Georgi Bardarov: War and love are the only certainties on this earth

Conflicts should be perceived in their stark brutality so that they can be avoided

Georgi Bardarov

On a personal level, for someone to leave the past behind, they need to forgive and to be forgiven. From the global perspective of mankind, as a collective, we move on without forgiveness, says Georgi Bardarov, one of the laureates of this year's European Union Prize for Literature, in an interview to EUROPOST.

Mr Bardarov, you won this year's European Union Prize for Literature with a novel that weaves stories related to the Arab-Israeli conflict and Nazi concentration camps into a literary fabric where the common thread is forgiveness. Can man or society move on without forgiving?

For someone to genuinely move on, one needs to forgive both oneself and the others, but the world as a whole will keep chugging along, keep evolving regardless. Put in abstract terms, we need to forgive in order to move on, to shed the sense of guilt, of sin. But the fact that everything in human history repeats itself, many times over, and no lessons are ever learnt is proof that we keep moving on without forgiveness. For example, World War II ends, the perpetrators of violence need forgiveness, as is the case in my novel, they forgive themselves, move on with their lives and then the cycle is repeated. On a personal level, for someone to leave the past behind, they need to forgive and to be forgiven. From the perspective of society as a whole, of mankind, of human civilisation - that is not needed, as a collective, we move on without forgiveness.

Do you have someone to forgive?

Every person, without exception, has things to forgive and to be forgiven for. One of my motivations to write this novel, beyond the compelling stories based on true events, was that I have things I struggle to forgive myself for, in relation to people really close to me.

In your debut novel I Am Still Counting the Days, one of the stories unfolds again during the war - this time it is about the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s. Does war bring out the fiercest of beasts out of us, and is it the only way leading to reconciliation?

My firm belief is that every single person, without exception, is both a beast and an angel. War brings to the fore the most negative side of people, because it puts them in an emergency situation in which they cannot think and act “normally”, according to our understanding of normalcy. War brings out the demon and the worst sides of every human being. But not only war. Many other circumstances can bring out the worst in us. Perhaps the greatest effort during war is to keep the demon inside. When people around you kill, force and rape, it is very difficult and almost impossible for you to withstand and remain a human being.

How do we become hardened?

When you observe violence every day, you become hardened. I studied Nazism very carefully. There is a very interesting question for me, which I have subconsciously tried to answer ever since I was a child, and which has now become conscious - how can normal, intelligent and cultured people who are not sadists and murderers be part of this death machine. Firstly and unfortunately, manipulation can work wonders. We can all fall victims to it within seconds. Secondly, when this happens around you every day, you really become hardened. You become able to see insane things, such as those happening in concentration camps, and then sit down to eat, drink and hug your wife. In the constant observation of violence, you simply become hardened and lose your senses.

Can you move on after such hardening and embrace goodness again?

It is not impossible, but it is very difficult. That is why this happens also to my characters in the novel. If you have been through such a thing, it always stays with you. In the novel Absolvo Te, Max Shevchenko leaves Auschwitz, but Auschwitz never leaves Max Shevchenko. There is no way. This remains with you and determines your entire future life and the life of generations after you.

There is no monument to Sarajevo's Romeo and Juliet, who are protagonists in your novel I Am Still Counting the Days, so as not to inflame the smouldering conflict. There are many monuments of remembrance to victims of the Holocaust, reminding constantly: “We remember so it doesn’t happen again!” Should war and atrocities be remembered or should they be forgiven and forgotten?

It is no coincidence that I write these books and give lectures on ethno-religious conflicts at Sofia University. I have chosen to teach this discipline myself, no one has pushed me into it. I believe that this must be talked about constantly in order to avoid it as much as possible. This vicious cycle of violence will continue as long as humans exist. But the more one talks, the more one shows it, the more one can keep people's minds awake. Definitely, there should be monuments, books and movies on this topic. War and conflicts cannot be described in a sugary way. I have been criticised for being extremely brutal in my books - in I Am Still Counting the Days with the interviews, in Absolvo Te with the concentration camps. I always tell my students that once they have chosen this course of study, they should see the conflicts in all their brutality. When I was a child, there were Soviet films that were brilliant for their time and which I do not criticise, but they showed the heroic image of the war. We grew up with the idea of how cool it is to be in a war, to be a hero. There is nothing heroic in war. You are a murderer. Yes, you kill to save your loved ones, but you are still a murderer.

