Georgi Grozdev, Bulgaria
For myself I discovered Yordan Radichkov when I was but a student, when I read his words about the rubber sandals. My grandfather, whom I loved very much, had too such rubber sandals. What I felt when I was around my grandfather is what I felt about the text by the then unfamiliar to me author. That is what challenged me to read his book. I thank fate that after some years, many years, I had the chance to tell this to the author himself. He wasn’t surprised at all. I had lived the first years of my life in the country. In the same village Radichkov constantly wrote about and which had been deliberately ruined as far back as the sixties of the previous century. Today, it is facing extinction along with all the economic and psychological repercussions for Bulgarians. Now they migrate to be hired as agricultural workers mostly in Greece, Italy, Spain, and other places too, while fertile land and beautiful villages die out in desolation…
The draft of this text, much longer in volume than it is now, has been sitting for a long time in my archives. I constantly added new and interesting things to it. For no apparent reason on January 17 and 18, 2004, Saturday and Sunday, I sat down and wrote for two days. Something inexplicable compelled me do it at exactly that moment.
Very soon after that – January 21, while on Ivan Assen II street, I learned from the poet Rumen Leonidov about the death of Radichkov.
In May I was in Cyprus and then I dreamed of him for the first time after he passed away into the Hereafter. He appeared somehow imperceptibly, as if he lifted the skies and there, where the eyes cannot reach, where as if the land ends – I beheld him. He was slightly slouched.
I had quoted him in one of my stories – four hundred years after a man’s death, his grave continues to emanate energy. When he finished reading the story, he resumed his train of thought. We discussed to what extent really a man disappears and to what extent he remains. We have often dwelled upon this topic. Four hundred years is also the life of a cork tree of whose bark cork tops are made.
I still see him now. He enters for the first time the office of Publishing House “Balkani”. “Is that the publishing house?” he asks after noticing the office premises and the hallway.
The chair I invited him to sit on had an adjustable height seat. At that moment it was set high and his legs hung in the air.
“You don’t seem comfortable?”
“ I’m used to not being comfortable!” I remember clearly I liked that answer (1996) very much.
His friends in Cyprus had not forgotten him either. When they set the play An Attempt to Fly, translated by Vassilka and Hristos Hadzipapas, in November in Nicosia it snowed – something truly unusual for that city and that island. It was cold. I brought back this memory of Radichkov to the audience and they came to life just at the very mention of his name. I was presenting new Cypriot books from the Balkan Library series and the “audience” in fact was about a hundred people, bilingual for the most part. Either Cypriots who studied in Bulgaria, or Bulgarians who had lived for years in Cyprus.
Yordan Radichkov was one of the first who would get the newest copies, still smelling of the printer’s ink, from the Balkan Library series. In the last months I discussed with him the possibility to publish in that same series his Fierce Attitude with the original cover by Ivan Kirkov. It turned out the writer did not have the copyright of the cover. Most likely stolen or lost somewhere in the editing houses, he supposed. I contacted Ivan Kirkov, who was ill, in Assenovgrad. Nonetheless he asked his relatives to look for it in his private library in Sofia. The picture was never recovered.
By the way, the last book I gave Radichkov was A Sarajevo Book of the Dead by the Bosnian Josip Osti. He took it from my hands as soon as he heard the title. He leafed through it and started reading the first pages. I sat awkwardly on the couch in his living room. He was sitting very close to me. He didn’t look at me, he didn’t say anything for quite some time. An incomprehensible pause for me at that time and an unexpectedly long one. Focused, silent, engrossed in reading.
It was the first time I’d seen him like that. I also fell silent. As if nothing else existed for him at that moment except the Book of the Dead…It was before Christmas of 2003.
…His eloquence is entrancing. His spoken word – intoxicating. The best stylist of the new Bulgarian literature is also an outstanding actor. His forefathers were coalers. He said something I remembered, “There are people in Bulgaria, who don’t want to and can’t forgive anyone who is talented. They are angry at him or her for the rest of their lives.” He didn’t have himself in mind. He had in mind those people.
Inspired and transformed I would listen to him for hours, we’d talk for hours. We’d forget time went by. When he was young they teased him – they called him “Baba Yaga1 ”. I heard about this from Ivailo Petrov. Maybe because of true friendship, when behind the apparent joke lies love. Georgi Chapkunov, who made a bust of Felini and other celebrities, while sculpturing the head of Radichkov found out that he was “the Bulgarian Voltaire”. Indeed, his face is sculptured like the faces of the ancient. There is nobility, and there is charm in his presence, calm wisdom. The first impression he leaves now is precisely this – of a sage. “The Sage of Kalimanitsa” became something of a newspaper cliche which simplifies and primitivizes his image.
