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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

Europe — One Way of Reading It

Mirela Ivanova
Traduction de Susanne Höbel

Texte intégral

Европа е част от моята биограФия, от стиховете ми
и свободата ми. Hе континет а дърҗава на духа и
думите. Човек, у когото җивеят безброй хора.

1The first time I came across the term “Europe” was in a poem by our national poet, Ivan Vasov. In this poem he addresses Europe as a person who is dear and close to him and whom he would like to continue to trust, mainly because it knows the price of freedom. Therefore the attitude of indifference that Europe displays toward the brutality and the atrocities of the Turkish oppressors of our country is incomprehensible to him, and he is provoked to passionate rebuke in the face of this apathy. Right in the middle of this dramatic and, in all its cruel detail, epic and pathetic polemical poem, Vasov calls out in the name of his people, “Europe! Hold out your hand to me and I will be saved!”

2I grew up in a village, free and without restraint. At night, when my mother came home from work, tired and downcast, she read me poems by our classical Bulgarian poets. Presumably this opened up for her a parallel world where she could be happy — a world beyond a reality that was so unjust to her, the young dentist plodding wearily along amid the country dirt and her own poverty. Thus, at an early age, I grew accustomed to the parallel existence of two worlds. During the day there were the open fields, the dusty roads, the wild games, the climbing of trees, and the unsentimentally crude language of the peasants; and in the evening, by contrast, there was the magic of the big words — their emotional luster, the tragic spirit of the lament with its dizzying pathos and the aureole of verse recited with pathos and resounding around the rich hair of my beautiful and sad mother. Vasov’s Europe, too, demonstrated the existence of two parallel worlds: “What kind of Europe is this, great because of its humanity, / yet unfeeling at the sight of these atrocious pictures ...” — the idea of freedom of the people “luminous like altar candles” existing side by side with conceited indifference and economic interest, inevitably provoking “the awful guilty verdict” of the “enraged muse.”

3At the time I was four or five years old and, to my mind, Europe was indeed a person who failed to grasp the reality of our unjust suffering and did not even want to understand it. A person with whom it would be hard to find a common language, for striving to understand the other is the only bridge that can lead the way into foreign fields with the aim of them becoming our own. But I was also made aware of suffering and held tight to the word “freedom,” thinking of it as a kind of stigma of my own fate. Later on, in my geography lessons, I learned all the boring facts about the continent of Europe, the square miles of its land mass, the number of states, the natural wonders and ore mines, the highest mountains, and all the rest of it. Yet those accumulated facts remained just that and did not stir my easily aroused childish imagination, where freedom and suffering shouted cacophonously, yet inexplicably, with the voice of a single person whose name was Europe. The old Hellenic myths were of no use to me, apart from confirming my childish notion that Europe was a person, and this notion joined up with the sensibilities of adolescence, the period in life where the gods fail us, too.

4It was not until I started at the German Grammar School and had to memorize close to a hundred words per day during the first few weeks that I became aware of the fact that Europe must also be a language by means of which new worlds would eventually speak to me. Whereas it was no more than an inkling at first, I later discovered the German expressionists, both painters and poets. I played hooky from school and hid in the library, where I abandoned myself to their force, to their all-consuming and mysterious passion. Much later I was to discover a similar intensity in the works of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca and the Bulgarian poet Geo Milev, both of whom were cravenly murdered in a Europe of revolutions and utopias of justice.

5By the age of twenty I had learned a lot about Europe, and when I was twenty-five I had a map of Europe pinned to the wall of the basement room where I lived in Sofia. I was convinced I would only ever be able to know Europe by means of my imagination and through literature, and so I traveled the continent in the company of the great Greek poets Kavafis, Seferis, and Sikelianos and visited the beautiful and mythical Arcadia, an impossible, yet fervently coveted, world beyond. By this time Europe was no longer a geographical entity, but a state of words and spirit. Today I remember the many romantic gestures that served as my refuge, as compensation for my lack of freedom. I took French lessons in order to read the French symbolists in the original. I spent days comparing the various Bulgarian translations of Baudelaire and Rimbaud with the originals, or reciting the poems of Apollinaire aloud to myself in order to learn them by heart. With its damp walls and dark austerity, my “ivory basement,” as I came to call it later, helped me open my inner self to the manifold and never-ending tragedy of European poetry. Hölderlin and Zwetajewa fascinated me, the dark side of the word that makes exiles of all of us, and I was obsessed by the idea that I had to join my lot with the fates, and the follies, and the suicides of these poets. Those years when Europe was not accessible to me as a reality, when I had to create a Europe for myself in order to learn to love it passionately, seem, in retrospect, like a gift. My self-education was unplanned, greedy; I devoured knowledge and sadness in order to find the courage to be my own true self. Today I realize how much time I had then — how much loneliness to be peopled only with words. I kept a diary, I wrote and read, I sought to form my character and hunted for clues to show me the way. Of course, at the same time I was also looking for work, for life is also a concrete and mundane affair and, in addition to beauty and the sublime, it requires food and clothing. Thus I continued to live in parallel worlds, though they were far less compatible than those of my childhood. Moving from one to the other was achieved either by an enormous effort on my part, or it pulled me down into the depths of despair, as into marshy land. I remember not leaving the house for days on end, staring at some point on the map of Europe and drawing up mental lists, to the point of insanity, of all the restrictions under which my life had been decreed to unfold. But, of course, youth and poetry are stronger than any despair they manage to bring forth; they have enormous resources of energy, imagination, and pride at their disposal and are willing to master obstacles of all manner.

