“We are Enslaved by the Myths of the Past” – Interview with Alek Popov by Vujica Ognienovic

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The ghosts of history are still too viable and are exploited unscrupulously by populist charlatans for manipulating people and their emotions.

Writer Alek Popov in conversation with Montenegrin journalist Vujica Ognienovic about his latest novel The Palaveevi Sisters: in the Storm of History. Critic defined it as the first partisan novel written after the fall of communism in Bulgaria. The novel brings back to live an almost forgotten world – especially for the new generations whose knowledge about communism and the civil conflicts during 2nd WW is pretty vague. The interview was first published in the Montenegrin newspaper Vijesti.

What was the challenge for you to write the novel The Palaveevi Sisters – in the Storm of History?
It turned out that this is still a very touchy matter, an aspect of history that is still very much alive – something I didn’t fully realize in the beginning. Writing about this recent past inevitably evokes the ghosts of painful memories and unresolved conflicts, thus provoking strong passions from different and often opposite directions. The theme is so heavily loaded with propaganda and all sorts of taboos that opening this door is like entering a minefield. Especially if you approach the past with a sense of humor! The label of “parody” is constantly pending over such books, but literature has a long tradition of exposing the absurd and grotesque side of war. Great satirical novels such as Jaroslav Hashek’s The Good Soldier Schweik and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 have inspired several generations and still remain relevant.

What is the historical background of your novel?
When I was a child, my grandmother used to recount the Sofia bombings during WWII, mixing her stories with fantastic elements, making them sound almost fairytale-like. These stories left an indelible mark in my memory. Here probably lies the subconscious source of my interest in this period and in the subsequent decades. Later on, as a teenager, I grew up with partisan novels and films, which were the adventure stories of the times. They were key elements of the propaganda machine, too, but at that age I didn’t care much about ideology. When I started working on the novel several years ago, I had to go through many files from that period, but this time as an adult determined to confront the myths of his childhood. I paid close attention to the “documented” side of the period’s history, examined memoirs, police archives, military records and historical places in order to recreate authentic surroundings in which my story and my characters can grow and develop. I believe that research and development go together, they interact and mingle, thus making the process of writing an exploration in itself.

The genre of this novel is a partisan novel. It is unusual to write a partisan novel, seventy years after World War II. How do you explain this endeavor?
The genre actually is an adventure novel, or an adventure saga if you prefer, given my intent to build a bigger narrative out of this story. Of course, the novel itself plays a lot with the genre of the partisan novel/movie and it often takes on some of the genre’s stylistic qualities, but it doesn’t fulfill any ideological functions and is therefore unsuitable for propaganda of any kind. The sense of humor plays a central role in the story. Throughout the novel, there are many references to pop-culture, pulp fiction and comic books. The late 30’s and the 40’s were the Golden Age of the American comic book, in that period some of the most of inspiring superheroes were created – Superman, Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman and so on. I created a kind of post-modern environment where American pop-culture, socialist realism and history mingle and interact. However, the structure of the narrative itself remains classical and that makes the novel highly readable.

You started the story of The Palaveevi Sisters from today’s point of view, from the name of a street in Sofia. How then did the story about the sisters develop?
The story begins in Bulgaria in the 1940’s. The Second World War is raging. Bulgaria is an ally of the Axis. Two girls from an affluent family, the twins Kara and Ira, go on a quest for freedom and adventure, determined to avoid the fate of traditional bourgeois wives. Raised by a British governess, they study in the most elite girls’ school in Sofia and are avid readers of American comic books regularly sent to them by their uncle in the USA. Inspired by a combustible mix of superheroes and leftist ideas, the teens decide to run away from their safe haven to join the partisan rebels. They stage their own kidnapping to provide resources for the revolution, but the plan fails and the twin beauties find themselves lost in the mountains amid a bunch of crude and uptight male fighters led by “comrade” Medved, a tough commander who went through the grueling school of Soviet military counterintelligence. Medved keeps a grim secret about his past and a bitter knowledge of the Stalinist paradise. What follows is a wild journey through tragicomical absurdity, delusions, betrayal, battles, death and survival.

Two ideologies clash in the novel. You make fun of both of them. For what purpose?
As I already mentioned, the novel deals a lot with ideologies (inevitably!) without being ideological in itself, which for some people is a source of deep confusion. The story cuts boldly through historical myths and ideological clich?s.  It takes an unusual – but much needed, in my opinion – approach to the past, which has something in common with Monty Python’s playful satirical stylistic. This approach is very liberating. Here in the Balkans, we are continuously enslaved by the myths of the past. The ghosts of history are still too viable and are exploited unscrupulously by populist charlatans for manipulating people and their emotions.

