The Black Box – Interview with Alek Popov by Sebastian Fasthuber

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In his latest novel The Black Box, Alek Popov mixes dogs, memories, corporate life in Manhattan and his father’s ashes
A yuppie pukes up $500 worth of truffles and Bordeaux into a New York City gutter while his brother walks pinschers in Central Park. They are both Bulgarian and their father – or at least his remains – is packed away in a black box. Such a scene can only be straight out of an Alek Popov novel. Born in 1966, he is one of those rare Bulgarian writers who can describe the life of his compatriots abroad without tumbling from the lifeline of self-irony into the abyss of misguided patriotism. For that reason in 2001 his novel Misiya: London, or Mission: London, was a hit, selling out several editions and appearing in French, German, Hungarian, Serbian, Macedonian, Polish and Italian. His second novel Chernata kutiya, or The Black Box, is no exception. The story of two Bulgarian brothers who try to cope with memories of their late father and life in the United States won the Elias Canetti prize for literature and will soon debut in German. While not exactly a case of art imitating life, the novel is nevertheless rooted in Popov’s own past.

What inspired this story and these particular characters?

I lost my father suddenly when he was teaching maths at the University of Philadelphia. We got his ashes in a black plastic box It is a very painful matter that I wanted to treat in a fictional way. There are many other elements of the story rooted in reality: for instance, my brother lives and works in New York as a consultant just like the protagonist, Ned, so he provided me with loads of tips and details concerning corporate life.

Did your personal experience of loss help or hinder the writing process?

The hardest thing was to emancipate myself from the true story. I had it in my mind for many years, but it took on a clearer form during my last stay in New York in 2002. I was walking around near Ground Zero, passing by the fences still covered with photos of missing people. A strange feeling overcame me. What would happen if I were to see a picture of my late father there? I started to speculate about how he could reinvent himself, concealing his disappearance, setting up a new career, getting married, having other kids. Later on, however, I decided not to use any references to 11 September.

You address very serious issues in a very funny book. How do you strike a balance between the comic and the serious?

In my opinion, fun always counts. If you want to make readers think, you should not leave them half asleep. There is one thing I am always looking for when I pick a theme out of the global stockpile of problems – an issue’s potential to produce paradoxes. Humour is a bit like poetry: you need intuition and inspiration, the craft hardly matters. You can’t say, I’m going to sit down now and write something very funny. It just happens. Irony is a very special talent.

It often seems as if the absent father is the true protagonist of the book.

The missing father creates a kind of magnetic field which the brothers are caught up in. They struggle both to find him and to free themselves from him. This is a story of internal growth – a process that always forces you to confront the paternal figure. It also reflects the situation in Bulgaria after the fall of paternalistic Communism. The ghost of the omnipresent state still influences many people.

You have been living in Detroit for some time. How did you end up there?

I stayed in Detroit at my brother’s place. It was the first time I had left Bulgaria for a longer period after the Democratic Changes. Actually I had been in the United States before with my parents, in the South, but it couldn’t match Detroit. Then I was in the United States again for several months – this time in New York.

Does Bulgarian literature get the buzz, readers and rewards it deserves?

I think there is no general rule in art that applies to the whole sphere. It is a tough business, in any case. Art by its nature is a highly competitive field. The rewards are scarce and very unequally distributed. But there has always been something far mightier than worldly vanity that urges you to work.

Where does Bulgaria fit into world literature?

Some authors writing in Bulgarian are doing quite well and this is admirable given the fact they have to overcome much greater barriers than their colleagues writing in some of the bigger languages. Sometimes obstacles can be immensely creative. Still, I am trying not to think about literature in terms of nationality. Today’s writing relies more on
shared cultural codes and images.

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