Meet Bogdan Rusev's Tourist, a Character Looking So Sad It Is Funny
"The tourist does not have a name. He does not have luggage. He does not have conversations, at least where he can help it. If anyone asks, he has a whole range of explanations about why he is travelling alone, ranging from mundane to the macabre.
No one ever asks. Which is good because wherever the tourist shows up, people die. Then he moves on. Another man - a world-renowned secret agent, perhaps - would enjoy this lifestyle. The tourist hates it. Roaming a world of famous cities barely noticed, forever stuck in the underbelly of all those exotic locations, the tourist feels so bad it is funny..."
A reader who has seldom felt tempted by thrillers doesn't have many reasons to get one, but this text on the back cover doesn't promise the regular thriller experience. I stop reading it and open the book to see the first sentence – which turns out to be just as striking.
"The tourist hated Prague.“ An explanation follows in the next few sentences – the bad weather – but the feeling remains that something is wrong with the character. Over the course of the next chapters – all named after cities the tourist is visiting – one finds out he is also "immediately disgusted with Cuba", does not like luggage, hates corporate events, and is afraid of flying (not necessarily in that order). Against all odds – despite what looks like his phobias – this is what he does all the time: he travels around the globe, from city to city.
As is often the case with Bogdan Rusev, the Bulgarian author of A Tourist, He Thought - and also a translator and advertisement professional - he knew from the very beginning what the first sentence should be.
“What kind of a person must one be to hate Prague?,” he asks me, rhetorically, when we meet in the conference room of the advertising agency he works for.“And then the reader starts wondering. What can make a visitor hate Prague? Why does a tourist loathe one of the most popular tourist destinations?”
For someone born and living in Bulgaria who has worked as Editor-in-Chief of several magazines and creative director of two advertising agencies (and has recently begun working at another agency, also as Creative Director), writing fiction only in his free time, it was no easy task to have a book published in English; but that was what happened at the end of January.
A genre-subversive author, Bogdan refers to what he wrote back in 2011, and what turned into one of his most acclaimed works in Bulgaria, as “a tongue-in-cheek thriller” - one that will be liked by people who seek to cross genres. And yet, there is no better way to describe his book: it is about “a man who travels around the world, kills people and is being chased. Only that he is really sulky all the time.”
The story idea was born roughly in the same setting where events in the book unfold: “on the road”.
„There was a very strange summer when I traveled quite a lot to attend presentations of different products,” Bogdan begins; he is recalling the year 2010, the time he was Editor-in-Chief at Capital Light, a culture magazine published with the influential Capital weekly. “The PR agency for Bulgaria of a tech company had decided to send ten Bulgarian journalists to the presentation of their new camera in Turin or somewhere else. The first thing I went to was a kind of cameras taking photos in the dark – there are also such cameras in the novel. And part of the global advertising campaign was that in each one of the 24 time zones around the world there are journalists, and every one of them was given a camera. We were supposed to take pictures at sunset, in the course of 24 hours. We could choose where we wanted to go and I picked the furthest destination – Brazil, at the border with Argentina. I traveled to Brazil for three days and it also took three days to come back – something like eight flights.”
He then landed in Bulgaria – and left for Tunisia, without even getting to his home, because the North African country's foreign ministry had organized a media tour. It wasn't there that his journey ended, though: upon his return he went straight to the opening party of a hotel that had purchased ad spaces in his magazine and needed a review.
„I wasn't married then, there was nothing to do in the weekend and so I went there. Sometime over the course of the third trip I started to freak out: you don't talk with anybody, you only see attending staff at the hotels, while everybody else you meet are people who came to have fun with their families; nobody is alone. Besides, you have an awful lot of time to sit and think how exactly you ended up alone, pulling a long face somewhere remote, in a place packed with people who are having fun.”
That was when the idea of a traveling character struck his mind;
a character showing what the endless trips and the peculiar kind of isolation coming with them does to one's personality. In a while, the tourist's features and personality were gradually carved out by his imagination: someone who travels but also “kills people”. “Then, since I didn't want to justify the profession of a murderer in any way, it became crystal clear he would be an anti-hero who utterly dislikes himself, totally miserable, his communication being limited to people who have decided to commit suicide and are just as unhappy.”
