Death and Exile in Bulgaria: Sibylle Lewitscharoff's 'Apostoloff'
by Subashini Navaratnam
When we meet the narrator of Apostoloff, she and her sister are travelling to Sofia, Bulgaria from Germany in order to (re)bury their father as part of a plan hatched by a fellow Bulgarian exile. Their father, who killed himself at 43, is part of a group of 19 Bulgarian exiles who emigrated from Sofia to Stuttgart sometime in the '40s. An old friend of their father's, Tabakoff, wants to bring these exiles—"scattered across the graveyards of Stuttgart"—literally back home.
Tabakoff, with a first-class business plan in cryoengineering (the Bulgarians had, after all, provided mummified foodstuff for the Russians while they were in space), had enough money to spare to tempt the family members of the deceased to accompany the exiled bodies back home in a convoy of limousines. The person in charge of ferrying the narrator and her sister to and fro while they're in Bulgaria is Rumen Apostoloff.
The narrator and her sister, whose names we never learn, are the product of what the narrator calls a Bulgarian-German friendship: Bulgarian father, German mother. The narrator considers this Bulgarian-German connection as dubious as the Bulgarian-Soviet connection. The weight of their father's overburdened life hangs over the sisters' present lives; but while her sister has grown up to become a well-adjusted adult who knows how to make nice and maintain the peace, the narrator herself is contentious, opinionated, verbally-aggressive, and absolutely laden with irony.
While Apostoloff chauffeurs them around the country, the reader only sees Bulgaria through the narrator's eyes, and she's less-than-charmed by what Bulgaria has to offer. Bulgaria, after all, stands for her father. And her father, as she tells us, "usually has his noose" with him when he appears in her dreams. It comes as no surprise, then, that Bulgaria also appears equally tragic and absurd in the narrator's estimation.
Sibylle Lewitscharoff, who has won a string of awards for her previous books, has given us an absolutely unlikeable and completely beguiling and whip-smart narrator whose dark and morbid musings on both her father and her father's nation are funny but acerbic, occasionally even unpleasant, but always compelling and disturbing (or usually both). Her "patriphobia", as she calls it, is bleak, but full of affection, so that even when she's telling us of her father's inability to find a mood and stick with it, we get the sense of a full character: a displaced, depressive exile who formed strong friendships, someone who was charming and well-liked and who sang beautifully and thought that fishermen made the best philosophers.
Meanwhile, Apostoloff is a Bulgarian stalwart who glowers and fidgets as she showers the country's food, people, customs, culture, and architecture with contempt. He is, of course, much more enamoured with her sister, who smiles placatingly and listens carefully as Apostoloff waxes lyrical on the Bulgarian National Revival. Apostoloff acts as their Hermes, crossing boundaries and bringing Bulgaria into full view for the sisters, but the narrator is determined to look askance at the fruits of this nation, unable to separate the noose around her father's neck from the fragments with which Bulgaria is puts itself together in the 21st century.
The narrator clearly sees Bulgaria with prejudiced eyes, and while she's self-conscious and astute enough to know when she's projecting her family history onto a country, it's never quite clear if she's aware enough to know when she's simply being a Eurocentric snob. She finds Bulgaria's food, architecture, and people wanting by standards she's used to in Germany. Bulgaria always comes up short by Swabian-infused calculation—its buildings too crude, its food too oily, its women too blonde, its men too thuggish.
When she finally approves of a Bulgarian entity—a house in Plovdiv—she notes the delightful salons with frescoes that tell of a "longing for Versailles and French customs", it's hard not to read the narrator of Apostoloff as an exile in search of her perfect Europe. It probably should come as no surprise that Lewitscharoff's narrator adores the novels of Martin Amis, and she does in fact come off like an irreverent Amis character, if Amis had the knack for writing brainy, funny women.
As Apostoloff progresses it might seem that while Lewitscharoff's narrator is grappling with a prickly family history, the novel is making a wider political comment. The German aversion to the Soviet Union seems to live on in the narrator's indictment of Soviet communism.
In Bulgaria, she sees proof of its past ugliness and depravity everywhere, in remnants of Stalinesque apartment blocks and dreary "mummified communist teabags". And although the narrator describes herself as a leftist, she's committed to bourgeois comforts and values, and is certain that if beauty is to be found in Bulgaria, it would have had to come by way of Western Europe. This is no mere casual disgust for a country and a culture that makes up half of her DNA—this is hate, it's the kind of hate that keeps the narrator going through tourist sight after tourist sight.
By the time we get to the end, we discover that the narrator does indeed enjoy hating Bulgaria as much as she enjoys hating her deceased father (or what he said, did, and stood for). What Lewitscharoff has done admirably—aided by Katy Derbyshire's sharp translation—is to base an entire novel on this hate and the troubled fascination it so often breeds, showing us how it cannot but invite an engagement: that hate cannot exist without love entering the equation at some point, whether in the past, present, or as yet-uncertain future.
Love, however, is not a word that the narrator throws around lightly. She might even scoff at it. But as surely as she loved her complex and perplexing father, the reader thinks, it might be possible for her to come to love Bulgaria in the same reserved and hesitant way.
In this charming and frustrating novel, the ugly feelings are the only ones that receive the most attention from the narrator and the author. Hate seems to provide a way in for the narrator to reckon with the two big things that frustrate her: Bulgaria and her father. It's important to good-naturedly indulge in hate, she tells us at the end, if only to keep the dead in check. And, we might add, to keep those alive in hope.