Richard Beard about “The Black Box” by Alek Popov

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Prize-winning Bulgarian novelist Alek Popov has a uniquely scabrous view of Bulgarians abroad. In his first novel Mission: London, Popov created an upstairs downstairs farce in the Bulgarian Embassy in London, where the upward curve of ambition CROSSED WITH the downward curve of corruption and incompetence. The consequent clash of cultures (in more than one sense), created a darkly comic and increasingly absurd post Cold War fictional landscape.

In his latest novel published into English, The Black Box, Popov devotes his comic energy to two Bulgarian brothers. In a device reminiscent of Changing Places, an early novel by the British comic writer David Lodge, one brother is a successful financier in New York, the other an impoverished publisher from the old country. Popov shares Lodge’s taste for comic confusion among generally well-meaning characters.

In the Bulgarian hinterlands, Ned the financial consultant from Manhattan tries to find out what has happened to US funds sunk into the remains of Bulgarian heavy industry. Meanwhile, back in New York, his cash-strapped brother Angel finds a job walking dogs in Central Park. Needless to say, with his taste for farce and complication, Popov soon has Angel inveigled into frenetic comic set-ups where dog eat dog becomes a distinct literal possibility.

This doggy strand of the US plot temporarily gives way to Angel’s quest to discover what actually happened to his father, a Professor in Chatanooga during the Communist era, whose ashes were sent home to Sofia in the black box of the title.

Again, as in his first novel, Popov investigates culture clash. Black Box wrestles with the parochial view that there are two places in the world: Bulgaria, and everywhere else. In this novel everywhere else is represented by contemporary America, and Popov gets plenty of self deferential comic mileage from defining Bulgarians into two distinct types.

The SBA’s are Successful Bulgarians Abroad. The NSAB’s are the Non-Successful Arses stuck in Bulgaria, and the satirical bite of the first part of the book comes from a Bulgarian abroad who is far from the success everyone at home ought to think he is.

Popov is a satirist a heart, and it turns out that success in the new capitalist world order is always a compromise. Over in Europe, Ned’s journey into the wasted industrial heartlands of old Bulgaria lead him to Kurtz, a rogue investment executive who has gathered around himself a band of loyal followers.

The reference to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – where it is now and what it might mean – is a question mocked throughout the comic misadventures of the novel. Old Europe is the heart of darkness, the destination of the black box containing the ashes of Bulgarian fathers. But there’s also a dark heart to Central Park, where the Dogsters Union control who can walk the capitalist walk, and there is a blackness too that can pervade even a typically provincial US campus.

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