By Milen Ruskov; translated from Bulgarian by Christopher Buxton
Translator’s note: Milen Ruskov’s ‘Height’ (Vazvisheniya) is set in 1872. Revolutionary committees have been set up throughout Bulgarian lands to prepare the people for revolution against their Turkish oppressors. It is a time of passionate self-education – known in history as the Bulgarian Renaissance, Two lads, Gicho and Assen, armed with guns and books, set out from Kotel and Zherevna to join a band of brigand-revolutionaries in the mountains. Their characters reflect a mixture of down-to-earth ruthlessness and idealism. Their waves of extreme optimism and pessimism speak to an ambivalent contemporary Bulgarian consciousness – resulting from still feeling exiled on the outskirts of Europe.
The narrative is written in a rich archaic dialect, which I have attempted to convey in my local rural English accent. Suffolk England, like Kotel Bulgaria, is an area that grew rich from the wool trade.
That evenin’ we’re travellin’ all night through, with no stoppin’, as we’re takin’ a roundabout path, goin’ back on ourself, so we be pullin’ wool over the eyes of anyone who’s supposedly followin’ us, who could send word for the Turks to send out patrols to chase us. They’ll be chasin’ us in the direction we started out on and we’ll be goin’ contrary. If they had an ounce o’ sense they’d send out patrols to look for us in all directions, but what Turk would do that for the sake of some unbelievers’ wagon. Forget it. The most they do is send two constables up the road for two three days, so they can get a little exercise. And I doubt very much they’ll even do that.
Granddaddy Yovan, by the way, it’s like he’s realizin’ that this is the time to put on a spurt – if he not runnin’ smooth, he makin’ an effort, the critchur. Next day in the town of K. we stoppin’ in an inn to sleep. And there’s a Frenchie there, boys. Who can tell what wind have blown this Froggie here? The innkeeper makes out he’s some kind of engineer. I give the Froggie the once over – a well made bloke, with proper European clothes, a long coat to his knees, and a tie round his neck, striped gold and black, he’s carryin’ a bowler hat in ‘is hand, his trousers be pin striped silver and grey, his shoes shinin’ like the sun’s out. Mates! It’s well elegant stuff! It’ent ‘alf fine bein’ a European – I tell you true. When I’m lookin’ at him, like this so, My eyes is hangin’ out– I say to myself, I’d like to be dressed like him, up to the nines, so I’d come out lookin’ like a yuman bein’ in front of other yuman bein’s, not like some grubby oriental vassal, ruled by Abdul Aziz. A-ah I says to myself life ‘ent fair.
I learnt – or informed myself as they say in French lingo – that this Froggie worked for the so-called Austrian Railways, findin’ out where they could push out the line. In the Turkish lands everythin’s been taken over by the Austrians – Austrian post office, Austrian Railways and so on. Some day they’ll put up an Austrian Sultan – you mark my words. Boys, Turkey’s collapsin’. Down there in Anatolia the English, the proud Britishers hev gobbled up everythin’ – everythin’ worth more than five pence I mean. That’s why they’re so much for Turkey, because they care about what’s jinglin in their pockets. Well even though I en’t got no sympathy, I can understand (je comprendre). I also care about my pocket even though I’m no Englishman. And them English and stuck up Europeans – they be pursuin’ a Higher Purpose of trade (mercantile); it leads ‘em like a guidin’ star up in the black savage Asian sky, and they do follow it with an unquenchable energy, and youthful spirit, suckin’ the golden milk out of the teats of whomever wild folks they come across, – all for the triumph of omnipotent European civilization, like with what there en’t no comparison and to what we are heartily strivin’ and sharpenin’ up our spirits to become a part of.. But we’re no part of it at all, we’re just stupid folk, whom they shit on because that’s what we deserve.
