On a freezing day in February 1964 Sacho the Violin was arrested, an elegant man in his fifties, a former cabaret violinist known and loved by what remains of Sofia’s bon-vivant community. Under the crowd’s gray gaze, a dozen militiamen bluntly push him into a small van. Passersby turn away, ostensibly feigning indifference. They haven’t seen anything. Did you see someone who might have? No one. Was there anything to see for that matter? Nothing. A small van slowly made its way through Rakovska Street, stopped briefly, left. As it does every day.
Passersby quicken aimless steps made heavy by fear along the city center’s narrow streets. Once at home, they will tell their children to go play. They will lock themselves into the kitchen with their spouses and perhaps their mother- or father-in-law, who live under the same roof. They will turn up the volume on the radio or, if they don’t have one, they will let the tap run. In this reassuring aural environment, shielded from suspected microphones and ill-meaning ears, they will say in low, almost inaudible voices: “Sacho the Violin was arrested.” They will take a gulp of rakia, that delicious Bulgarian brandy made from grapes, pears, plums or other rotten fruit, which warms the belly and the heart.
After a second, silent sip, someone will ask why. “Why?” Now there’s an extraordinary question. How can one still think this after twenty years of surprising events, random crimes and punishments, truths-become-lies and lies erected into truths? Still, someone will ask. The spouse? The father-in-law? “Why was this poor Sacho arrested?” Because, scatterbrain as he is (should one say “as he was” already?), the Violin told a joke. Do you know the difference between Bulgarian and British stamps? The British spit on the stamps’ backs, on the glue. Bulgarians spit on the stamps’ faces, on Dimitrov’s portrait.
In Sacho’s case, it’s not as if reasons are lacking: He spoke several foreign languages except Russian, wore suits from before the war bought in Vienna or Paris, took out his violin once in a while to play, not the brigades’ song but a sentimental jazz melody.
In an imperceptible linguistic shift, Sacho the Violin will start being referred to in the past tense, even if the only certainty right now is his arrest. “But have you ever seen someone who’s disappeared reappear?” The spouse, noticing that the children aren’t sleeping yet, will go put them to bed. The father-in-law will slice some cabbage marinated in salt and pig fat to have with the rakia. The mother-in-law will heat up the leek and potato soup.
The husband will light a cigarette to chase away the vision of the small van and that distressing feeling of impotence and shame. A third sip of rakia. The little ones’ screams—and the guilt he feels for not rebelling against Sacho’s arrest—will make him leap, run to their bedroom and give them a good spanking as if to prove to himself that he’s a man, with authority, and not a simple machine that submits. His spouse will slip away, her head between her hands, finding the punishment unfair, and she will join her in-laws in the kitchen to seek some silent comfort. She will not find it. The evening will unfold in indifference and chewing noises.
Seated in her kitchen, immobile for the last hour, Gaby is looking at the wall. She hasn’t seen anything, but a friend stopped her in the street as she was coming back from work. In the middle of artificially happy chatter, she whispered in her ear that Sacho the Violin had been arrested. She accompanied her to the bus stop, waited with her until it came, pushed her inside. Her heart and body crushed by a crowd of sullen strangers, Gaby started her daily trip to the terminus. She dragged her feet through the snow, insensitive to the cold. She locked the door to her apartment and, once seated on the kitchen bench, in the apartment’s only heated room, she waited in vain for tears to come relieve her.
Gaby gets up and searches around in the cupboard, promising herself that she will buy a bottle of alcohol for this type of occasion. Behind the packets stacked there in anticipation of the days when the shops are emptied, as if gutted, she finds a flask. Dregs of cherry liqueur. She hesitates, thinking of the cakes that will be deprived of this intoxicating flavor. Then, in one brusque gesture, she pours all of it, sits back down and rotates her glass in keeping with the rhythm of the clock’s hands. Gaby’s reservoir of tears is a salt marsh where the wind of bad news has progressively evaporated all the water. All that’s left is a white, crumbly, stinging substance, such that, were Gaby able to cry, salt crystals would fall from her eyes.
She hears the key turn in the lock and looks up at the clock. When her daughter appears in the doorjamb, Gaby’s pain degenerates into stupid anger.
“What time is it? You’re home too late.”
“It’s not late.”
“And without letting me know.”
“Mama, I’m twenty.”
“And so what? When you’re fifty you will still be my daughter. Either you come back for dinner, or you find a way to let me know. Otherwise, I worry.”
