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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter III. Literary representations of the “national character”

Bay Ganyo

Aleko Konstantinov
Traduction de Alena Alexandrova

Texte intégral

1Title: Бай Ганьо. Невероятни разкази за един съвременен българин (Bay Ganyo. Unbeleivable stories about a contemporary Bulgarian)

2Originally Published: Sofia, Пенчо В. Спасов, 1895

3Language: Bulgarian

4The excerpts used are from Произведения, vol. I (Sofia: Български писател, 1957), pp. 109–110, 119–121, 123.

About the author

5Aleko Konstantinov [1863, Svishtov (present-day north Bulgaria) – 1897, on the road to Pazardzhik (central Bulgaria)]: lawyer, journalist and writer. Born into an upper class family, Konstantinov received the best education available, graduating from the law school at Odessa. He became a public prosecutor in Sofia, but soon left his position because of political pressure and started to work as a lawyer. At the end of the nineteenth century, Konstantinov became quite famous as a free-lance journalist and an author of travelogues. He was a unique personality, sympathetic to leftist ideology but rarely involved in political activities himself. His pseudonym, which became his nickname, was Щастливец (lucky man). His passion for modern society and industry, as well as his social criticism is expressed in his first major work ‘To Chicago and back’. He was also the author of extremely sharp political satires especially on Prince Ferdinand’s regime and on the Prime-Minister Konstantin Stoilov. Konstantinov died at the age of 34, assassinated by extremists. The target, in fact, was his colleague Mihail Takev, with whom he was traveling for the latter’s campaign as a candidate of the ‘Democratic Party’ in the parliamentary elections. In the national cultural tradition, Konstantinov functions as the paradigmatic figure of an ami du people, a critic of political corruption, and a proponent of modern life (technical progress, tourism, etc.). He is traditionally perceived as a positive counterpart to the ambiguous hero he created, Bay Ganyo.

6Main works: До Чикаго и назад [To Chicago and back] (1894); Бай Ганьо [Bay Ganyo] (1895).


7Public and private life in the autonomous Bulgarian principality was profoundly transformed by state-supported policies of modernization. Social and cultural dimensions of life in particular were deeply affected by what was called the process of ‘Europeanization’. European models of the modern way of life were hastily sought by the populations of the rapidly growing modernized cities, in particular by members of the state administration, the intellectuals, and the merchant class. This complex process of social transformation involved, of course, a number of paradoxes and cultural misreadings. In his famous play ‘The misunderstood civilization’ (1871), the influential playwright Dobri Voynikov satirized the multiple misunderstandings caused by the obsession with European culture and lifestyle. With his Bay Ganyo, Aleko Konstantinov followed Voynikov’s tradition, radicalizing it in the form of a social satire.

8Bay Ganyo is, without any doubt, the most popular figure in Bulgarian literature. Aleko Konstantinov’s hero has become the ultimate personification of Bulgarianness in the eyes of the common reader. The family name of Bay Ganyo, is, symbolically enough, Balkanski. Ganyo Balkanski is a Bulgarian nouveau riche, who travels throughout Europe to sell rose oil. The structure of the story is not cohesive: there is no general plot but a few anecdotal events about Bay Ganyo’s ‘adventures’ narrated by Bulgarian students, who had met Bay Ganyo in different locations around Europe (for example, ‘Bay Ganyo at the opera’ and ‘Bay Ganyo at the baths’). The comic element in these anecdotes emanates from the discrepancy between the supposed European cultural code and Bay Ganyo’s uncouth behavior. It is notable that Bay Ganyo is not a victim of his ignorance. He always succeeds in imposing his own idiosyncrasies in a rather aggressive way and, moreover, behaves like a colonizer, perceiving the other’s cultural order as primitive and underdeveloped. The selected excerpts demonstrate a crucial ‘ideological’ digression from the text in order to discuss issues related to European culture. The civilizational pathos of the author, as illustrated in these paragraphs, implies the creation of a homogeneous negative image of the Balkans, or more generally of the Orient, as the Other of Europe.

