Spend the hazy summer days with some of the best Bulgarian storytellers
Written by Bozhidar Ivanov, edited by Lindsay Martin, photo by Anastasiia Dehtiarova.
To celebrate Ivan Vazov’s 170th birthday on 9 July, we are sharing six classic Bulgarian novels and short story collections to guide you through the rich world of our literature.
Under the Yoke by Ivan Vazov
Published in 1894, Vazov’s quintessential novel has endured the test of time to become the most read and translated work of Bulgarian fiction. The novel follows Boycho Ognyanov, a rebel who escapes from an Ottoman prison and arrives at the small town of Byala Cherkva to join the preparations for the April Uprising of 1876. The novel’s scope captures the whole of Byala Cherkva and paints a detailed picture of the daily life of the Bulgarian society during one of its most trialing periods. The scenes of heroic acts and selfless sacrifices are presented side by side with quiet moments of villagers chatting in a coffeehouse or seeing a theater play. The novel combines historical, autobiographical, romantic, and even comedic elements to craft an authentic and unforgettable story. It’s the magnum opus of the Patriarch of Bulgarian literature.
Bai Ganyo by Aleko Konstantinov
In another beloved classic, Aleko Konstantinov describes the misadventures of Bai Ganyo, a traveling rose-oil salesman. Konstantinov was one of the few Bulgarians able to visit Europe and North America, and he gave his peers an unprecedented glimpse at the developed word in his travel book To Chicago and Back. As a skilled satirical writer, he used Bai Ganyo to highlight the shortcomings of Bulgarians in the face of the western world. Bai Ganyo’s behavior in Vienna, Dresden, and Switzerland is funny, but leaves a bitter aftertaste, as echoes of this stereotypical character can be felt to this day.
The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov
Georgi Gospodinov’s 2011 novel has no defined beginning and ending, but is rather an array of stories and anecdotes, describing the author’s thoughts on loss, abandonment, and sorrow in everyday life. The Physics of Sorrow has been translated into four languages and has won several foreign literary awards, becoming one of the most popular Bulgarian novels abroad. By no means a light read, it presents the confusion, sorrow, and disentanglement of the Bulgarian people, caught between communism and democracy, between the secure and the unknown, the old and new.
18% Gray by Zahari Karabashliev
Another modern classic, Zahari Karabashliev’s novel of self-discovery won the Bulgarian Novel of the Year Award when it was published in 2008. The story follows Zack, whose wife, Stella, has left him. This sends him on a journey across America, filled with a lot of alcohol, drugs, and interesting people, during which the photographer contemplates the meaning of life, happiness, and time. The novel also follows Zack and Stella’s backstory as starstruck lovers in Varna, Bulgaria, and their attempts to pursue the American dream by emigrating and building a life for themselves.
Carts and other stories by Zdravka Evtimova
One of the hidden gems of Bulgarian literature, Zdravka Evtimova creates some of the most deceptively simple and thought-provoking fiction in the country.
Her iconic stories include “Blood of a Mole,” in which a shopkeeper finds that her blood can cure people, and “Gosho,” where pieces of donkey meat make men fall in love at first sight. She blends traditional Bulgarian symbolism and motifs with moments of magical realism to highlight human struggles in such an honest way they resonate with readers and publishers around the world. Her work has been translated into over 20 languages, winning worldwide competitions, and being included in an American Literature textbook.
East of the West by Miroslav Penkov
From bureaucracy to nodding, Bulgarians will admit their country often goes against the grain of the Western world and follows its own path. This spirit is palpable in Miroslav Penkov’s short stories which deal with the sad and funny absurds of the country. From the misadventures of a grandson who tries to buy Lenin’s corpse on eBay, to the tragic story of two lovers caught on opposing sides of a river, dividing their world into East and West. You won’t help but feel like you know Bulgaria better after you’ve gone through all eight stories.