“That’s your problem.”
“Don’t talk to me like that!”
Gaby hits the table.
“Where were you? You smell of cigarettes.”
“I don’t smoke, I’ve told you a hundred times. My friends smoke, and my clothes stink.”
“If you smoke, you’re grounded. And speak properly.”
“You’re not one to teach me how to speak. How long have you been hitting the bottle?”
“Don’t talk to your mother like that!”
The shouting stops, leaving invisible sparks floating in the air, small explosive charges ready to burst into flames. Rada seeks refuge in her bedroom. She despises her mother for not having made a new life for herself with a man, for not having had other children, for remaining glued to her, stifling her with her perpetual concern.
Gaby rotates her glass, one, two, three, five, a hundred times. She lifts up her thin yet suddenly heavy body and joins Rada.
“Did you eat?”
“You were waiting for me, right.”
Usually, this kind of response triggers war.
“I haven’t prepared anything. Want to have a bit with me?”
A few pieces of feta, yoghurt and bread. They chew in silence.
“Sacho was arrested,” Gaby blurts out at last.
Rada’s fork freezes.
“Earlier, on Rakovska Street, across from the theater academy. Some performance, you could say. We may be in trouble. Avoid the subject with your friends.”
At night, a pallid light shines on the sideboard that holds a large part of the household’s riches. High up on the right, at the back of the shelf, are five delicate, mismatched coffee cups, fine porcelain from Limoges. They have survived the jolts of Gaby’s and her mother’s lives, the moves, the flights. Only on very rare occasions do they come down from the top of the cupboard, for Sunday coffee with a childhood girlfriend. These cups do not function as mere containers; they are witness to the existence of another time, of another possibility, that of a time before Communism. When one of them breaks, anger beyond measure takes hold of Gaby, as if the broken crockery put the very reality of this other time in doubt.
What is used every day are cups without any adornment, as simple as ideals. They take up the front of the shelf, next to the glasses, the plates, the coarse identical bowls produced by the standardized factories of the worker state.
Two drawers hold the table linens. The cupboard’s lower half contains five kilograms of sugar and flour, salt, yeast, in short what is needed to make bread; some luxury items, vanilla powder, raisins, insipid-tasting chicory packets and a container of coffee from abroad, real coffee also kept for exceptional occasions. On the balcony, a hood of snow covers jars of pickles, peppers and sundry eggplants.
Awake in the middle of the night, Gaby is looking for warmth under the heavy quilt but her toes and her soul are freezing. Outside, glittering snowflakes swirl around, just as her memories turn, turn, until her head spins. Sacho is gone, her friend, her lover, he with whom she shared an entire life filled with falls and rebounds.
Soon, the rumor will travel from ear to ear; after several months of “treatment” in the concentration camp at Belene, Sacho the Violin will be thrown into a pigsty teeming with hungry sows. In his suit that used to be so elegant, he will be torn into shreds by their savage snouts. Grunts and strident squeals; giant greedy noses desperately going at human remains…
Under the duvet Gaby is choking. Her painfully dry eyes plunge into the darkness and reconstitute Sacho’s figure, but another silhouette rises from the shadows, that of Peter. “I don’t want to think about him; I refuse, I had forgotten, I want to forget again, I can do it, I am going to forget.” Gaby clenches her teeth and fists, as if strength could do anything against memory.
Rada is awake too. She’s thinking about the three students from the Engineering Institute she met in her first year, older, unsubdued. They founded a student organization that competed with the komsomol. They did not come back to class after the summer. Disappeared, like the Violin. No one evoked their absence but everybody knew they had been sent to the camp. Rada knew too. She was seventeen.
Now it’s Sacho’s turn. He wasn’t strictly part of the family, but he was someone in her life. When she was a child, he took her to the merry-go-round in Liberty Park where the painted horses and the carriages from before the war had been replaced by wooden tanks and katyushas. In the winter, they made snowmen.
When did she start keeping her distance from Sacho? Perhaps the day she understood he was her mother’s lover and that this was shameful. She had happened upon a quarrel between her uncle Ivan and her mother. “So you think nobody’s noticed your illicit affair? Your meetings in the park, your coming home late at night. I can’t bear your seeing this guy.” Gaby had remained still, a vein in her neck throbbing with anger. In her silence Rada had seen the admission of a fault.
