The irresistible temptation of the naked truth | Alek Popov

Acclaimed Bulgarian novelist Alek Popov speaks to Teodor Reljic about his caustic brand of political satire ahead of his participation at this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival

Alek Popov: “Political satire is a vital part of democracy”
Alek Popov: “Political satire is a vital part of democracy”

Alek Popov speaks about the changing ‘fault lines’ across Europe, and how the Eastern European experience continues to inflect his work, even as he digs deeper into history for literary fodder

You are a writer of international repute but whose work is steeped in the political history of Bulgaria, and arguably – and perhaps inevitably – of the Balkan region as a whole. A lot of the comedy in Mission London – and even The Black Box – with its ‘Successful Bulgarians Abroad’ – derives from how people from the Balkans view the West, and vice-versa. Was this dynamic – and specifically, the kind of comic faux pas that this inferiority complex brings about – an important element of these works for you?

These two particular novels reflect a specific historical period in Bulgaria and Eastern Europe – the transition from communist totalitarianism to democracy. They deal with a set of stereotypes which evolve with the course of time, some of them disappearing, others replaced by new ones. During this period sweeping changes occurred not only in the Eastern Europe, but also in the so-called West. Many illusions turned out to be mere delusions. A kind of mutual disappointment arose from the high hopes we had for future in the 1990s. The unity we dreamt of achieving in just a few decades seems to be further away than ever, but the divides are different now. They run through the European societies as a whole rather than along the former East-West fault-line. For me as a writer, exploring this new dynamic is even more interesting. It has its roots in history and perhaps this is why my latest novel tells a story set in the World War II and the consequent Cold War. The legacy of that time is still hanging over Europe. 

It’s hardly surprising to read that your time as Cultural Attache at the Bulgarian Embassy in the UK heavily informed Mission London. Were you already drafting the novel – even just in your head – when you were occupying that post, and did you feel nervous about finally releasing it into the wider world, given that you must have lampooned some former colleagues?

Although I had already published several short story collections, I had no intention of writing a book based on my diplomatic experience. At least in the beginning… it happened naturally and, to some extent, involuntarily. The material gradually started to pile up and at one point I felt compelled to be true to my “writer’s vocation” and to fully use my impressions. It was an utterly irresistible temptation! I was well aware that the novel would spread a sort of shock and confusion in the establishment, but I didn’t care. It was my personal liberation. At first, not a single major publisher wanted to publish. After 10 years of freedom! So strong were the fear and self-censorship ingrained in people’s minds! I had no choice, but to put together a samizdat edition. It was followed by another one and so on, until people saw that the roof didn’t cave in. Political satire is a vital part of democracy.

How did it feel to have Mission London translated into various languages and – perhaps even more spectacularly – to oversee its adaptation into a feature film? Which elements of that book in particular do you think made it palatable both to a wide international readership, and suitable for adaptation into a film? 

It felt good. Especially when it seems you are being understood. But, frankly speaking, even when you write in your own language there is no guarantee the readers will grasp all you wanted to say – all the layers of meaning, all the nuances and hints. It’s all about translation. First you try to transmit the story which you have in your mind through the means of language, then somebody else translates what you have already “translated” in your native tongue and so on. Even writing for cinema is a sort of translation: you try to communicate the meaning through actions, dialogue and images. Something is lost every time, but there is a lot to be found in the process as well. Humor for instance is a very tricky matter when it comes to translation. It usually stems from local language and culture which makes it incomprehensible for readers unfamiliar with the context. Jokes involving word play are notoriously hard to convey. But there are universal things that can easily transcend borders and cultures – actions, situations, images. Especially actions.  

Speaking of adaptation and different media, could you talk a little bit about your experiences of writing for film and theatre? How did you branch out into these worlds, and what would you say are some of the most significant differences in writing for them as opposed to more ‘straightforward’ prose?

Until recently, prose was the only virtual reality humanity used to know. Cinema and theatre don’t work in the same way and don’t have the same impact on the imagination. It is surprising indeed what can be achieved by using only words. Cinema is probably the most syncretic form of the three, because it combines story-telling, imagery and dramaturgy. But it doesn’t leave much room for imagination: it offers one particular vision and that’s it. This is why cinema usually borrows ideas from prose and not vice-versa. However, in the last few decades, prose in general has drifted away from narrative, while cinema has somehow managed to preserve the art of story-telling and has taken it to a new level. But filmmaking is a long, expensive process in which the author gradually loses control. For me, prose remains the easiest and the most effective way to express my ideas, to tell a story and determine if it really works. But dramaturgy and especially cinema have given me a lot. They taught me to respect genres, to build and to develop my characters in more diverse and subtle ways, and last, but not least, to establish a certain discipline of imagination. 

Like most writers, you started out by writing short stories. Did you tackle some of the same themes and concerns as you eventually did in your novels and if so, how would you say you refined these further when you decided to expand into the novels?

Each story suggests its own form. Or, if you prefer, the form is encoded in the story. The nature of the story dictates the genre and the proper amount of words it needs to be told. A short story shouldn’t be told as a novel and vice-versa. Making this difference is a very important first step before the actual writing process begins. 

As we mentioned earlier, the angst of not being ‘European enough’ or somehow not up-to-standard to the rest of the ‘Western world’ animates at least two of your novels. Would you say this concern also spills over to the literary scene in Bulgaria and if so, how do you contend with it? 

At the end of 19th century the great Bulgarian satirist Aleko Konstantinov created a notorious character in our literature called Bay Ganyo. He travels around Europe selling rose oil and is inevitably caught in all sorts of confusing and comic situations. Bay Ganyo epitomises all the complexes and anxieties of the young, newly-liberated nation, but with a certain bravado which I particularly find genuine and touching. The theme has been widely exploited in both Bulgarian theatre and literature ever since. The point is, what does it actually mean to be European? And how this extreme concern can make you appear exactly the opposite of “European”. I think this “Self-Europeanization” syndrome exists not only in Eastern and South Europe, but in many other parts of the world, thus making these aspects of my works pretty understandable.

Are you looking forward to participating in the Malta Book Festival? Do you have any expectations of the island?

Malta is a kind of personal discovery. I am very fond of islands – this has something to do with my solitary spirit. As a writer, I create autonomous worlds separated from the mainland and I spend considerable amounts of time in them. They are almost like islands. I came to Malta for the first time eight years ago on my own – I simply jumped on a plane and hit town. Then I came twice for longer periods. What I like most here is the charming blend of cultures, the urban lifestyle which goes hand in hand with the nonchalant islander’s existence. It was here that I did the editing of The Black Box. I am looking forward to exploring the island even more closely and perhaps setting in Malta a chapter or two of the novel I am currently writing.

Alek Popov will be interviewed by Teodor Reljic at the Malta Book Festival on November 12 at 19:00. During the session – which will be taking place at the Temi Zammit Hall of the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Valletta – clips from the film adaptation of his novel Mission London will also be shown