Review and reflections and interview with the author, Elizabeth Kostova
I recently edited an English-language edition of The Cowshed on the Danube, Stefan Botchev’s harrowing account of his incarceration at Belene. I was reminded of this when I read Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land whose central protagonist, a talented violinist, is imprisoned as a political dissident.
In both cases, in the real and fictional accounts, the “dissident” has perpetrated no crime as such, except that of being a private citizen. That, in all dictatorships, is the ultimate act of subversion. If you do not devote every minute to the cause, if you allow yourself the luxury of thinking about private pursuits, you are not so much against the regime but not for it either. It is the arbitrary nature of accusation that is most scary, the way even innocent pastimes can be (perhaps deliberately) misconstrued. You stand guilty of being, in Kostova’s words, “an apolitical person caught in a political regime”.
Perhaps North Korea is the best current example of this “thought crime”. Someone can be arrested and tortured for showing insufficient adulation to the leader. A moment’s daydreaming can condemn you. You are measured not so much by what you did but by what you didn’t do. Of course, arbitrary persecution also affords the regime an army of slave labour. In The Cowshed on the Danube the writer states that the head of the camp once “consoled” inmates with the thought that, ultimately, the regime intended all Bulgarians to spend time at Belene to undergo “rehabilitation”.
Stoyan Lazarov in The Shadow Land is taken to the labour camp of Zelenets (a fictional camp), on a whim of the authorities. He is a cultured, refined man who returned from Vienna before the start of World War 2. His “offence” is to keep non-political literature, including a history of music, which is categorised by the authorities as “dirty fascist propaganda”. He is subjected to unimaginable tortures. Early on, during his interrogation at a police station, his little finger is broken. Somehow this one act of sadism is the most brutal of all, even worse than what ensues at Zelenets. It is an attack on his profession and his creativity as a violinist.
Stoyan’s family know nothing of his whereabouts and presume him to be dead. When he returns home several years later his wife faints with shock. Stoyan’s ordeal – essentially the back story in flashback – is related when a young American visitor to Bulgaria, Alexandra Boyd, accidentally finds herself in possession of an urn containing human ashes. The ashes are those of Stoyan Lozarov who died in 2006, aged 91.
What ensues is a kind of road journey as Alexandra, in the company of a liberal, gay taxi driver tries to return the ashes and, in doing so, discovers Stoyan’s story. Once you suspend disbelief – those of us with experience of taxi drivers may find this the most incredulous part of the story! – it’s a gripping and suspenseful read.
The horrors of Bulgarian labour camps are not widely known in the West. Kostova herself says she visited the site of the former Belene labour camp but that it’s nearly always closed to the public and only slightly memorialised.
Kostova has rendered us a service by recalling it, especially since, in the West, the crimes of communism – especially in the satellite states of Eastern Europe – tend not to receive so much coverage. Kostova told me that she believes it’s because of historical reasons. “Many of the survivors of the Nazi concentration camps came to the U.S., the U.K., or Western Europe afterward or had close ties with those countries through relatives or intellectual life. In addition, the USSR sided with the Allies after Hitler’s invasion of Russia and Stalin even appeared favourably in major American media as a result of that. It’s been harder for the West to distance itself from a former ally. In Bulgaria, as everywhere in Eastern Europe, there’s obviously scope for much more research, opening of archives and release of files, careful historical research and publishing of history, and the treatment of those crimes through art and public discussion.”
Kostova’s book – rather like in the film The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Round the Corner in which a former torturer runs for office – also raises the question of whether yesterday’s crimes should remain unpunished. Kostova believes it’s a fine line but one still not properly drawn. “I can’t pretend to tell a whole political system in another country what to do about a very complex problem, especially since totalitarian states tend to involve almost everyone who survives, on some level. Personally, however, I find it basic that actual criminal activities should be prosecuted–better late than never. It also seems to me that people who were part of the system for job survival or education but didn’t participate directly in criminal activities or serious informing are in a different category and could benefit from coming forward on their own, ultimately. But even the defining of such categories has not been explored in a cathartic way in Bulgaria.”
Perhaps, ultimately, the lesson of The Shadow Land, is that although the past may seem but a memory, either pleasant or painful, it has a knack of impinging on the present when one least expects it.