Yordan Radichkov carries within him something mythological, antique, archival. Something wise – on the one hand. But also something restless, troubled, caustic, even powerless, on the other. Still, the most general and surest thing about him is his very own, Radichkov’s, goodness.
Stones banged against his windows. And not only at his. As soon as democracy broke out writers newborn to literature started humming the song about the young shepherd boy who had bread and cheese in his bag. It’s just that neither the shepherd boy is that young anymore, nor can he show off with anything in his bag. I have heard these words from him regarding the stones. What’s in the bag? Here is a question whose answer cannot be swapped by putting on labels, pretending before newspapers to belong to one or another literary pack.
Because of the social unrest throughout all those years tiredness had accumulated inside Radichkov. Heavy-hearted he shared that everything within his soul was a mess. Upside down. He was the writer who couldn’t recognize his people in the euphoria of mass repainting and opposition. He was the same writer, whose mortal remains were paid last respects to by all representatives of different political and social trends – Alexander Lilov and Nadezhda Mihailova, Georgi Purvanov and Ivan Kostov – at that on a minus-ten January day… He was the same person with whom Todor Zhivkov shared his confession in a private conversation, after which Radichkov said, “You are a very lonely man.” Elin Pelin had also gone hunting with the king, but it wasn’t the king who wrote his stories. He only read them.
Actually, his whole work warns us not to take ourselves too seriously. Many a time throughout the years and when I was at his place, or when we went hunting, or on official occasions – not once had I seen him self-important and boastful. Fixed on his own infallibility.
He once asked, “Where are the boars?”
“The boars are now in the culture”, was the answer he was hiding. He pointed towards the high ground where it had grown. That is where the forested pine trees were, also called “the culture”. Both in its literal and figurative meaning, the boars are really there.
I have the feeling that not only the work but also the pockets of Yordan Radichkov are full of such stories.
It so happened that it was again during hunting – this time for quail–I heard from him for the first time about a mure2 . Mure is a Turkish word. It signifies the tame duck tied in the river or lake. It quacks out and lures the wild birds to land near it. Thus doing a favor to the hunter. Attracted by its quacking they plunge down. They are sure their brother would not lie to them. If he is there, it must be safe. This is the trap for them and the success of the shooter.
It was a hot August day. We stopped to rest in the afternoon haze not far from the Iskur river. At that time Radichkov’s son, Mitko, was also with us. Due to health problems the writer would go hunting only with a companion. I remember he took medicine for high blood pressure. The walk in the field refreshed him. The heat tired him. The years of the lone wandering around the lakes and swamps of Sofia had passed. Back then he would go by taxi very early in the morning, even before the first cockcrow. This Bulgarian writer never set foot in a car of his own and demonstrated character in that respect too.
We had two more hunters with us, also a father and son. We ran into them out in the field. They immediately recognized the writer, despite his hunting disguise. They were delighted they’d go hunting quail alongside him.
But the quails that day didn’t fly. It was dry and very hot.
As we were kneeling down by the reeds, Radichkov lifted a hand towards the sky. He was pointing to where a mure was ascending higher and higher and then disappeared into the clouds. As much as we believed him, we didn’t see a thing. (Later on that really happened when “Balkani” published his novelette Mure. There the bird disappeared in the falling snow.) In the heat the writer must have seen the falling snow too. It was hard for us to picture it then. This is the other thing that distinguishes him from the other hunters and people. His incredibly brisk, flexible and vivid imagination. He does not have a higher education, does not speak foreign languages (but has been almost all over the world). Behind him is his creative work translated into 37 languages and published in 45 countries. He’s appreciated in Italy and the Scandinavian countries. Over a hundred works of his have been published abroad. All that and more interesting details can be read in his selected interviews Literary Fallow published by Balkani. An original legacy for present and future readers of his travel notes, stories, plays, novelettes and novels.
Mure was the first new text Yordan Radichkov made public after the events of 1989. He did it after a long silence in 1997 precisely at publishing house Balkani even though there were other places.
It happened about two years after we met in the orchard near Pazardzhik in the winter of 1995. We were hunting pheasants. I offered him to give me “something to publish”. “I have nothing new” came the answer.
