Christopher Buxton’s translation of “The Shadow of the Great Masturbator,” a chapter from Alek Popov’s The Palaveevi Sisters, appears in the March 2017 issue: From the Edges of Europe: New Bulgarian Literature.
Alek Popov is Bulgaria’s premier satirical novelist—his nearest British equivalent would be Evelyn Waugh. In the context of a society with sharply divided attitudes to its communist past, and striving to assert its European heritage, Popov’s novels play with issues of national identity and the often questionable mythology that supports it.
Popov’s first two novels, Mission London and The Black Box, published by Istros Books and Peter Owen respectively, conveyed the experiences of Bulgarians struggling to maintain life and dignity in London and New York. With The Palaveevi Sisters he confronts that most painful and controversial period of recent Bulgarian history, the years preceding Bulgaria’s defeat in the Second World War and its occupation by the Soviet Union.
I read the book, alternatively laughing uncontrollably and biting my lip. Satirical novels should always take the reader out of their comfort zone. And I recognized the daring challenge of this book, which was, as the author claimed, “the first Partisan novel to be published after 1989.” Between 1944 and 1989, Partisan novels, poetry, films, and monuments were two a penny, of course, all celebrating the glorious Communist party’s fight against the “Fascist” pre-1944 government. Since 1989, Bulgarian writers have been remarkably reticent about the Communist period, especially as during the “transition to democracy” so many political parties trade on the nostalgia felt by older people for the security of those years.
I related to Popov’s book immediately, having lived in Bulgaria during the height of Communism, and having been willy-nilly immersed in the mythology of the heroic partisans as the natural successors of the Haiduks, the brigand/freedom fighters who fought against Ottoman occupation. I had become dimly aware that behind these heroic battles against a villainous foe there was a much more complex story.
Popov’s novel confirmed serious challenges to the communist stereotype. First, that unlike their counterparts in Yugoslavia, the Partisans never posed a real threat to the Bulgarian government. Second, that the typical Partisan was not necessarily a Communist. Few would have been touched by the finer points of Marxist dialectic.
As I read the book, my one thought was that this must be translated, for its tragically absurd portrayal of a group of ill-assorted humans, isolated, manipulated, and caught up in a misconceived adventure that would lead to the deaths of most of them.
And so on a whim I chose to translate a chapter. And I hope that the chapter I chose reflects the most important elements of the book: the characters’ humanity and the absurdity of their situation. I wanted to reflect the tension Popov creates between the two heroines in their educated Candide/Candy naivety, and the band of semi-illiterate peasants they force themselves on. It comes from the middle of the book, but gives no clue to the outcome.
I suppose too that I found the chapter title irresistible. Its reference to Stalin as the “Great Masturbator” is both apt and uncomfortable. Lurking behind the chapter’s main theme is the unspoken word “purge” and its different connotations.
Outside Philip Roth, the topic of masturbation has not been writers’ favorite theme, despite its universality. With males stealing their female comrades’ knickers for the purpose of solitary self-gratification, Popov is taking us into edgy territory. But that is a satirical writer’s job—especially if it leads to the question: “How do they address the issue of masturbation in the Soviet Union, Tovarisht Kombrig?”
The main linguistic problem lay in the choice of a synonym for masturbation which could allow for the sisters’ innocent misunderstanding, that somehow their knickers had transmitted some skin disease. The words commonly used in English wouldn’t work. So I came up with variations on “rubbing off.”
The other challenge in the translation of this extract lay in the number of different voices—characters who would have been well known by now to the reader of the whole book. In the end I hoped to achieve a significant chorus, reflecting the ingrained superstition of the men and their resulting feeling of guilt. This is in contrast to the voices of Medved, the reluctant leader who speaks halting Bulgarian in a Russian accent, of the girls whose life experience comes mostly from books, and of Extra Nina who is responsible for the band’s Communist indoctrination.
My motivation in translating the extract was to alert potential readers and publishers to this important new book, which was a best seller in Bulgaria and has been successfully dramatized. Popov’s lesson in this ideological conflict is that life may seem a game until you get shot at.