What does it mean for today’s young readers in Bulgaria to read stories from World War II?
It actually fills a substantial gap in their education. This part of history is studied very superficially in schools because our society still lacks a common understanding of this aspect of our past and it seems unlikely that we will resolve this issue in the near future. We live more or less in a multi-historical society, where different groups of people have their own interpretation of the past, defined mostly by their family history and ideological background. I believe literature can bridge to a certain degree the different versions of history by exposing their internal contradictions and the incoherence of human perceptions in general. It could teach us how to survive in a world full of paradoxes and contradicting stories without necessarily killing each other.  The inability to accept paradoxes is often linked to a certain limitation in one’s cognitive abilities and could be the result of a psychological disorder. We live in an imperfect world. Improving society to a certain degree has proven to be quite possible; however, history has shown that trying to make society perfect has brought more harm than good. The awareness of totalitarian regimes remains crucial for the civic education in the 21st century and WWII is part of this knowledge. One of the most sinister paradoxes of the war was that half of Europe ended up yet again in a cruel dictatorship. How did the West let this division happen? Did they have a choice?

The story of the sisters is not finished yet. What are your plans?
Actually, what you have read is only the first book of a bigger narrative, a trilogy set in a larger time span: the 40’s, the 50’s and the 60’s. The second part is due to come out by the end of 2016 and the third will come hopefully in the next few years. The plot unfolds in the Balkans, the UK and the USA. I am currently working on the second part of the trilogy with the working title: The Palaveevi Sisters: In the Ice of the Cold War. At the end of the first part the sisters’ paths diverge. One of them, Ira, is found by Tito’s partisans and joins the unit of Commanding Officer Panther. I am not going to reveal exactly what happens, but a substantial part of the plot is set in the region of the Prokletie and Kopaonik Mountains. The Cold War finds the twins on the opposing sides of the Iron Curtain … They both live in London, knowing nothing about each other. Each believes the other to be dead. Until March 5th, 1953 – the day of Stalin’s death, when they accidentally run into each other … A joyous reunion or the beginning of a tricky spy affair?

Does this book contain a recognizable mentality of the people from the Balkans?
It does, and very much so, in fact. There is a rich gallery of secondary characters who are typically Balkan and ponder over the global course of history from their narrow-minded point of view. Superstitions and pagan rituals often go alongside or mix with present-day ideological clich?s, which can be very amusing. The bizarre and the absurd are part of the carnivalesque spirit of the book and are deeply rooted in our Balkan culture, where high and low often change places. Travesty, heroism and petty details of everyday life are cooking together in this witch’s cauldron.

There are Russian characters in the novel, or characters of Russian influence. This is a thing of the past. May it also be a thing of the future?
In fact, they are not Russian, but Soviet characters … They belongs to a tribe unified and defined by ideology and lifestyle, not by ethnicity. I guess the Yugoslav identity Tito was trying to build was something similar, but on a smaller scale. The USSR doesn’t exist today, but it still radiates some sort of socialist nostalgia the way dead superstars do. This nostalgia concocts a strange mix with Orthodox Christianity and a broad scope of paternalistic ideas that appeal to the conservative members of society. The visual equivalent of this mental mishmash are the “modern” Russian icons depicting Stalin as a saint.

How has your style changed from the novel Mission London to The Palaveevi Sisters? It is obvious that the style is somehow similar, but it seems to have evolved?
I am trying to follow the internal logic of actions and to develop my plots accordingly. Motivation, psychology and action – this is what interests me most. I believe that if these elements are handled properly, the rest will inevitably converge and find its place. For me words are a vehicle, not a goal in themselves. The clearer the thoughts, the clearer the language. I prefer to play with plot, situations and characters rather than with words.

The Palaveevi Sisters and Mission London have been made into plays and feature films. What can you tell us about that?
My interest in cinema and theater actually started long before, but I grew professionally with the film adaptation of Mission London. I worked on the screenplay with Delyana Maneva – a theatre director and researcher in the field of action analysis. We also worked together on the theatrical and film adaptation of The Palaveevi Sisters. It’s pretty boring to write a play or a screenplay all alone. I believe interaction and partnership are a very important part of dramaturgy: sometimes the only way to see if the situations and the dialogues really work is to literally act them out. The play based on The Palaveevi Sisters was put on stage by the Plovdiv Drama Theatre. It was indeed a daring endeavor, given the context. A very expressive, very moving performance with an almost cinematic structure and visuals. A real show! What made me especially happy was that even young people with zero experience in communism were enthralled by the subject and enjoyed the show.

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