It was his, the first artistic text I published in publishing house Balkani, if you don’t count the book published in Bulgarian and English, written by his friend, the essayist and critic Prof. Toncho Zhechev, The Bulgarian Holy Places in Istanbul in 1992. At that time, however, I didn’t have enough money for an advance author’s fee. Radichkov trusted me with this too. How could I lie to him, the way he’d been lied to more than once by state publishing houses. For example, Narodna Prosveta – he never received his fee after one publication. He refused to ask for his rights. Even back then we mentioned that what some people are allowed, the Writer is not. Even though he is a man too, not a god. “How can I do that, go and sue for author’s fees and rights!” he would say. We agreed half the profit, whatever it was, to be for the author. We became “partners”. I didn’t know that such business proposal he had only received from French and Finnish publishers before, and not even once from a Bulgarian one – state-owned or private. I did it out of genuine desire that if the manuscript would have a market success, the author would get a bigger fee than what could be legally agreed upon in advance. He was curious to find out how he would be accepted by the readers who had changed a lot. Maybe he was a little bit afraid of their judgment in the brand new times that had set in.
He advised me to be careful with the first run. He had a friend once, he said, who accepted wish as reality. Then he had to rent a room to store his unsold books.
The novel Mure was reprinted three times. At his request, the initial price of one lev, completely symbolic, did not change, even when the interest in the text became big. What’s more, the book, illustrated with his original drawings had to have a “modest” appearance. Not to impose itself, and the paper body – greyish brown, kind of “underground”. Nothing in the price or in the polygraphy should be associated with luxury. The success of Mure and the popularity of Yordan Radichkov were the first incitement that encouraged me. Maybe it was going to be possible for me to continue appearing on the market as a publisher with purely literary texts?
If it hadn’t been for the trust of Yordan Radichkov and later on of the rest of the most popular and famous Bulgarian writers, called the “living classics”, Publishing House “Balkani” wouldn’t have had this literary profile it has built through the years. The first step is always the hardest and very important. Especially because of its direction. This is how the Autographed Book publishing series started without any premeditation. It was a spiritual adventure, like other publishing projects of Balkani in which the right people found us at the right place and at the right time. They clearly read the “signs” we were sending in the Balkan and Bulgarian culture space. Even if they had not seen us with their eyes, even if they did not know us well, their inner sight led them to us. This phenomenon reoccurred with the Balkan Library series after 2002, and with other publishing series as well. That is why I am indebted to the great writer and great friend Yordan Radichkov. After him I invited other Bulgarian authors too. Some invited themselves – like Radoy Ralin, who was unreachable by phone. He came to the office and said, “If you have already published these books, it means you have invited me to participate! The series was designed in black and white, so the polygraphic expenses would be less. I didn’t have money for color-print. It turned out this style was in fashion around the world. Also the bookstands in Bulgaria were so multicolored that the whiteness inadvertently stood out. It even annoyed. That is why the literary critic Vihren Chernokozhev was the first to call the book series “The White Series”. Through it was “discovered” the formula of cheap, aesthetically worthy, elegantly designed book, interesting and affordable to young and old alike.
Actually, this series paid the attention, which Balkani could give, to significant literary names from the near and then politically renounced past. They were all gathered by the publisher not by a political or marketeering principle but by a literary and aesthetic criterion. In accordance with the foundational principle of culture without which it would be impossible – the principle of succession. Just because they had given birth to their works at another time, a past, it didn’t mean their talent today was worthless. The whole atmosphere of nihilism and anarchy, which ruled then and still arrogantly reminds me of the “purges” in the literary history after another coup – that of September 9, 1944. Then communism came to our lands overnight. It came aided from the outside. The similarity of events is suggested because in both cases the result was the multiplication of active fighters with the same mentality who took over the monopoly of truth. On the one hand, former clappers reincarnated into democratic nightingales. On the other, the open roads and directions, the open doors so scared the homebodies and the homebred that they developed paranoia for Trojan horses and clung to the dream of the besieged castle.
Radichkov used to say that the “Bulgarian spirit” was not a nice phrase, and he was anything but a “kinless cosmopolitan” according to his opponents’ cliches from the other “camp”.
The Bulgarian has always experienced its measure of the Balkan. Our brightest names from our new history and literature, and in publicism are born to as authors in Bucharest, Belgrade, Istanbul…
The participants in the Autographed Book series, which began as a joke just like Radichkov’s Mure, gathered on May 19, 1999 in the National Library “St. St. Cyril and Methodius” to present the book of interviews, which I compiled along with them, about books, Bulgaria and the Balkans. Yordan Radichkov and Ivailo Petrov met there for the first time in ten years. Everyone came – Gencho Stoev, Georgi Mishev, Vera Mutafchieva, Dimitar Korudzhiev, Radoy Ralin, Marko Ganchev, Isaac Passi, Toncho Zhechev, Georgi Danailov, Yordan Vassilev. The ones who weren’t there were Blaga Dimitrova, who had health problems, and the late Georgi Markovski, who passed away in the beginning of the year. I have a video recording of the meeting. Some of the participants are no longer living. I see them again, how happy they are, excited and festive. And I, the humble servant, am anxious and eager.
