova, which we reviewed last month – both have a feisty temperament, both are bastards and both of their stories are set in the beginnings of the communist regime in Bulgaria. Whilst Dimova’s Yordan becomes one of the Party’s henchmen, Delchev’s Dobri finds a creative outlet for his fiery emotions in woodwork and manages to find a resolution to his past.

Part two – Balkan Suite

The Balkan Suite is pitched as heavily inspired from folk stories, and I remember loving reading those as a child. Having read Transki Stories, I was used to Delchev’s writing style and expected an equally enjoyable and easy read as I had found so far. But unlike the childhood folk tales I was familiar with as a child, or the tragic, yet ridiculous and often lighthearted Transki Stories, the Balkan Suite short stories were not the smooth reading I was expecting.

I enjoyed all 4 of the stories, which were entirely independent in terms of characters, yet were connected with multiple overarching themes. Firstly, they are all set in the late years of the Ottoman Empire, which had enslaved Bulgaria for 500 years and the stories portray the uneasy tensions and conflicts between the oppressors and the oppressed, the prejudice towards the other, and towards anyone who would befriend the ‘other’.

Secondly, the stories ask the question of women’s position in the world – Bulgarian society at the time is extremely patriarchal, so the woman’s role is seen as a child bearer, and a type of currency – I’ll give you my pretty daughter in exchange for your fields and two goats. But in these stories Delchev elevates the image of the woman from subhuman by having female characters who are strong, determined, decide their own fate and show an unmatched passion for what they hold dear.

Having read Nelly’s review, I wasn’t surprised to see that Anglelina Voivoda is our mutually favourite story – I would happily take her as a role model, and, though not with gun and sword, I also fight for the same things she sets out to right, regardless of faith, nationality or status. I was, however, surprised to learn Nelly finds the story of Maiden’s Pass weak and unsatisfying, as I found the first person prayer to Virgin Mary through which the main character tells her story to be passionate and moving. This story puts forward the heavy decision between following one’s heart and obedience to traditions, and delves into how not only men can have a strong sexual drive; how purity, forgiveness, and hatred all have their place in a person’s heart.

Conclusion

I have greatly enjoyed Transki Stories and Balkan Suite, and would go back to them in the coming years. Circumstantially, they reminded me of a few of Nikolay Gogol’s stories which I read translated into English under the title The Collected Tales, some of which focus on the lost golden days of the idyllic village life. It was a hugely rewarding experience to read such well written and carefully edited Bulgarian literature, and I would definitely pick more books from Delchev. I will be overjoyed if this book is translated into other languages, especially English, as I would love to lend it to many of my non-Bulgarian friends.

Nel’s Perspective

I spotted Petar Delchev’s Transki Stories and Balkan Suite a few months back when I was browsing books to give as Christmas presents. What first grabbed my attention was the blue watercolour cover of the book. I love watercolour paintings and blue is my favourite colour so I spared no time in picking up the copy. I hadn’t read anything by Petar Delchev up to that point, but I’ve heard of some of his novels and it was just a matter of time for me to grab one of his books.

Generally, you will find a short text describing the contents of the book somewhere on its back. But when I flipped the copy to see the back cover, I saw a story excerpt, written in Tran dialect (a Bulgarian dialect). Silently reading it to myself, it sounded so distant from what I’m accustomed to and so musical.

The Tran dialect is, at least to me, very difficult to understand, especially when spoken. Reading it felt a bit different. What I initially thought was part of one of the short stories inside, was actually a short philosophical summary, describing the life philosophy of the Tran region people.

Transki Stories

Transki Stories is the first part of Petar Delchev’s book and it is a collection of six intertwined stories, depicting the life of the people of the Tran region (hence, the name of the stories). The tales span from the time of the Ottoman rule over Bulgaria up until the 1970s.

Delchev explains in the beginning of the book that the Tran dialect had been used sporadically, often only when there is dialogue. Despite this disclaimer, I was pleasantly surprised to find the stories were descriptive, the language is crude and colourful and at times, sprinkled with humour where needed.

Since much of the stories take place in various villages in the Tran region, dubbed in the book The Land of Wolves, the surrounding nature is of an equally important character, too. Nature is beautiful, but it can also be extremely harsh. This made some passages hard to read because the depictions of animal cruelty and fights between different animal species are graphic and gut-wrenching.

Most of the stories deal with different dilemmas, showing both the good and the bad side of humanity. Although it is common for folk tales to have a sharp distinction between heroes and villains; right and wrong; righteousness and corruption, Delchev’s stories are full of twists, which show his characters in different light, often leaving judgement of their actions to a higher power.

Out of all the Transki tales, I think The Meeting and The Faith were the strongest for me, with The Oath not far behind. The Meeting is the story of a young boy, who has to grow up very quickly when he finds himself snowed in with his dead grandfather and surrounded by a pack of wolves. The Faith, on the other hand, deals with the crumbling faith in Christianity of a monk, who upon seeing the pagan rituals and traditions of his congregation, hangs himself.

Personally, the weakest Transki story for me was The A’stralian. The premise was interesting but by the end it fizzled and there wasn’t much of a conclusion. Another reason why it felt so weak was that it came immediately after The Oath, which starts merrily, but has a sudden twist ending, which provides a lot of food for thought.

Balkan Suite

The second part of the book consists of four stories, which are not necessarily connected to the Tran region, but are still inspired by traditional songs and legends. What struck me first were the names of the stories because most of them suggested the tales will focus on women. I remember when I was in school, a large percent of the poems and stories involving female characters were cautionary tales. Women were either someone’s true love, the reason for two clans fighting, or there to support their families. They were either martyrs or silent supporters.

Very rarely were women presented as active heroes on par with men. This started gradually changing somewhere in the last 200 years. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to see strong female characters, despite all the horrific things many of them had to endure.

The Tomb of Pekin (“Пекина могила”) is the first of the four tales and it reveals the stories of Roida (Ройда), a small village shepherd girl; Vangela (Вангела), an old forest witch, and Ali Bashi (Али Баши), the son of an Ottoman ruler: three seemingly unrelated individuals. However, their fates are joined by gruesome acts of vengeance, which include torture, rape and lighting someone on fire. To be honest, parts of the text were uncomfortable to read…

Gyaur Bair (“Гяур баир” – lit. Heretic’s Hill) describes the life of a smart and strategic Ottoman chieftain, who has led an adventurous and just life. He was respected by other Ottoman rulers, as well as his subjects. At one point in his life he loses his wife and children to the plague. However, following long years of servitude to the Sultan, he decides to return home, where he falls in love with a Bulgarian mountain girl Rositsa (Росица). Her people are outcasts even among other Bulgarians due to the different way they worship God. She eventually gets shunned as a result of the forbidden love between an oppressor and his subject.

Voivode Angelina (“Ангелина войвода”) is probably my favourite out of the four, because at the centre is this strong woman, whose “crimes” have made her a target for many influential and political figures. She is supposed to be sentenced to death by a court of her own peers, but when she pleads her case, they eventually drop the accusations because they see a warrior in her own right.

Maiden’s Pass (“Момин проход”) was my least favourite story out of all the tales in the book. It starts with the main character ranting and swearing for dying at the hands of her family because she was promiscuous. I was disappointed to have such a weak ending of the book, especially after Voivode Angelina.

Final Thoughts

I think Transki Stories and Balkan Suite are a very nice collection of tales, which provide us with a snapshot of the Tran people’s beliefs and philosophies, traditions, daily struggles, as well as doomed fates. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in musing over existential questions, which I’m certain have bothered most of us not once or twice.

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