I've got this pile of books I've read in recent months which I haven't yet put away, expecting to write about them first. Well, it doesn't look like I'll find the time for many serious reviews anytime so, so here's an abbreviated one.
Dimitre Dinev is a youngish Bulgarian who's been living in Vienna since 1990. This excellent book is not his first, but it may be his first novel. And, no, so far as Amazon tells me, it hasn't been translated into English. Whether it was originally written in Bulgarian or German, I cannot tell, since the formulation on the dust cover is ambiguous. Which is interesting, because Germans (and Austrians) aren't big fans of ambiguity - but that's a a tale for some other day.
Engelszungen (Angel's Tongues) is the story of two Bulgarian families throughout most of the 20th Century, the Mladenovs and the Apostolovs. Both families are (mostly) from the town of Plovdiv, and while the various family members saunter by one another again and again, and their stories cover much the same ground, there are almost no moments of face-to-face encounters. Maybe two in the entire book.
If you're honest with yourself you'll admit that you know almost nothing about Bulgaria, nor are you particularly bothered by your ignorance. No problem: the author (and his protagonists) assume as much. Once you've read this book, however (in German, or if and when it eventually comes out in English) you'll have to admit that the Bulgarians seems to have been here throughout, living much the same sort of lives you'd have expected had you been paying attention. Dinev skillfully presents us with an entire gallery of characters, some more successful, some less, many sometime more and sometimes less unless it be the other way around, with a faint preference for the nebbichs. The single most positive figure, almost the top heroine of the story, for example, is a simple woman whose real life, it appears, begins after the deaths of two daughters and her husband, when she reforges a life for herself based upon visiting their graves and telling them all the crazy things that are going on. One of her sons, on the other hand, is one of the few figures who figures out who to use the system to reach as high as he wishes, becoming the top local communist... until everything he has built falls apart.
Dinev writes with a dry but hilarious tone. Ognjan, for example, taught medicine at the university until one day the Fascists searched his apartment and found Communist publications there, True, they were cut into narrow strips from which he rolled cigarettes, but you could still make out some sentences, so Ognjan was sentenced to an unpleasant period in a stinky cell; after he was released he was allowed to forget his academic career. So he stopped smoking and concentrated on his private practice until the Communists came to power, when he was reinstated with honors at the university and went back to his important research of lung diseases. One day his apartment was again searched. Of course the authorities trusted him, but as you know Comrade Lenin once said that checking was the highest form of trust. And indeed, they found some Fascist newspapers in his place. Admittedly, they were cut into strips and were hanging on a nail in the toilet serving as toilet paper, but if you looked closely you could still decipher some of the sentiments therein. So he was packed off again to a camp. The first time around he'd stopped smoking, but how can you stop shitting? Fortunately, the authorities in the camp supplied the prisoners with so little food that the problem seldom arose.... Years (and 300 pages) later Ognjan solved the problem by subscribing to a magazine that specialized in hunting, which was a political neutral topic.
Many of the comic sentences hardly veil the tragic reality beneath them. God created people, so he cares for them. People, on the other hand, created bureaucratic forms, so they care about them: this as an explanation of the tribulations prospective immigrants from Eastern Europe faced while trying to better their lives in the West.