Unraveling Bulgaria’s Dark Past
2017 / 496 pp. / $28
Bulgaria. How little thought I had ever given to Bulgaria, but here it is in the vivid, fast-paced, fascinating new novel The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova. Author of the best-selling novel The Historian, Kostova is a writer who knows how to keep you in suspense, to frighten and amaze you, all while building characters whose fate will matter to you more and more as she reveals a whole country, its history, its tragedy, its politics, its scenery and its sad beauty.
The novel opens in contemporary Bulgaria, where Alexandra, a young American who has arrived in the country’s capital of Sofia to teach English, is dropped off at her hotel from the airport. Immediately the adventure that will change her life forever begins. Three people—an older woman, a man in a wheelchair and their son—are coming down the steps to get into a taxi. She offers to hold their bags as they settle in and as the taxi drives off, she realizes that one of the bags has been left in her hand. She opens it to find a burial urn and immediately jumps into a taxi to return the ashes. The driver, Bobby, becomes her guide through a country with a strange and troubled past. The more we know of it, the more we fear for our heroine and the more we understand the darkness that lurks behind the most civilized of cultures, a place where citizens can listen to Vivaldi one night and perish in labor camps the next.
Alexandra has experienced her own trauma: Her brother disappeared while on a family hike in the mountains when he was 15. Grief is her constant companion as she and Bobby travel to small sea towns and villages high in the mountains across the country looking for the urn’s owners. Gradually, the duo learns the urn contains the ashes of a deceased musician named Stoyan Lazarov. And as the story of his life unfolds, so too does a tale of state terror and the cruelty of the petty rulers of a communist system rife with corruption and viciousness.
There is love in this novel, and the characters grow and bind together in wonderful ways. There are old people and young ones and a loyal dog who knits the generations together; there are acts of kindness and moments of sweet gentleness that surround the most painful revelations. Descriptions of Bulgaria hold your attention, and the plot pulls you along from page to page, kindling a desire to see the characters home safely and the mystery unraveled. The police and others pursue the ashes of the violinist, and ominous authorities lurk in the shadows as the story moves from place to place, each stop revealing a little more about the past and the political and personal events that shaped the violinist’s life.
Kostova has a complicated tale to tell, and as she weaves the threads of the story together in a precise and compelling manner, an important breadth of history is covered. The musician Stoyan’s story begins in Vienna with him on the verge of becoming one of Europe’s major violinists. Soon after, we see him trapped in Bulgaria during World War II, having lost his opportunity to become a star. After the war, when the communists take over and the Cold War begins, we witness Bulgaria becoming as ugly inside as it is beautiful outside.
Kostova juggles several parts of her story without losing our interest, or becoming so complex that we give up hope of unraveling events as they increase in intensity and potential threat. She weaves several time periods in and out of her tale as Alexandra and Bobby, with the help of Stoyan’s aunt and friends, try to find the missing members of the family and avoid the threats of violence that follow them. Interspersed throughout are chapters that take us back to communist Bulgaria and its labor camps. Stoyan, for no apparent reason, is sent for three years to such a camp where he writes a diary that documents the starvation and cruel destruction of the men who live and work at the quarry with little food and in filthy conditions. They know that they can be shot for no reason or beaten at any time. Many simply lose hope and die.
Stoyan survives by living in the shadows of his own mind. He replays the music he so loves again and again and imagines himself raising a son. His fantasy life allows him to endure illness and abuse that seem beyond bearing. His violinist’s hands are almost crippled, and he never completely recovers from the soul-crushing experience. His diary of the events in the camp and the viciousness of the selection system that resulted in so many men being killed at random, his record of starvation and the brutality of the place become an important part of what we know about the dark times of this dictatorship.
It is a historical fact that Bulgaria from 1945 on had 70 labor camps and that men and women were punished, banished and murdered in these camps just as they were in Stalin’s gulags, perhaps as methodically as those who suffered and perished in the more famous Nazi camps. But there are few personal or literary accountings of the tragedies of Bulgaria. Kostova has leapt into that void, creating a fictional narrative that heavily borrows the tropes, language and images familiar to us from Holocaust literature, transplanting them to a Bulgarian setting.
As a Jewish reader, I at first resisted giving myself to the full horror of the Bulgarian camps because the author seemed to be blatantly appropriating so many of her details from our Holocaust literature and simply repeating what we have so painfully learned from Primo Levi, Imre Kertész, Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank, as well as the Nuremberg trials and the many other documented histories of the time. Here, a contemporary novelist who has not experienced this firsthand gives us a plausible version of these horrors, effective but not as deep or cutting as the real thing. How could it be?
Yes, I told myself, Bulgaria was bad, but not as bad as the extermination camps of Nazi Germany. I felt the author was raiding our tragedy. But as I read on, I realized that this Bulgarian evil also happened and was equally tragic. These labor camps, this communist horror that destroyed lives, flourished because a government enabled sadistic and barbaric souls to crush all that we hold valuable in civilization. The Holocaust, the gulags of Stalin and the camps in Bulgaria each possess their own horrifying particularities, but Kostova’s use of Holocaust tropes gives rise to an important question: Just how universal are the horrors of the Holocaust?
For those versed in Holocaust literature, few of the details in the chapters devoted to Stoyan’s time in a labor camp will be surprising, and all of those chapters seem somewhat flat or stale in the face of all we know about such places. But the overall narrative is a powerful one. Kostova reminds us of what inevitably happens when civilization, education, humanity are divorced from political power.
The novel also shows us how fragile human civilization remains. Between Rwanda and Pol Pot, between ISIS and Putin and the assassination of journalists and dissidents and the jails of dictatorships all over the globe, human dignity is always threatened and can so easily be discarded.
I am embarrassed to admit that I was ignorant of Bulgaria’s particular horrific history before reading this book; I will not forget that fact ever. The love story, the chases, the travel tales are all well done, but the heart of the matter lies in the portrait of a society gone mad as unchecked power is given to the most vile and uncaring people among us. Today, in America, as anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant groups revel in their new strength, I read this book with anxiety, an anxiety that still haunts. In the end, I welcome this novel as a valuable contribution to our understanding not just of our immediate past, but of the human capacity to rip worlds apart and let monsters rule.
Anne Roiphe is the author of 21 books of fiction and nonfiction. She is currently writing a series of essays on Jewish short stories for The Forward.