New in Bulgarian: “Sunflowers for Maria” by Kerana Angelova

By Nevena Dichlieva-Krysteva

Kerana Angelova is a Bulgarian writer whose works would appeal to readers anywhere in the world because she deals with universal themes of the human soul: love, pain, time, god, violence, and happiness. What makes her special is the beauty of her words, the subtle transitions between fantasy and reality in her world, and her ability to draw readers in with her relatable characters. Unfortunately, few of her poems exist in English now, and none of her prose is accessible to the English-speaking reader.

A short introduction: Kerana Angelova is the author of four novels. Her first novel, Elada Pignyo and the Time (2003), is a masterpiece of contemporary Bulgarian literature, and has received numerous literary awards in Bulgaria. Three other novels followed—Inner Room (2006), The Street of Butterflies (2010), and Sunflowers for Maria (2013)—along with six poetry collections, two novellas, and a nonfiction collection of short essays and notes entitled One After Midnight (2013). Kerana was born in the mystical Strandzha Mountains in Southeastern Bulgaria and lives in the seaport city of Burgas. Her stories are imbued with the sense of magic woven into the local lore and language of her home region.

Kerana is a friend of mine. She sent me a chapter of her latest novel, Sunflowers for Maria, in early 2013. It was still a work in progress, and the author told me that she was so haunted by her characters that she needed to take a break from them for a short while. Especially from the most obsessive one: Vincent Van Gogh. His strong personality and restless genius was too much to bear.

Kerana sent me a chapter consisting of Vincent’s imaginary letter to Maria, a young photographer who lives in contemporary Bulgaria and shares his passionate love of sunflowers. I let Maria’s vivid dreams engulf me. I started seeing sunflowers everywhere and let myself hear the words reaching Maria from another place and time. The words that she knew were meant for her and connected her to a different reality. The sunflowers in Maria’s present life witness the unbearable pain and the bittersweet aroma of death after the 2012 terrorist bombing at Burgas Airport, where she was the first photographer to cover the tragedy for a local newspaper.

Many months later, after the novel was published and I could read it in its entirety, I was able to grasp the broader narrative, and discovered that a third character, Stephan, is the connecting thread between Van Gogh and Maria. Stephan, the same age as Maria, was also born in Burgas. He lives alone. As a child, he witnessed a different terrorist attack that killed many people before his eyes. A woman in a red jacket, her head hanging loosely; a crying baby and the bitter smell of vitriol. When news about the bombing at Burgas Airport airs on TV, Stephan is shocked. He has a flashback to his childhood nightmare. Smells and images return. TV footage of the tragedy cuts deep—a young woman with a boyish haircut vomiting by a sunflower field.

Vincent Van Gogh is choked by his gloomy and sunless homeland. His genius needs space and sun. Love. He considers life without love “a sinful and dissolute state.” This fundamental belief adds to his confidence that the love of his life exists, albeit somewhere in the future. Vincent knows for sure that the women in his present life are only temporary consolation, substitutes for a future dream. Rarely acknowledged, painfully alone, he transfers his sorrow and madness to canvas. Vincent is aware that time separates people. He will not allow time to prevent him from living his dreams, though. The awkward, ugly Dutch peasant opens his arms to meet his dream woman, his love, Maria. She has a boyish haircut, a peacock for a pet, and an obsession with sunflowers.

Vincent, Maria, and Stephan reenact each other’s lives. Kerana Angelova rearranges literary time and makes this communication across ages and countries possible by using the power of creative empathy. If somewhere in his nineteenth-century Vincent Van Gogh moaned in pain or ecstasy, then Maria (and we, the readers) shall also moan, engulfed by the same experience. The acts of love, violence and compassion reappear, crossing the boundaries of past, present, and future. The difference between cultural eras begins to disappear if we only dare look at time from the vantage point of the creative spirit. The bombs of hatred are exploding today just as they were in the past, but so are the blasts of love. Today (and centuries ago), man has at his disposal this great power—love. It dictates our impractical but heavenly choices. It cures injured souls and helps us remember who we are, even as the world falls apart under our feet. If this is not enough, we can always rely on life-saving signs that someone from the time before ours has left for us: words, colors, sunflowers.

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