6In 1988, after encountering innumerable humiliating barriers, I finally succeeded in finding employment as editor of a magazine on children’s literature. At the same time I was working on my second volume of poetry. The title, Lonely Game, I borrowed from an essay by Hermann Hesse. I had to go through endless and almost hopeless discussions with an otherwise supportive editor regarding notions of pessimism and optimism in my poems. I defended each and every word, rejecting any suggestion of cuts. Eventually the publishing house for “Bulgarian Writers” accepted my book for publication, and I received a small advance on my royalties. It was enough to allow me to buy my first painting, and to sign up for a trip to Greece organized by the publishing house. It was a fascinating and exciting journey, and at the same time shameful. One member of our group, Angel, a member of the translators’ association, was a state spy. He had a good sense of humor and brought with him several bottles of brandy, but otherwise had no distinguishing features. A number of people in the group brought things they wanted to sell in Greece: sheep’s cheese, terrycloth towels, even inner tubes for tires. Officially we were allowed to change only thirty leva, a ridiculously small sum no matter what one wanted to buy. This trip to Greece was my first real live contact with Europe. Basically we traveled through parts of Greece that had formerly belonged to Bulgaria, visiting towns whose names and stories also existed in my mother tongue. But what I marveled at was something else: the brightness of it all, the great variety of things, the different colors, the liveliness of it, life going on day and night. In a poem about Kavala I wrote: “This town is a veranda with a view of freedom.” The Europe of my imagination corresponded to the reality of Europe, and all my senses and sensibilities trembled with enthusiasm during those few days, while a colleague, who had previously visited a cousin in West Germany, kept saying to us, “But over there — if only you could see what it’s like over there!”

7Thus, in an elated mood, I was stunned by the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall and by my first invitation to the Literarische Colloquium that, at the time, was still situated in West Berlin. At first it was not an endlessly complicated and humiliating procedure to obtain a visa. All you had to do was to present the required documents and pay the fee. Later on, however, when I had to stand in a long line thinking that my turn would never come, I frequently remembered that poem by Ivan Vasov. Full of vengeful thoughts, I reflected on the conceited indifference of a Europe that scorned even those measures that it had introduced as protection against the locusts from Eastern Europe, which threatened its cozy privacy. I took my own small revenge by going to Amsterdam and Paris illegally for a few days, places that I had ached for with longing during my enclosed youth. Through the railings of a bridge, I stared at the flowing waters of the Seine or the Neckar and let myself be carried away by my favorite poems. As soon as I stepped onto a street in Berlin, London, or Paris, I became one with its freedom and let myself drift in its immensity; sitting in a café, I looked out on those streets for hours and enjoyed them endlessly and insatiably; walking through galleries and museums I became familiar with them and the people in them.

8The spiritual variety that Europe carries around constantly, like a rucksack, has not made me unaware of the tangible order and rules that govern life, the smiling day-to-day here. With meanings and symbols creating an inner tension, I am traveling from city to city, knowing that I am basically traveling to my inner self, to my childhood, where two parallel worlds were united harmoniously and without complications — the infinity of the word with the infinity of the fields and meadows, the buildings of civilization with the dust of our games, the celebration of human closeness with the metaphysical pain of man, “who is on his own in the heart of the Earth,” the “lightheartedness of the poet,” as Unamuno describes it, with the stress of modern man, who is preoccupied by innumerable, mutually exclusive, tasks.

9Europe presents a complexity of life and of the mind, a semblance of order uniting all our human and national imperfections and talents; it is a perpetual invitation to practice tolerance towards others, a good place for parallel worlds that are mutually dependent for their existence. Europe is part of my biography, my poems, and my freedom. It is not one continent, but a state of mind and of words. It is one person uniting an infinite number of people.

10Vasov, our national poet, in whose museum I am presently working, mentioned in his poems the names of those who “are luminous, like altar candles in ubiquitous darkness.”


Further Reading:
Window on the Black Sea: Bulgarian Poetry in Translation. Edited by Richard Harteis in collaboration with William Meredith. Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1992.
Carnage: New Writing from Europe. Edited by Michael Blackburn. Sunk Island Publishing, 1993.

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Born in Sofia in 1962, the poet, journalist, translator, and editor Mirela Ivanova studied Bulgarian and Russian Philology at the University of Plovdiv and worked as a curator at the Ivan Vasov Museum. To date she has published seven volumes of poetry including “Stone Wings,” “Whispers,” “Lonely Game,” “Memory for Details,” “Dismantle Toys” and “Eclecticism.” Mirela Ivanova writes essays, reviews on fiction and theater performances, deals with literature history, writes scenarios for documentary films and translates from German. In 1994 she translated and published an anthology of modern German poetry, entitled “The Wandering of Stones.” She has also translated from German works by Shara Kirsch, Elke Erb, Gregor Laschen, Ernest Wicner, Durs Grünbein, Uwe Kolbe, as well as Ernst Gombrich’s popular work “History of Mankind for Young Readers.” Mirela Ivanova is one of the most famous modern poets in Bulgaria. Her poems have been translated into English, German, Spanish, Czech, Hungarian, Turkish, Serbian and Latvian. In 2002 she was awarded the Hubert Burda Prize for young writers.

Susanne Höbel (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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