Book review - Circus Bulgaria

Circus Bulgaria By Deyan Enev

Trs: Kapka Kassabova

Portobello Books: £10.99

Despite being peopled by pimps, whores, tramps, hoodlums and inmates of the local mental asylum, this strange and marvellous collection of short stories from Bulgarian master, Deyan Enev, is curiously uplifting.

Enev’s particular skill as a storyteller lies in his ability to convey various harsh truths about his native country through a combination of Balkan folklore and vivid flights of imagination. Fifty stories in all, they are like the tiny fragments of a puzzle that, once fitted together, create a detailed portrait of a country.

Tales of princesses, handsome goat-herds and hidden pots of gold provide a welcome antidote to the themes of bitter hardship and regret that are threaded through Circus Bulgaria.

Through these stories, Enev traces the subtle arc of his country’s transformation from brutal communist regime to a free market economy today. Sadly, the poverty remains but it is the gangsters who now wield the power.

A sense that something has been lost in the name of progress is summed up perfectly in Casablanca. An old couple refuse to leave their one-storey house in the suburbs. All around them dozens of tower blocks have sprung up and the developers are waiting for them to die. They had originally met at a high-school screening of Casablanca. Now romantic young couples use the name as a code and are invited into the couple’s home “whenever they wanted a bit of privacy. One morning the pair are found murdered in their bed. The following day their house is bulldozed and “in its place there is a gigantic nightclub. Impressive, blood-red neon letters spell out its name on the fa├žade: CASABLANCA.”

Animals also feature in the collection; more often than not they are debased or killed. One boy’s attachment to a pig is brought to a poignant conclusion in Koko. In the title story an impoverished lion tamer is forced into selling his beloved pet to “two men with slow moving eyes”.

Enev’s descriptions of animal cruelty often highlight the degradation of ordinary people who are living barely above the level of beasts. He describes pockets of poverty so abject that for one gypsy family living under a bridge, a discarded pot and a reed whistle become treasured possessions.

The mental asylum is the one constant in the stories and the experiences of a night orderly provide some black humour. Enev himself once worked the night-shifts as a hospital attendant and evidently likes to explore the blurred boundaries between truth and delusion.

You get the sense that there are parts of Bulgaria that time just forgot. Family farmers work the land in the same way they’ve done for centuries and horse and cart remains their favoured mode of transport. But organised crime and corruption are very real problems and, as Enev illustrates, the new kingpins are the men in Mercedes who thrive on the violence, neon lights and squalor of the cities.

An edited version of this review was originally published in the Independent on 26 October 2010