Georgi Tenev, Interview by Silviya Choleva

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Winner of the 2007 Vick Prize for the Bulgarian novel of the year talks on digital cameras, the Communist Party and his new glasses

What do Chernobyl and S & M have in common? Not much, you may think, until you read Georgi Tenev’s Vick Prize-winning novel Partien dom, or Party Headquarters. But combining Communism, sex and nuclear disaster is all in a day’s work for the Sfumato dramatist.

In 2004, Englishman Edward Vick, head of the German-based translation company EVS that also has offices in Bulgaria, created the Vick Foundation to support Bulgarian literature.

The novel of the year award is just one part of the initiative designed to give writers a chance to see their work published in English. In the beginning, Bulgarians were sceptical. Three years later, however, the Vick Prize has become a prestigious award for prose.

Before Party Headquarters, Tenev had already published four books, founded the Triumviratus Art Group with director Javor Gardev and stage designer Nikola Toromanov, hosted the “Library” television programme about books, written plays that have been performed in Germany, France, and Russia, and fathered a little girl who has recently taken her first steps.

How did you feel when you received the prize?

I was nervous and blinking constantly because I’m not used to my new glasses yet. After they handed me the award, everybody stepped back and for three whole minutes – it seemed like much longer to me! – I was alone amidst the photographers. I just stood there counting the flashes and regretting that since the advent of digital cameras nobody bothers limiting their shots. I also realised what celebrity defendants must feel like when surrounded by journalists, while they just sit there helplessly in handcuffs! I was happy, but couldn’t bring myself to grin and wave.


Is the media buzz around the Vick Prize just glitz and glamour, or has it actually helped generate interest in contemporary Bulgarian literature
?

In Bulgaria’s limited market, it really is a big deal when a single literary award can generate that much hype. Three days after the awards ceremony, my publisher called to tell me that they had only 70 copies of Party Headquarters left, and that they’d had to turn down orders for hundreds of copies. So we needed to urgently discuss a second run.

How does your work as a dramatist influence your novels?

Theatre has taught me self-discipline: no mercy for the text, no respect for verbal beauty merely for the bons mots. That’s why I wrote Party Headquarters in collaboration with an editor. I began working with Kalina Garelova (VAGABOND’s film critic) on my previous novel Kristo i svobodnata lyubov, or Christo and Free Love, which came out in 2005. Without her, the two books would have been very different. Party Headquarters is about the 1980s and early 1990s, but it seems that younger Bulgarians are not particularly interested in that period. Some are very interested. I don’t see it as anything unusual, since people who care about morality, conscience and truth are always few and far-between.

Does Bulgarian literature stand a chance in Europe?

One way of measuring success is through public recognition and large print runs. The other is the test of time. Many Bulgarian authors write works that do not resonate with the current atmosphere and market in Bulgaria. Some of them have emigrated, some have quit writing in Bulgarian, while those who have remained here are unknown to the wider international public. The drama of their fate, if any, is the drama of the language itself. Bulgarian is limited in terms of its use and the interest it provokes, so the chances of the world discovering Bulgarian literature are slim.

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