9The figure of Bay Ganyo was a real bone of contention in the debate on Bulgarian ‘national character’. The interpretations of Konstantinov’s famous hero depended upon the cultural and the ideological context in which they were articulated. It would be misleading to presume that Bay Ganyo was initially perceived as a personification of the Bulgarian national character. Rather, he was perceived as a version of the uncultivated and aggressive braggadocio, as encountered in comedia dell’arte. This perception, common in European literature, was implied, for instance, in the sub-title of the first translation of Konstantinov’s work into French, Bay Ganyo ou le Tartarin bulgare (referring to Alphonse Daudet’s famous hero Tartarin de Tarascon). Among the first critics who analyzed the ‘extra-literary’ substratum of Bay Ganyo were leading Marxist thinkers, first Dimitar Blagoev and later Georgi Bakalov. For them, Bay Ganyo was an embodiment of a new social type: the brutal entrepreneur, and (in view of the second and less famous part of the book) the bourgeois politician. The first authors to perceive Bay Ganyo as a synthesis of negative national features were Krastyu Krastev, the director of the leading modernist journal Мисъл (Thought) (where the first feuilletons about Bay Ganyo were published), and the literary historian Alexander Teodorov-Balan. In the 1920s, Boyan Penev, one of the most important modernist literary historians, reacted against such a perception, stating that Bay Ganyo was a universal type and not a negative national one, personifying cultural underdevelopment rather than a specific Bulgarian predicament.

10The reception of Bay Ganyo’s figure as a negative cultural or national type became more significant in the context of the development of the field of national psychology (or characterology) and the debates related to it. In the 1930s, the German Slavist Gerhard Gesemann instigated the most intensive debate in this respect. Gesemann interpreted Bay Ganyo positively in terms of racial theories as a biological type, personifying Bulgarian national strength. Some of the most influential Bulgarian intellectuals of the period (such as Dimitar Mihalchev, Georgi Konstantinov, Konstantin Petkanov and Georgi Tzanev) reacted to Gesemann’s article in a 1931 issue of Философски преглед (Philosophical review). Later, right-wing authors attempted to symbolically rehabilitate Bay Ganyo. Thus, for Nayden Sheytanov, Bay Ganyo is more than simply a biological type. Surprisingly, he interprets Bay Ganyo in a metaphysical perspective as a self-ironizing spirit, and, at the same time radicalizing the biologist interpretation, describes him as the symbol of primordial vitality. Undoubtedly, this inherent ambiguity is the reason why this literary character became a crucial issue of debate in discussions on national psychology.


Bay Ganyo

From Chapter 7: Bay Ganyo as a Guest

12Bay Ganyo and the “stubborn kid” could not enter into a conversation. Somehow instinctively and from their first meeting they knew that they were not for each other because according to the Bulgarian saying (what elegant sayings created the Bulgarian genius!) “The birds of a feather flock together.” The first had come from Bulgaria and the other had lived in Europe. They should have been able to find a common topic for conversation, since there should be little difference between the West and our homeland. However, Bay Ganyo could not think of that difference and how could he! He, the man who travels always with his own atmosphere, his own manners and customs, he who looks for a place that fits his own tastes, meets people of his own kind, whose presence he is used to and in whom he, of course, does not see anything new. When he goes to Vienna, he usually takes a room in Hotel London. There the air is suffocating and smells of kitchen and of hydrogen sulphide in the same way as in his home, there he meets the same Turks, Armenians and Serbs whom he is used to meeting every day. He would not go to the Café Habsburg because he is afraid of having to pay too much. Instead he would go to the Greek cafe, which is dirty and full of suffocating smoke as are our cafes. If he goes to trade, he goes to the Bulgarian traders and he does not even think that through them he comes into contact with Europeans. That out of this limited sphere begins European life, he did not know and was not interested in learning about. The manners, the moral world of the European, his home atmosphere—which are all the result of an age-old tradition and the gradual perfection of mental abilities—the social struggles and the way they are conducted, the museums, the libraries, the philanthropic organizations, the fine arts and the thousand manifestations of progress did not burden Bay Ganyo’s mind.

13“As if my father had listened only to operas,” would say Bay Ganyo, and fascinated by this ultra-retrograde principle, he would not be troubled too much by the “new fashion,” i.e. by civilization. But in spite all this, Bay Ganyo does not have the courage of the Chinese to build a wall to stop the invasion of civilization, and although the principle “my father did not do it and I will not do it either,” inspires him, one could see him putting on clean shirt and gloves; and when he is under even more pressure, he puts on a dress-coat, annoyed and with laughter, but he finally puts it. One could hear him saying “pardon,” speaking of the “constetution,” showing off here and there that he loves “soup,” when actually he would prefer chilly broth ahead of all European dishes.

