Bulgarian writer Alek Popov: Balkan vitality is the reason for us to still exist

Social media create the illusion of community and communication, but they actually destroy them

One of the most valuable traits of the Bulgarian national character, as far as such exists, is the ability to live along with the absurdity and to accept the paradoxes of human nature. This is not somethings that came out of good times. The logic of life is stronger than the logic of moral convictions, and survival has always been a priority for the Bulgarians, says writer Alek Popov in an interview to George Dimitrov.

Mr Popov, what imposed the need for your bestseller Mission London to be reworked for its new edition?

The reason is very prosaic - it is an out-of-print work. Actually, this book is always up-to-date. We are a little ahead of its 20th anniversary. I have not read it for a long time and I had some fears about how it would sound to me today, as I - myself - had come a long way during those years. But I constrained the rewrite mainly to stylistic corrections. I felt that the novel should remain as it was, like a document of our era, which is not over yet.

How do you explain the huge success of the novel and the film based on it?

Both the book and the film offer, in their own ways, an irresistible combination of diplomacy, high-society glamour, scandal, and political and social satire. All this is narrated with unexpected twists and bright personages, in the best tradition of the highbrow comic novel. Generations of Bulgarian readers have grown up with the novels of Ilf and Petrov, with the adventures of The Good Soldier Svejk, with the novels of PG Wodehouse and Jerome K.Jerome - this is the most loved literature, and unfortunately the rarest one. Because it is extremely difficult to create.

Literary critics in the West wrote that your intelligent humour is of the rank of John Irving and T.C. Boyle. Are you tempted by such comparisons?

People are always looking for a basis for comparison when trying to understand something. Mission London carries a specific carnival charm, which the Western reader is not always able to catch. The mixture of English sense of humour and typical Balkan situations is often confusing for them. For me personally, the understanding of this original Balkan vitality is more valuable than any comparisons.

Why do we like laughing at ourselves and at the same time we do the same things we laugh at?

One of the most valuable traits of the Bulgarian national character, as far as such exists, is the ability to live along with the absurdity and to accept the paradoxes of human nature. This is not somethings that came out of good times. The logic of life is stronger than the logic of moral convictions, and survival has always been a priority for the Bulgarians. We cannot judge them for it. In fact, that is the reason for us to still exist. Learning to reconcile the inevitable contradictions in life is a test of mental strength.

Did the isolation imposed by the coronavirus pandemic help you write?

For me, isolation is not something unusual. Books are born in solitude, and writing is perhaps the loneliest job. Staying alone with yourself, especially for me, is something good, although the emergency situation now can hardly be called calm times. Tensions have accumulated in society, all sorts of conspiracies have emerged, and the measures, which were dictated by common sense, have been politicised and compromised. And perhaps the worst thing of all: Europe has closed and fragmented before our eyes in just a few months.

Would you write a book related to the coronavirus pandemic?

This topic is so exploited that it is hardly possible to say something new about it. But years will pass and then, probably, more interesting details will stand out, which are currently eluding us. Literature is an art of distancing. One of the important lessons which we learn is about the limits of science. It is something that scientists are aware of, but most people are used to thinking that things can be solved by a magic wand and they require it. Treating science as a religion is extremely naive.

How has the recent boom in social media, where it's possible to start revolutions, affected writers and their works?

Social media are everything that art is not. They do not recognise irony, deny the nuances, the depth and paradoxes of human nature. They are designed in such a way as to unleash conflicts and tolerate extreme opinions. They create an illusion of community and communication, when in fact they destroy them. No revolution launched on them has led to anywhere, although in principle, with or without them, most revolutions end equally ingloriously, in rivers of blood. If we do not learn how to control these media, the same way as we control nuclear weapons, they can lead to a total poisoning of minds - which is worse than climate changes. A confused, insane, overwhelmed with passions and hatred humanity is the greatest danger to itself.

It seems that people in general, not only in Bulgaria, increasingly miss the faith in something good and positive. Why has money replaced spirituality?

When was spirituality actually a mass priority? Even highly spiritual people are fighting for their living. This is a worthy battle - much more worthy than spinning tales of high spirituality. Matter and spirit are in a constant correlation and often exchange their places. Many supposedly spiritual people actually manifest themselves as zealous materialists. Personally, I always get on the alert when someone speaks to me in an intensely fervent way. True people of spirit never use such rhetoric.

Many say that the coronavirus pandemic has made us reflect on the true values ​​in life. Do you think that literature is changing?

Part of the true things in life are good stories, narrated well. The art of storytelling is connected with the order in the mind. Creating complete worlds, inhabited by vivid images, which are intertwined in complex relationships - all this requires a high level of concentration and intellectual discipline. The characters and stories may be as crazy as they want, but they are a product of a healthy psyche. The decline of the narrative tradition, in my opinion, is evidence of laziness of the mind, of disintegration of the logical chains of the brain, which keep it alive.

Would you write for streaming platforms like Storytel? What are you currently working on?

Actually, all my books have been uploaded on Storytel. It is another opportunity to reach the audience. But this has no direct connection to the technique of writing. I am currently completing a new novel in the style of Mission London. It all started with a story that my wife and I came up with on the beach in Pomorie 10 years ago. This story evolved in a completely independent direction. The leading topics are the demographic crisis, the search for the roots, the myth of the Bulgarians' origin against the backdrop of the continued political carnival. And of course, an exciting love story about people from different cultures. Or said in one word - a novel.

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Alex Popov is a leading contemporary Bulgarian writer. His books are among bestsellers in Bulgaria and abroad. Translated into dozens of languages, they include the novels Palaveevi Sisters and The Black Box, the short-story collections Mythology of Transition, Body Novels, Full Curse for the Advanced, The Radical Thinker's Companion and others. The bestseller Mission London has been published in a new, revised edition now. A record 3.4 million viewers have watched the film after the eponymous novel. Alek Popov was born on 16 January 1966 in Sofia. He graduated from St Constantine Cyril the Philosopher Lyceum for Ancient Languages and Cultures in Sofia and later received his master's degree in Bulgarian language and literature from Sofia University “St Kliment Ohridski”. Popov is a correspondent fellow of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. He was a cultural attache at the Bulgarian Embassy in London.

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