„And then I became so immersed into it that it started to look funny. This is what the book is supposed to be: a dark comedy.”
Just as this nameless character leaves nothing to fate, Bogdan makes him travel only to places that simply can't count as “random”. Prague, Vienna, Havana, Berlin, Istanbul, Cairo, Lisbon, Reykjavik, Sao Paulo – apart from Sofia, where he lives, Bogdan had been to all of them as of 2010, when the Bulgarian version of he book was released. Back then, it abounded in details about the places, and he makes no secret there were some of the places he visited that he found it natural to show off with, adding more traveler's descriptions.
The tourist has an unusual alibi: he writes hotel reviews about each hotel he is visiting.
They sometimes sound eccentric, other times like something bordering a work of art. One hotel is described by the usual criteria – location, architecture, furnishing – but only using negative adjectives. In Djerba, Tunisia, a funny collage compares another one to animated series about the Stone Age. Bogdan himself has experience with reviews. “It is a peculiar genre. When one is sent to a hotel with 15 other people who all go to the same place, one either has to copy from the press release and correct the spelling mistakes or create a form of their own that includes the information. This is what I have always tried to do, and this is how the profession came to my mind,” the author explains.
At the time we are talking, I have only read the Bulgarian version, simply named The Tourist, and a short novel that followed suit, The Tourist+1 – a sequel delving a little into the character's childhood to reveal more about what made him the detached person he is in the present.
“A Tourist, He Thought”, the book's English title, is actually the short novel's last sentence.
I want to get more details about the English edition. “It is really different,” Bogdan interjects, adding it is more than just a combination of the novel and the sequel. “It went through so much editing that I consider it a new book. I also imagine it could be the first one in a series.
It was Bogdan himself who did the translation, but in the end he realized
that meant much more than simply creating an English-language copy.
It was a process of painstaking editing.
Even in Bulgarian, The Tourist (the novel’s original title) seems like something isolated from the domestic reality. I suggest the descriptions of Sofia, read out loud, may sound redundant to a local and helpful to someone who doesn’t have a clue about the city. Bogdan nods. “That was the idea back while I was writing it for Bulgarian readers – to convey the feeling of isolation and detachment which is the natural state for this character. There are hints he was born somewhere in Southeast Europe – but in no way did I wish to have him carry the burden of a story, a nationality and so on.”
Despite this “international” touch of the book, and despite Bogdan’s rich experience in translating fiction from English into Bulgarian – it was no child's play to create the English version.
“It is the first time I am doing it for a book of my own. While translating, it is like reading very carefully; so I saw many things I hadn’t liked while editing the Bulgarian version. This is how I took an occasion to rewrite it the way I like it now.”
The “English” story of the tourist thus turned out much different to the Bulgarian one – virtually a short novel of 185 pages, down from the Bulgarian version of 200 plus the sequel of around fifty. While editing, he was pitiless, removing anything that bears no relation to the plot or the character or (in case it matches neither of the two conditions) if it isn't funny.
“Contemporary Bulgarian writers are rarely forced to do such editing. In Bulgaria, with its small market, it is very easy to become popular – in so far as there are popular writers at all. Almost nobody, big names included, is facing the need to take a careful look at their own texts. When you try to set foot on a market where some several tens of thousands of thrillers will be out in a month, you have to offer something that will make your book stand out.”
While editing, however, Bogdan managed to combine the process of shortening the text with that of enriching his character: A Tourist, He Thought, added new dimensions to the image of the unhappy traveler with hints at how his past shaped his miserable present.
“This is my best book, undeniably – and the reason is precisely this process of trying to push it beyond the boundaries of the Bulgarian market.”
I am surprised Bogdan decided to take the step in the first place: just a couple of years ago, he could be heard voicing skepticism about the prospect of publishing anything abroad. He would explain that with the "purely Bulgarian" nature of his works which makes them unfit for translation and the effort that it takes to "chase the publishers" and find an agent, combined with the lack of offers from publishing houses.
So what made him change his mind?