Smouldering conflicts, which erupt like a volcano, are the base elements of both of your novels. Is it difficult to put love, forgiveness and joy on such a foundation?

It is not difficult, because it turns out that if there are two certainties in the history of humankind, those are war and love. There have always been wars and there will always be, but inherently people will also always need to receive and give love. Possibly, during war these things sharply intensify. Possibly, the stories of love and affection in my novels are a counterbalance to the horror and violence. The story in I Am Still Counting the Days is entirely true. I have a theory, which I often share with my students - we are used to either glorifying Man too much or belittling Man too much. In fact, people are what they are. We all have good and bad traits. People can kill and force, but they can also love and create. This can happen within one personality, within one life, and it happens all the time. Although we are not at war, we can insult other people in some way, we can verbally hurt them, and if it is a war we can kill them. At the same time, we can love, create and procreate.

Are the Balkans and the whole of Europe a powder keg in view of the ethnic and religious tensions, the shrinking population and the waves of refugees?

Europe is fraught with extreme antagonism and conflicts from the time of antiquity. I am a Europhile - an admirer of the European culture, history and architecture. I adore Europe as it is - medieval, renaissance, baroque and romantic. But at the same time, I am very tolerant of other religions, ethnicities and races. The European Union was formed some seventy years ago, and the antagonism that has been inherited and created over millennia cannot be overcome in that time. Nations have hated each other, killed each other for centuries, and they cannot start loving each other so fast. In Europe, as in the rest of the world, ethnic conflicts have always been there and they will always continue to be. The Balkans, however, are a more specific place. They really are a powder keg. Maybe because on the Balkans we are too much alike, and when we see our worst traits in the others, it irritates us a lot, which provokes us to extreme impatience and hatred. Apart from this is our emotionality - we love and hate too strongly, we fall very easily from one extreme to the other, we are ready to cross any barriers with a person with whom we have been very close friends until just yesterday - as it happened in the wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Your novels provoke all human senses - through the music that your characters listen to, the food they eat, the aromas they feel and love. Are their preferences taken from the prototypes of your characters or are they your additions?

They are taken from real life but reflect my tastes. The music, the aromas and the food reflect my preferences.

How do you choose the titles of your novels? Do you start from them first or they come at the end?

It is different. In my first novel I had the working title of Sarajevo, Sarajevo…, which came from the song by Neda Ukraden. I did not like it very much, but it was staying along because I had not come up with a better one. Then I found out Admira's letter to her mother. There is actually such a letter, but its text in the novel is mine. A friend of mine who knows French had watched a documentary about Bosko and Admira, made a year after their deaths during the blockade. The film was composed only of interviews with their relatives. The idea to have interviews in my novel that would sound like documentaries came from there. This documentary was about Admira's letter. The quality of the recording was very poor and there was no way to understand what was written there, but I knew that the letter existed. I watched this film one night, and the next day, when I went to the place where I was writing my novel, the whole text of the letter and the very title I Am Still Counting the Days came to my mind.

For the second novel I knew that I wanted to lay at its heart the very difficult kind of forgiveness - that of forgiving your own self. Then the idea came to me that conceptually I could have a title in Latin, which could be connected to forgiveness, and I could put it in a note and explain it at the end. Then I looked on the internet for such expressions and I came across Absolvo te - it is present in the Catholic Church at the end of confessions, and it means liberation associated with the forgiveness of sins. Then I knew that this would be the title.

Do you already have a story for a third novel?

I don't have one now. I am not in a hurry. There has to be a story that provokes me, or many real stories that I could then compile. I do many things, and of them I value most my teaching at Sofia University. I am very proud to be a writer, I have always dreamed of it, but there is no greater pride and happiness than the University. Apart from that, I work with many foundations on various projects. The next story may come tomorrow, or it may come in five years.

Close-up

Assoc Prof Georgi Bardarov, PhD, teaches demographics and ethno-religious conflicts at Sofia University “St Kliment Ohridski”. His debut novel, I Am Still Counting the Days (2016) won the Manuscript competition of the Bulgarian National Television as well as Best Debut at “The Feather” Literary Club Annual Awards. He is the author of the most-read short story in Bulgarian online, For the Fifth Rakia or How Great Life Is. His second novel, Absolvo Te (2020), is among the winners of the 2021 European Union Prize for Literature.

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