Sunday, June 8, 2008

Dimitre Dinev, Engelszungen

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.


Anonymous said...


You know what I find interesting, here?

I grew up in Brooklyn, NY. Jews from Eastern Europe were familiar to me. Here. In the USA. Where everyone actually felt safe. So most Americans didn't get to see what communism and fascism was doing in Europe.

When WW2 ended, I had read that PATTON walked over the bridge on the Rhine, and entered Germany. The germans were defeated. But more surprising? American soldiers were unable to find a single nazi.

While nazis with "diplomatic pants dancing" connections found exit doors. To Venezuela. (Where they had to learn spanish.) And, some? Back-peddled into the Eastern Block countries; perhaps, because they had family roots there?

Americans don't know much about "family roots." Once the Jews I knew arrived by boat, they took advantage of evening classes. Where they were taught English AND American History. Many, many, many of them applied to become US Citizens. And, did.

Marriages, and kids, later, you'll notice how assimilation works. Because when kids were playing with each other, outside on the street; following WW2 (not before), the kids didn't speak Yiddish to each other.

Yes. Before they did so. So that James Cagney, growing up among Yiddish speaking Jews (before he got to hollywood), spoke Yiddish. I'm not sure IF he was on the Yiddish Stage in Manhattan. But I think he was. So he was beyond just proficient in speaking; he could read it, too. (And, when he went to hollywood? The man who changed his name to "goldfish" ... before he changed it to Goldwyn ... always did contract negotiations with his goyim stars ... by talking to his "lantsmen" in Yiddish.

The advantage belonged to James Cagney.

In Europe, alas, there were no advantages. And, the State is not your friend. Nor does free speech count for points.

They envy us. But they are not like us.

And, the more separation there is? Well, you don't need walls to separate out generation from generation. You just need habits.

In a world where everything is in flux. Where no matter how many bridges you think you can build, you won't find land, on either side, to hold the abuttments.

And, things do change.

Do I care what happens in Bulgaria? Heck, I don't even care if things written in german are turned into toilet paper. Or get re-written into another language.

Can Dimitre Dinev's words help anyone in Israel, these days? Or are they similar to Holocaust stories? "From another era?"

Let me help you out. The Jews from Eastern Europe, in America, shed their past. (I'm willing to bet there are plenty of Sabras that can say "about the same.") Until you look at the old men who put Israel's political system into place. It's dysfunctional enough to make for real worries.

Always? No. Not always! The Shinerman's came from Russia! And, Arik Sharon really did try to take Israel out of the perverbial woods. Even without a full grasp of the English language; he could reach out and you could practically touch his dreams.

Oy. For now. I'm not a fortune teller. What comes will come to pass.

Anonymous said...

I have to say that I don't really understand what is this comment doing here? People should say what they think about the work of this author Dimitre Dinev. Of course what happened during WW2 was terrible, but now what? We should burn whole Germany or what? Am am 18 years old and I am Bulgarian and i have to say that the way that this Lady expressed her position towards Bulgaria was really unpleasant. Because this lady when speaking about jews and Bulgaria probably should know that Bulgaria no matter being a part of the german coalition during WW2 has been the ONLY land to save her jews and not send them into conzentration lagers. Maby you should have this in mind and start learning more about Bulgaria before being so disrespectful. In the end i would say that I have red Dinev's book and it is astonishing and has tought me so much about comunism and reading it has being quite an experience. Great work!