Bogdan Rusev’s Come to Me, translated by Ekaterina Petrova and out next week with Dalkey Archive Press, is a story of coming-of-age in 1990s Bulgaria in the wake of the Soviet Bloc’s collapse and the country’s transition to a parliamentary democracy. In the excerpt below, the narrator revisits the tales of his family’s past.
My father says he named me the way he did because back when I was born, that was the only way to get the communist authorities to spell the word Bog, or “God,” with a capital letter.
My father, of course, says a lot of things. Like most men in my family, he lives to tell stories. According to family lore, he and my uncle spent their childhood causing constant mischief along the narrow streets of Veliko Tarnovo’s Old Town, bathed in the long afternoons’ mellow golden light, like in some socialist equivalent of an early Fellini film. But to me, these tales always seemed a little too well composed, filled with too many surprising twists, and a little too suspiciously devoid of an instructive ending in favor of an impressive punch line, for them to be true.
Take, for example, one of his favorites, which took place sometime in the ’50s: my father and his little brother decided to steal some watermelons from the back of an open truck parked in front of the old post office. My dad, undoubtedly dressed in shorts and leather sandals and already wearing glasses, climbed into the back of the truck and tried to pick out a ripe watermelon by lifting the green cannonballs one by one, pressing his ear to their warm, smooth bark, and knocking on them with his finger. My uncle, dressed in my father’s clothes from the previous year, stood behind the truck and waited for his brother to toss the ripest watermelon down. Of course, that was exactly when the truck driver appeared, climbed into the cabin without noticing them, and drove off at full speed. The truck headed down the street and toward the outskirts of the city, past the heap that was the Tsarevets Fortress (had it even been built by then?), maybe to the village of Arbanasi, beyond the dusty hills with their medieval names. Screaming in his little kid’s voice, my uncle took off running after the truck, while my father—who was older and kept his cool—started throwing watermelons at him, but “the pathetic little kid” (it’s my father telling the story, after all) failed to catch every single one, letting the ripe fruits fall and explode on the hot pavement.
Or another story from when they were a little older: one day, my dad and my uncle ran a wet comb through their hair, straightened the collars of their short-sleeved shirts, and started going from house to house down their street with all the touching earnestness they could muster. This happened sometime in the ’60s, and the two boys went around asking their neighbors for spare change, which they claimed they were collecting for an initiative to change the name of their street from Dr. Long (an American pastor and one of the founders of the Methodist Church in Bulgaria) to the much trendier and far more inspiring Yuri Gagarin (who had recently become the first man to travel into outer space). The carefully planned scam, of course, was quickly discovered—after all, at that time their father, my grandfather, was working at the local paper and would’ve probably been among the first to know if such a name change was really happening. As a result, the boys were forced to give all the money back and apologize, then sent to bed with no supper. (My father, who always hated his mother’s cooking, didn’t mind at all.) Or—an alternative ending—the scam wasn’t discovered, so the brothers went to the Turkish pastry shop next to the boys’ high school and used the money to buy a whole tray of syrup-soaked tulumba, which they then shared with the rest of the other characters who regularly feature in their childhood tales: the lanky basketball player known as Popa, or “the Pope,” who eventually became a surgeon, got married, and moved to the city of Plovdiv, and who now rolls his cigarettes with the help of a clever little contraption; the sneaky numismatist Forie, who after the fall of communism joined the Democratic Party and got himself a job as the head of the local archeology museum, under whose term the biggest coin robbery from the museum’s treasury took place, which remains unsolved until today; and the slight and lazy Chocho, who got divorced five or six times and became such a pathological liar that when he says “Good day,” you have to look up at the sky and make sure it’s not actually nighttime.
Or the story about the theater and the curtain, which went like this: one day, all the students at my father’s school got rounded up and taken to the theater en masse to watch some glorious historical play about the fall of the Second Bulgarian Empire or perhaps the Tarnovo Music Theater’s legendary production of The Gypsy Princess—a kind of local version of Les Misérables, which had been put on every single week since the theater was founded and by this time was so well rehearsed that the actors and singers could perform their roles even while completely drunk, which they often did. So, my father and Popa—being the charming rascals that they were—decided to slip out and shoot some hoops while the rest of their clueless classmates sat there and died of boredom under the history teacher’s vigilant gaze. In order to avoid getting caught, the two boys decided to slip out not through the theater’s central foyer, but through some back door, which may even have had a sign that said “Unauthorized Entry Prohibited,” then started feeling their way down a dark hallway. A minute later, naturally, the curtain went up and the lights came on, revealing the comically frozen figures of none other than my dad and the Pope in the middle of the stage, applause, thank you very much.
The next time my dad went up on stage sounds just as implausible. Already in high school, he became the youngest member of an amateur theater group that only accepted him because he was tall, lanky, and had striking sideburns and thick, dark curls, which made him especially well suited to play any romantic roles. (For his part, my father’s sole reason for signing up was the fact that the theater group’s members often got to miss school and travel around the country with a blue Chavdar bus owned by the theater.) In his first play, my father only had one line—wearing a butler’s livery and carrying a silver tray, he had to come onstage and, upon seeing the mistress of the house sprawled on the ground, he had to drop the tray and . . .