She had started hating Sacho but continued to visit him. She would climb the stairs to his bachelor pad, come in without saying hello, displaying her teenage hostility right off the bat. Nevertheless, something important was taking shape in this tiny space, “What?” Rada wondered, lying in her bed. Some sort of friendship? A bit of affiliation?
The following day, she decides to go around to Sacho’s place. She has the keys to his studio, on the top floor of a decrepit building in the city center. Over there, she may be able to understand. She will also go through the library, taking the forbidden books he recommended and which, dying of curiosity, she refused, thus signifying her indifference.
At the bus stop, the air thickened by minus fifteen degrees stings her nostrils. When, after half an hour, the vehicle finally arrives, enraged folk storm its doors. A comrade slips on the frozen steps and collapses, blocking access, bringing the people’s anger to its highest point.
“What’s happening now? We can’t get in! Haven’t we waited long enough?” shout those who are still outside.
“Careful, someone’s fallen down.”
“Hard not to fall with this ice…”
“And these damned transports, always late.”
“He’s fallen down, he should stay down!”
“He shouldn’t have come out if he was in poor shape.”
Fortunately, Rada is able to secure a seat near the window. She looks outside, unable to bear those faces where hate and submissiveness throb like unhealthy blood vessels in rosacea. At the first stops, she fears she might be dislodged by one of these active combatants who produce their cards and demand you free up a seat. Soon, the human mass dissolves into a compact wall. An old lady’s soft belly crushes her against the window.
Once again she thinks about Sacho’s bachelor pad. She’s probably hoping to find an answer there, in a book, a letter, or on one of the yellowed photographs that, as a child, she didn’t dare to look at too closely. She must have been afraid to discover the truth alone, and needed an adult to tell her what it was. But nobody talked, not her mother, not her uncle, not her aunt, not even Sacho. In her family questions were greeted by icy muteness, like capital sins. Rada learned to keep quiet. She grew up in oppressive silence.
The same silence had greeted the return of one of the three teenagers. One day he reappeared, thin and aged from an entire life. He resumed college in Rada’s group, to catch up. His eyes had lost their expressiveness, his face was as cold as a prison wall. No one asked him where he came from, what he had lived through during these years, what his friends had become. People avoided him amiably, they surrounded him with a soundproof airlock.
It is at the extreme depth of this silence, where life has ceased to exist but where we—my mother Rada and so many others—have lived, that I would like to arrive, following a long period without breathing. I would like to feel the weight of this thick mass of silence once again, so as to get closer to the protagonists and bring them back to life. But how can one describe the daily life of people who keep quiet, year after year? How can one recount this endless litany of days reduced to nothing by the fear of talking?
There was always something to hide, a suspicious parent, a forbidden book, a breach of discipline, an ill-placed remark, a vague subversive thought… The worst was that, as time went by, we no longer knew what was subversive. Fearing that we might be so in spite of ourselves, we kept quiet. This monotony was lacking in the tiniest amount of diversity, the smallest possible unevenness I might be able to latch on to in order to tell its story.
Torturers know that a man subjected to absolute silence ends up losing his mind. We all lost ours while building Communism’s radiant tomorrows. At the very bottom of the abyss of silence, I will find not the human beings of my childhood but hideous mutants. And I will recognize them, my parents and my loved ones (I will recognize myself as well), I will kiss them, I will hold them tight against my chest and I will wish to stay there. But the last gram of air will make me come up to the surface.
I remember the way I myself learned the lesson of silence. My parents had already taught it to me, but it remained theoretical. The seventies were drawing to a close, I was nine years old, on vacation at a camp site by the Black Sea. It was hot despite the late hour and campers were still in their swimsuits. I was coming back from the toilet, skipping, when I heard a radio crackling in the neighbors’ tent.
I ran toward my father, who was sitting on a wobbly chair with discolored upholstery.
“Papa, the neighbors are listening to American radio, Radio Free Europe!”
All of a sudden his face lost its tan. He got up, rested a heavy hand on my shoulder, I thought he was going to slap me. He made me get inside the tent. He talked between clenched teeth:
“How many times have I told you not to say a word about what you hear at home? How many times? And you, you’re shouting ‘Radio Free Europe,’ just like that, in front of everybody!”
I got scared. My father continued to hiss like a fantastical serpent.
“Besides, how do you know this was Radio Free Europe. Because you’ve listened to it at home. That’s what a cop would infer. And cops are everywhere.”
Talking helped my father calm down.
“Anyhow, it’s the neighbors’ fault, they should have turned down the volume.”