But forget about Anatolia, just look this side of the fuckin’ Bosporus where the Austrians have grabbed up everythin’ in their paws. “By the Bosporus, clamour rises, a flash of sword and shield. Hey it’s Simeon the Great, calling his chieftains to the battlefield.” Yeah he might just as well hev called on his brother-in-law’s auntie. Look Austrians and, let’s face it, Europeans in general hev got their claws into everythin’, finger in every pie. And this fine afore-mentioned Frenchie hev devoted himself to the Austrian nation against monthly payment for the bringin’ about or the realization(another French word) of the aforementioned Higher Purpose. Fuck me if I know what he do at night, but by day he’s goin’ round all the surroundin’ districts, findin’ out the lie of the land, for the long awaited railway line I hev never seen such a thing in my life. And don’t even ask about Assen. He’ll bombard me with stupid questions and I’ll waste valuable revolutionary time. Fuck it. Just think about it.
Bulgaria, Bulgaria….How did I end up with you. This was the biggest mistake of my life. (Mal chance in Frenchie lingo) Pig ignorant, boy! And if that weren’t enough, ruled by wild Anatolian Ottomans – jumped out of some black Asian forest, in the full moon, like werewolves or moon-sprites. They’re not your refined intelligent Messieurs and Mesdames they be wild Asian riff-raff. Some frenchie if he see ‘em would just faint from their stink. And we live with this trash in one kingdom. But let it go, that do serve us right, because we be the ultimate scumbags, I tell you true.
“Why?” Assen wonders.
“Look boy!” I shout, “I want action not a debate. I’ll explain later.”
“But why, mate?”
So I’m forced to spell it out. He goes downstairs, while I think about the Frenchie. Look where fate has cast him up. Pushin’ through the railway. The man be an engineer. That’s not simple stuff. I may not hev seen a railway but I know what it is. Railway mate, iron horse progress. Blow me fuckin’ right. This is some man – ridin’ the iron horse. Ridin’ and liftin’ his hat to folk.
And I’m just cogitatin’ this when Assen who rides our horse do come back and say “Ready mate.” I step down the corridor and listen in front of the doors – to hear any movement inside, to see if there be people there, but I don’t hear nothin’. A little longer in front of the Froggie’s door and then I do hear somethin’, some sort of movement, maybe closin’ a cupboard door – or somethin’ like it.
Then I came back, picked up my trusty Colt pistol and other stuff and alongside Assen we stepped into the Frenchie’s room. You can imagine, he be pretty surprised. He standin’ in the middle of the room and lookin’ amazed. I step up and grab his elbow, friendly-like.
“Hand over that jacket, mate,” I say, “and some hat if you got it.”
And he pulls back and says somethin’ you can’t understand. It’s Frenchie lingo. Somethin’ like “juju muju, jwa, mwa; on bon. But there was one word I got: “terrible, terrible” I don’t get what he sayin’ I’ll hev to look in Bogorov’s dictionary later. But what I mean to say is this European bloke can’t make hisself understood. I pulled out my purse and took out a golden coin while I explained to him as far as I could, that we couldn’t give him any more because the money was needed for the revolution. And as I said this I gave him the coin and set to pullin’ off his jacket. And he’s goin: “On bon…somethin’..Jwa mwa.” And he’s pokin’ at the purse, wantin’ more gold coins.
“Oh no!” I say. “Sorry but I can’t give you any more. This is for our revolution.” And I stand up straight to him and bring my face up close to his so he’ll understand and I shout “Revolution, Revolution.” And he’s sayin’ ”terrible, terrible,” over an’ over again.
“Any fool know revolution is a Frenchie word and you don’t even understand that?” I spread out my arms. “I’m ‘stonished by you, boy!”
And it was then I am struck by what you might call a brilliant idea. And I shout to Assen: “Hand over Old Times.” He be quick on the uptake, and immediately guesses that I mean Rakovski’s magazine Bulgarian Old Times – I had the one and only issue in my bag. He rummages and gives it me. And I open it at the very beginning, where there be a preface, and I point out that place to the Frenchie where it’s written:
“Here’s what a scholar has written in a book:
La philosophie Indienne est tellement vaste, que tous les systems de philososophie s’y rencontrent, qu’elle forme un monde philosophique, et qu’on peut dire a la lettre que l’histoire de la philosophie de l’Inde est un abrege de l’histoire entiere de la philosophie.”