BUTLER (frightened): Madam?
The same actually goes for Dad’s later stories, from when he was already studying Bulgarian Philology at the Veliko Tarnovo University, but still rocking the sideburns mentioned earlier, though they were now supplemented by some rebelliously long hair, a mustache, and bell-bottom jeans. He regularly listened to “illegal” radio stations while skillfully managing to avoid falling into the claws of the moral militsiya officials (whom I’ve always imagined looking like the policemen from The Troops of St. Tropez), who lurked around every corner, stamping the bare thighs of girls who dared to wear miniskirts, slitting “unwholesome” jeans into shreds with scissors, and cutting the hair of anyone who wore it long, right then and there, with the aforementioned scissors. Back then, my father was so skinny that even I don’t fit into the leather jackets he used to wear. Once, he was eating a pastry and leaning against the wall at the university cafeteria when Bogdan Bogdanov walked by—this was probably 1970, and the man I’d eventually be named after, though he wasn’t aware of it at the time, was still a young assistant professor of ancient Greek literature at the Veliko Tarnovo University—and, feigning cool surprise, he exclaimed:
“Borislav? You’re actually consuming food?”
* * *
Mom used to tell a different story. According to her version, an old Renault ground to a halt in the center of the Borovets mountain resort on a sunny day sometime in the late ’70s. Its door opened. One long, elegant leg topped by an absurdly short miniskirt appeared, slid out of the car, and was then followed by a second. The legs belonged to Mom, whose cousin had signed her up for a mountaineering summer camp as a way to get her out of the mandatory socialist youth labor brigades, disregarding the fact that Mom was afraid of heights and had never climbed a mountain in her life. Dad was there too, having signed up for the same mountaineering summer camp, for the same reason. He’s there even now—leaning against the wall of the teahouse and staring at Mom underneath his long, wavy hair. He took one last drag from his cigarette, and then—using his right-hand thumb and index finger, both of which were impressively yellowed from the tobacco—tossed it with feigned indifference. That same evening, he asked ask her to have tea with cognac with him at the teahouse. That same evening—I remember finding that kind of resolve remarkable when I was young—he kissed her as he walked her back to her hotel.
Back then Mom used to be the big love and muse (I never figured out if that meant lover as well) of a certain Veliko Tarnovo painter—one of those artists with thick, paint-splattered beards who only live for their art and rarely utter a single word. He was significantly older than her and loved her madly. But when Mom came back from Borovets, she didn’t love him anymore; she was already in love with my dad. Every day, upon leaving Grandma’s house in the nearby town of Lyaskovets and just before getting on the bus to go to her university lectures in Veliko Tarnovo, she pulled her skirt, which normally went down to her knees, up to the middle of her thighs, and—with typical female dexterity—used her belt to keep it there, in effect turning it into an improvised miniskirt. Grandma would have surely gone mad if she ever saw her looking like that. Mom resembled Twiggy. The pictures from their wedding show that the bride didn’t just get married in a miniskirted wedding dress, but also wore a blond wig.
When they graduated from college, Mom and Dad started working at a language center that taught Bulgarian to foreigners—people from Afghanistan and Vietnam who had to go through an intensive language course in order to then be able to study architecture and civil engineering in Bulgaria, before eventually going back to their own countries, where they were to participate in the construction of socialism. The language center was in Sliven, and I remember the blue rocks above the town, the enormous tree at the end of the pedestrian shopping street, where they used to take me for walks in my stroller, and the wind that never stopped.
My parents were getting such good salaries compared to what was average at the time that they managed to go on two honeymoons. The first one was to Paris. Once there, my dad insisted on going into a sex shop to check it out, while Mom—probably wearing her usual short skirt—stood outside and waited for him. A young, pleasant-looking Frenchman walked by, greeted her politely, then asked, “How much?” For their second honeymoon, they went to Vienna—a favorite family joke used to be that I also went to Vienna with them, as Mom was already pregnant with me. When they were in Paris, they were invited over for dinner by my mom’s cousin, who was living there. The guide of the tour group they were traveling with gave them permission to leave the group for a few hours, but held on to their passports as a precaution. The cousin—I’ve never even seen a picture of her, but always imagine her sporting bangs and a black beret and smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, like a beautiful fighter in la Résistance—asked them if they wanted to stay in France. Back then, emigrating from the Soviet Bloc was still a risky endeavor, but the cousin said they could apply for political asylum, which the French government would eventually, even if not enthusiastically, grant—they were, after all, a young, well-educated couple from Eastern Europe, and they had already crossed over to the other side of the Iron Curtain anyway.
Mom and Dad turned down the offer. I spent much my childhood being quietly angry at them for being too stupid and cowardly to do it. Later, I spent a big part of my adult life being grateful they didn’t.
Excerpted from Come to Me by Bogdan Rusev, published by Dalkey Archive Press. Copyright © 2007 by Bogdan Rusev. Translation copyright © 2019 by Ektarina Petrova. By arrangement with the publisher.