“Well, most of my work is still unfit for translation into other languages,” he replies (something his devote fans, many of whom note his ability to avoid what they call a “typically Bulgarian” style, would definitely disagree about). “But yes, the situation changed. In 2014, a German publishing house surprisingly contacted me willing to publish The House [a literal translation of the Bulgarian title, Kashtata], a detective novel set in Sofia, with many Bulgarian details – they said Eastern Europe was in fashion at the moment and asked if they could publish it. I naturally agreed – and for some reason this gave me wings, pushing me to embark on the translation [of The Tourist]. The truth is that I knew it was my most “international” book; but I had more than fifty “No”-s before finding a publisher that would say “Yes”.” By the time the long-waited “Yes” came from London-based Austin Macauley Publishers, he had seen for himself that finding a publisher to help him into the English-language market was just as difficult as he had imagined.
Squeezing me into his busy schedule,
Bogdan looks quite at home in the conference hall of the advertising agency.
Ads are what has been taking the bulk of his day in recent years. “The rest I dedicate to my son, who is three months old at the moment and is a very high-maintenance project,” he adds, smiling. Even if there are professional writers in Bulgaria who only live off the earnings from their books – an idea he disbelieves – he can certainly find some advantages in not being one of them. To the contrary: the advertising business taught him some invaluable skills that he doesn't hesitatе to apply to writing.
“It helps develop three things: it enables you to present an idea clearly and concisely; it makes you understand a text is not a sacred thing sent to this world by a Muse and cannot be edited – quite the opposite, sometimes you have to work with it until the very last moment; and number three, advertisement, if done properly, develops an inexhaustible curiosity – a vital thing for a writer. Creating good advertisements looks like the job of a reporter. It isn’t exactly like covering an event, but the pattern is the same. You make yourself familiar with a product, you have no choice which product to write about, you have to learn everything about it, even what no-one would tell you, and then to find out the most interesting features and to tell them as a story to people who basically aren’t interested in the product. In this sense, it is a bit more difficult than the reporter’s job because everyone wants to read the news, but no-one wants to look at ads actively. It is not surprising there have been many writers across the world who have had a copywriting job.”
Gamebooks were yet another source of invaluable experience for a writer –
and his experience with them turns out to be a developing story; it dates back to the nineties, when he rose to fame among gamebook lovers under the pen name Robert Blond (it was thought Western names sold better in the first years of democratic transition) but to his own amazement is also taking some of his time nowadays as he is part of what he `describes as a “small revival”. It all started again for him when he the author of Balgar, a Bulgarian animated series Bogdan dubs “a low-cost South Park”, called him suggesting he could write a gamebook with the characters. “The result was such a success that I wrote a second one, after having been away from the gamebooks business for fifteen years.”
Listening to him speak about this one could think he sounds surprised; and yet when it comes to gamebooks in Bulgaria he is not just anyone – in the nineties, when the gamebook industry was in decline in the West but gathering pace in Bulgaria, he was one of the big names.“When we started with them, they were a phenomenon of their own… At the beginning of the 90s, it was a normal thing for a book I wrote to have more copies than Stephen King. It was incredible, I was aged around 20 and for 3-4 years I made a living out of writing books. It never happened to me again. But these several years were cool, and also taught me confidence.”
As Bogdan’s free time for the workday is coming to an end, we discuss his preference for the model that Lee Child, a full-time novelist for the last couple of decades, uses to write his books, sticking to the pattern of publishing one annually – he says the model of writing six months and then traveling, doing some research and relaxing during the remainder is something he finds appealing and considers to be something to aspire to. What is the next thing he would like to write, though? Something like A Tourist, He Thought, Part 2?
“I even have Part 3 in my head. Even the title is there,” he replies.
“The tourist is a character that one finds it very easy to do a series about. I imagine him going to this or that or then a third or a fourth place, growing older and sulkier, and other characters also appeared in the book whose fate could be interesting.”
“There will certainly be more stories about the tourist, if there is someone to read them,” Bogdan concludes – and suddenly adds, in the traditions of any good thriller: But then I also have others up my sleeve.”
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