In the preface to the collection of interviews dated April 1999, it was right at the time of the American air raids on Belgrade’s bridges, I wrote:
“Our primary concern in this collection is to support the Bulgarian.
Today the Bulgarian is neglected, forsaken, slighted. If we don’t bow to it, if we don’t bend down to lift it up in our souls, no one else will do it for us.
And by easing ourselves of the care for the Bulgarian, we are the ones to blame that it turns out to be eroded, undermined, endangered, even though no war is being waged against it, God forbid.
We have excused ourselves to such an extent from any responsibility for the national, the homeland, the mother tongue, the national culture and literature, that without wanting it, a man may feel like a missionary in his own land, if he is more attentive to and correct towards the Bulgarian.”
Together came writers, truly talented, of reputation, established from before the changes of November 10, 1989. The authors showed mutual respect, tolerance, even though some were close to the “powers that be”, and others maybe had their reservations. This did not hinder them to acknowledge each other as subjects of one and the same culture – the Bulgarian one. Thus some of the greatest names renounced separation. Why can’t far lesser literary names of today find the strength to follow the example set by the great ones? Doesn’t hate help precisely the mediocre? Warring groups wave their flags, mark their newspaper territories. They have sponsors but no cause. Some want to put a hand on the past, others – on the future. No matter whether they are blue or red, then the writers showed they were Bulgarians who are not indifferent to the fate of literature and the state. They did it in their own way by giving a shoulder to a new, unknown publishing house, which was in some way appealing. They did it spontaneously and informally. They cared much more about their dignity than about some official support or encouragement. What’s more – they didn’t expect it.
Radichkov gave an interview in the National Library in connection with the American bombing of Belgrade and the hot issue of “airspace corridors”. He spoke with difficulty and grief. He shared he was happy because he had surpassed Americans. So the mure can freely fly up higher and higher in the falling snow. Towards the eternal airspace corridors through which passes the Aristotelian path of birds. Now the mure would not be able to do that. He wouldn’t write it now.
I have to admit something else too. None of the following books from the series ever became even half as popular (in terms of number of copies) as Mure. The first step was the first and for now last publishing hit. And not so much a financial “hit” as much as a moral one – both for the writer and the publisher. Fine literature seemed to become ever so obsolete and useless. It was replaced by political swearing and street journalese, primitive one-color thinking. So many years have passed and some people still can’t understand – democracy is not a rugby competition.
It has been also many years since that grand trip to the Rhodopes mountain before Christmas. Just like during our first meeting in person with Yordan Radichkov in the winter orchard near Pazardzhik he was with his own hunting gang, made famous enough and popularized in the media not only by Doncho Tsonchev. Another writer had said about Tsonchev, “Doncho Tsonchev plays with rabbits, just like Steven Kings does with ghosts.”
I was amazed at the beauty Radichkov’s lively face emitted in the winter morning. The snow squeaked under the hunting boots put over woolen socks. Regarding his woolies he said so reverently, “Mom wove them for me.”
The pheasants, until the previous day prisoners in a cage, that day did not want to take on their roles of wild and free birds. They scurried over the icy snow and hid behind the trunks of the apple trees. As if looking for the pen, like some hens.
There were many hunters. Most were greedy to hunt. They fired at the birds even before they had taken off. And that particular morning they didn’t want to take off. In panic and bustle, among shouts and cries, dogs barking, pheasants’ wings flapping, many made sure they got a “successful” shot. Contrary to all sports ethics.
Such hunts are pathetic and humiliate the real hunter.
Radichkov showed it as soon as they asked him why he wasn’t shooting.
“My rifle is air-to-air, not air-to-land,” he said.
He delighted in every step under the snowy sky. Such was his radiance. He spoke about something trivial with a trembling voice free from the city conventionalities.
I liked walking alongside him and peeking at him with the corner of my eye.
We were on our way back from Hambar dere in the Rhodopes in the glorious White Swan (“Moskvich” 41412) and his wipers stopped working. The mountain was high and cold. The water for the wipers froze. Two semicircles scraped by the frozen wipers opened before our eyes the road in the lowland. We were returning with a wild boar’s leg, cornel branches for Christmas, returning with great memories, weren’t we?