And in other words, like it’s explained underneath:
Indian Philosophy is so vast, that all philosophical approaches meet in it; it represents an entire philosophical world and it can be said that the history of Indian philosophy is precisely a summation of the whole history of philosophy.
E-ey I’m showin’ this to the Frenchie, it’s even written in his own lingo, and it en’t nothin’ terrible, you’ll say, just philosophical stuff, and he’s lookin’ at me like I’m a horse with three legs, or I don’t know what. I say to ‘im: “We’ve come for your good don’t you get it? Get it? You nincompoop”
And he just waves and mumbles somethin’ fast –“jwa, mwa” – no idea what – he makes as if to leave and so I hev to grab his lapel. “Ey,” I shout out to Assen. “We landed on the stupidest Frenchie in all France.”
But Assen says, “How you think we goin’ to understand each other what with all the differences in the lingo, boy?”
But I hev wiped out all thoughts about this from my noddle. “Here’s what we do” I say. “We’ll knock him on the bonce with this here pistol-but and be finished with all this. The bloke don’t understand us anyways.”
And all the time the Frenchie’s proddin’ my purse and pointin’ at his jacket and sayin’ somethin’ “Oh mon…” this an that.
“He perfectly all right!” I say. “He’s a European bloke. He’ll soon mend. There was no other way to make ourselves understood. Don’t you see he’ll lie down a little and he’ll get better.”
Not that I was really sure, but what can I say?
Afterwards we pulled off the Frenchie’s jacket, and pin striped trousers, the shirt as well. I saw a cravat and hat hangin’ off a hook and I nabbed them. Finally we took off his shoes. Forget the other stuff. The trousers, after you turned ‘em up a little, fitted me perfect, as though some tailor had measured me up exact, but the shoes were a little big for me and that’s it. The bloke was a bit bigger than us. That’s the way of it because he’s from the German folk. They’re big people, high and mighty, fuck them in their leather boots.
“We need somethin’ to put here,” I say to Assen, “to stuff the heels.”
He lookin’ about, poor boy, but suddenly his face lights up and he says, “Let’s rip the stuff out of these pillows.”
We each take a pillow and start guttin’ it, but afterwards It hit me, so I say “Boy why we doin’ two when one’ll do for us.” And we leave one to the side and we took the feathers from the other and pushed them in here and there, as needed and so my feet stuck to the shoes like they’d been poured into them.
Then I ponder a bit, and I leave two gold pieces on the table. Fuck them, they be two hundred pence . If it don’t cover all the clothes it must be almost there. Otherwise you’d say he can’t haggle, and if he can’t haggle, where’s he goin’ in this world? Anyway you hev to bear in mind, these be used clothes, worn. Two hundred pennies may be too much. Well let it fall on my head, so I get through the Araba-Kokashki pass safe and sound.
Apart from that I carefully fold up my clothes, so I leave them, in case he en’t got nothin’ else to put on, though I doubt a bloke like him wouldn’t hev a spare set of clothes. But who can tell? Don’t want him wanderin’ the streets in his underpants. I just keep my heavy boots and stockin’s, I might be needin’ them in the mountains, or somewhere else.
Then I look at the Frenchie, as though I hev it in mind to bid him farewell, but he just lyin’ spark out, his mouth open, like he sleepin’ like an innocent baby. But his heart is beatin’, as I check his chest, he’ll be right as rain.
“Ey,” I say, “If there was anythin’, forgive us!”
“If there’s anythin’, there’s nothing,” Assen pipes up.
This is an excerpt from ‘Height’ (Vazvisheniya) by Milen Ruskov (Janet 45, 2011)
Milen Ruskov (born 1966) is a Bulgarian writer and translator. His third novel, ‘Height’, won the Hristo G. Danov Award and the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture’s Golden Century Award. His second novel, ‘Thrown into Nature’, won the Bulgarian Novel of the Year Prize in 2008.
Christopher Buxton is a published novelist and translator. He taught in Bulgaria in the 70s and fell in love. He aims to popularise Bulgarian history, literature and culture throughout the English speaking world.