From Chapter 8: Bay Ganyo in Switzerland

14At any hour of the day I used to visit that cafe, from nine in the morning until late in the evening, and I used to always find the same persons who were busy with the same things—backgammon, prefa and trenta una. When those young men had time to read and in what way they learned about the European culture remained unclear to me. The only thing which I saw was that almost none of them spoke decent French. Even before some of them opened their mouth to speak in that language, you would recognize that they came from the East. The rough intonation, the diction and the construction of the phrases were quite telling. From time to time to the company used to join a few nihilist Jews who were snapping at the tyrant from the dark corners of the pub. I don’t understand the sympathy for those dark heroes who were able to be at the same time nihilists, secret police agents and anarchists and were misusing public money, libraries and other properties in the worst possible way. Instead of becoming friends with the French, the Germans and the English, who were always impeccable in their entertainment and work; instead imbuing themselves with their spirit of decency, diligence, honesty and courtesy; they were finding their ideal in the Jews or the Greeks or some of the Armenians, who were all exploiting in the meanest way their resources and energy and were involved in their milieu of malicious, crude and vain conversation. Later I learned that in this city there were other Bulgarians who did not visit that cafe and were doing their studies in the most serious way.

15One day in the midst of a heated game of trenta una, when the Argentinean had lost about 100 francs, entered a person with cocked fur cap, with a stick under his arm and two saddlebags.

16“O-o! Bay Ganyo! Welcome!” shouted the whole company.

17“Good day! How are you?” answered the newcomer and generously declining the kind offers to take a seat at their tables, he came and sat at my table, and while sitting, he spilled my coffee. Crude character!


19“It is all right, don’t worry,” I hurried to answer, although I noticed that he was not worried all that much.

20“A-a, are you Bulgarian? Well, good afternoon, if that is so! Ganyo Balkanski! Where do you come from, your Honor?”

21I told him. We introduced ourselves.

22“With this damned rose oil I travel around the world,” said Bay Ganyo in a desperate tone.

23“Why? Isn’t that trade successful?”

24“Well, I should tell you the truth, Sir, it is not!”

25“But why?”

26“Why! We suffer from our heads. Once, when you said Bulgarian oil, they would run like wasps onto honey! You enter a drug store and should you manage to say that you are Bulgarian before even saying “Bonjour,” he will ask “Essence de rose” with an ironic smile. Well, who pays attention to the sniggering if they are buying? But they do not want anything! He will say to give him a gram as a sample. He is mocking you! How are you able to give him a gram? You will pour one gram and waste two. But “My friend,” I say, “that oil is not what you think, this is pure oil.” He will answer, “Well, this is what you all say, this is what you repeat all the time.” He will say this directly and he does not even wish to speak to you. It is always this fake plant oil, damn it! ... The Anatolians caused all this trouble! They are not but one or two souls. They are all over Europe, in crowds: Anatolians, Armenians, Turks, Greeks and all of them cheat and lie to the world, that one they burned, those they fooled! When you smell them of rose oil, they make as if nothing has happened!

27The innocent East appeared clear to me with all its beauties. The clattering of backgammon and the flapping of cards on all the tables around us made that image complete—incredible noise and smoke! […]

28“Hey, garçon! Une cafe,” shouted Bay Ganyo.

29“Monsieur!” responded the quick garçon.

30Une cafe et apporte gazette Bulgare,” ordered Bay Ganyo and, addressing me, added, “I did not forget those whoresons the French.”

31The garçon served him his coffee and a dirty cover to which were attached several Bulgarian newspapers with torn edges.

32“Let’s see what the news is, what is happening around the world,” said Bay Ganyo, opening the covers and diving into the politics. I observed from the side how he was eagerly and with pleasure reading the paragraphs, smiling and with shining eyes saying now and then “bravo!” At one moment full with admiration he turned to me, “What a mess they made! Listen, I will read to you...”

33“Excuse me Mister Balkanski, at least here I do not want to hear about those politics,” I said and I got up from my chair, “Farewell!”

34“No, hear just this: “That gang of bandits, procurers, robbers and base persons who get involved in filthy business...” Wait, this is even better!...”

35“No, no! Farewell, Mister Balkanski,” I shouted decisively and walked out.


Alena Alexandrova (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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