Candles for the living

Julian Barnes in Bulgaria

Sunday night at the Hotel Bulgaria in central Sofia. Until the next electricity cut arrives, it is cabaret time. A succession of competent, Westernised acts unwind before a small, mute audience who have paid five levs each for the right not to applaud. On come four muscular, blond-rinsed girls, who go through a mixed routine, from rough-hewn disco-dancing to some Isadora Duncan stuff. They are well-drilled, energetic, and a long way from tickling the erotic; there is also something not quite right about them. Then, abruptly, one girl goes up on her left foot and slowly raises her, right leg out sideways. When it reaches nine o’clock, she hoists it with her hand and sweeps it up to the implausible vertical, cocking her foot horizontally across the top of her head. All is suddenly clear: the girls are ex-gymnasts, as they now confirm by ball-juggling, running round with streamers on sticks, and so on. The act ends, the small Bulgarian public exercises its right to be unimpressed, and a Western observer draws an inviting conclusion. Sport is no longer state-coddled in Eastern Europe, so here are four gymnasts, deprived of coaching and steroids, earning their corn as a Sunday night cabaret act – a living demonstration of the switch from communism to capitalism. What sort of progress is this? Hard to tell; but it looks a neat image for the strange and extreme transformation Bulgaria is currently undergoing.

Bulgaria is the forgotten item in the East European unshackling, a country that is doggedly down-page: correspondents fly in for a few days only when things look like hotting up. ‘Why do you English dislike us?’ a member of the philosophy department at the University of Sofia asks me. We don’t, I say, it’s just that, well, it’s difficult to be interested in everywhere. Bulgaria is small, hangs off the very edge of Europe, and hasn’t really attracted our attention since Gladstone’s day. Other countries offered us the Berlin Wall, the Prague Spring, the Budapest Uprising, the Romanian Revolution. Here they don’t even talk of ‘the Revolution’, just of ‘the Changes’, or ‘What Has Happened Since November’ (10 November 1989, when President Todor Zhivkov was manoeuvred into resigning). Forty-five years ago Bulgaria was turned into a Communist state when the Red Army marched through; now it is stopping being a Communist state. It is not, however, being exactly newsy about the process. For months before I came here I clipped every reference to Bulgaria in the papers. A typical item from the Guardian of 24 April 1990: ‘Bulgarians Find Mass Grave.’ The story appeared tellingly under the headline ‘News in Brief’, and ‘mass grave’ turned out to mean the burial place of 11 people. Not quite ‘mass’ enough for our taste? In August the country finally provided work for newspaper picture desks when demonstrators burnt the former Communist Party headquarters. ‘This is our storming of the Bastille,’ said one opposition leader. But walk past the building today and the damage hardly shocks: some blackening round a number of windows, a couple of which are boarded up, but no burnt-out shell. Two or three windows along from the scorch marks, early-evening lights are on and someone is at work. I try to explain to my questioner: if only things had been nastier, we might have been paying more attention.

Bulgaria. ‘Did you know,’ someone told me before leaving, ‘that the reserves of the Bulgarian central bank are held in rosewater?’ (This turned out not to be true.) Bulgaria. Good cheap wine. Only not as much as before, because during Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign Bulgaria showed its loyalty by ploughing up some of its finest vineyards. Bulgaria. Yoghurt, the best in the world. Only now it is some of the scarcest in the world. There are shortages of many things in Bulgaria, and these shortages have a cruel logic. There is a shortage of yoghurt because there is a shortage of milk because there is a shortage of animal feed so the cows are being slaughtered (which means, on the other hand, that there is a temporary supply of beef). Similarly, there is a shortage of eggs because there is a shortage of chicken feed so the hens are being slaughtered (which means, on the other hand, a temporary supply of laying birds turning up as roast chicken).

Currently rationed are eggs, sugar, flour, cheese, ‘yellow cheese’ (a key distinction between cheddar and feta styles), washing-powder, cooking oil and petrol. There are also three more ‘numbers’ on the ration coupons, representing unknown items whose rationing has yet to be announced. Some items aren’t rationed for the simple reason that they’re unavailable: sausages aren’t on coupons, but then they can’t be found anyway. There hasn’t been alcohol in the shops for over a month. The black market flourishes; you will find a bottle of spirits in Gypsyland. Old people say that the situation is now worse than it was just after the war.

There are one-hour electricity cuts every three to four hours, rotated by district. Petrol is largely unobtainable: a friend’s husband waits nine hours through the night at his local garage; the record length of queue so far has been three and a half kilometres. Motorists wait not in the knowledge that a tanker is coming to a particular station, but in the hope that one might.

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