Isn’t the writer something like a castaway on a desolate island? He is not tired of sending his messages in bottles, of waiting for an answer, which reaches him some day…
Nothing is in vain, nothing… What connects the famous writer and his future publisher? Not only the shared passion for hunting, but also those bottles in the ocean. The writer’s books. Before I saw him in person, I already knew his books. He would often say in our consequent meetings, “High school and college students made me a writer.” A writer is impossible without loyal readers.
What should today’s younger and elder writers do after many of their readers have run away or simply emigrated?
We were ready to take the shot in a ravine in the Rhodopes. We were waiting for the wild boar. Radichkov was apparently excited. At some point he took a small white pill. The road to get there was a true challenge. The descent into the ravine – exhausting. The snow had covered huge rocks, but also huge pits. Inside the jeep our heads were clanging like canteens, a byword for hunters’ heads. Depending on what the tires ran over we were thrown left and right, despite the special care our host took to drive us.
Bai3 Yordan was at the front seat next to the driver and every now and then he peered to the front and the right full of curiosity. It felt as if at any moment our journey could end up tires up.
“Has the gentleman arrived?” Radichkov asked obviously excited. The scout walked in. The question was addressed to him. We were at a window from which you could see the field.
“Has the gentleman arrived?” The question startled me. The wild boar had indeed arrived. Radichkov carefully got ready. He took the small rifle (both in caliber and size) from against the wall. They had offered him another gun too. He chose to shoot that one. It was his own.
The hunter became one with his rifle. In the dark he looked even smaller and unnoticeable. A silhouette appeared against the snowy background. There wasn’t who knows what visibility. The wild boar was with his side towards us. Its big back rocked like a ship from time to time.
Bai Yordan’s gun fired. He quickly rose and put a hand on his forehead in the hope of a faster readjustment from optical sight to natural one. He was intrigued by the outcome. Intoxicating gunpowder smell came to our senses.
The wild boar had already began rolling over when we saw it. He rolled over one last time to the low.
“Georgi, where’s the camera now?” Radichkov excitedly asked me. It was then that I realized I had forgotten it in my car, parked several hills from there at that moment.
So Radichkov’s last wild boar, because he didn’t go big game hunting after that, went unrecorded because of me. It was a big and strong boar, hit by the book – behind the shoulder.
The small bullet had given it a chance to get up after the rolling. Even though it was doomed and in agony the wild boar tried to escape. The hunting guide and the dog caught up with it in the near bushes.
While they were analyzing the bullet’s trajectory, we were sitting by the fire.
“Maybe now Emilian Stanev is watching us from somewhere above” I said timidly.
Radichkov answered thoughtfully, “Maybe, maybe he is watching us.”
Even now I can hear his heavy sigh during my last meeting at his place. A little after I got there, the director Yulia Ognianova came with her magnetic blue eyes. Susie, the writer’s wife, was in a good mood. Yordan Radichkov almost didn’t say a word. He smiled when I joked, “Susie, now it’s your turn to write a book.”
In my feet under the table I had covered up a plastic bag. And in it – a text entitled Prey. The main character is the Hunter. There is one critical moment in the novel – the shot wild boar jumps up and someone has to find it and finish it.
“What do you have in that bag?” Susie asked by the way.
“Manuscripts,” I answered indefinitely.
I did not dare give myself away, I did not dare talk about the Hunter. I felt very sad for Yordan Radichkov, who almost the whole time had no strength to speak.
During one of our walks with him in the Borisova Gradina we met the director Ivan Dobchev, from the theatrical workshop “Sfumato”, jogging.
“So, does it help?” Radichkov quietly and mysteriously asked the panting Dobchev, who had staged some of his plays before. The sweaty director was in a sweat suit and running shoes.
The asked did not answer specifically. I understood Radichkov’s question thus: whether while running a man can run away from himself or from his problems?
I told him how I had seen once some people gathering acorns in buckets right here at the Borisova Gradina. I asked them why they did it right here. What do you mean why, they exclaimed. The hundred-year old oaks still bear fruit. We are collecting acorns for seed.
During that walk I picked a branch with acorns, still green, still unripe. He gladly took it. He took it home.
I’ve been asking myself eversince: if there can be acorns for seed, how come there are no words for seed?
I still linger over the words Yordan Radichkov left, just like one of his many fans and I think he was truly right when he told me on that glorious trip to the Rhodopes, “I don’t have anything but an apartment, I have no villa, no car. If I have made something, it is a literary farm.”
Now I think: a literary farm with lots of words for seed in it.