Apostoloff by Sibylle Lewitscharoff (translated by Katy Derbyshire). Seagull Books. $21.00, 288 pp.
Enormous paternal eyes penetrate the roof of the number 6 tram. The woman riding inside cowers at her dead father’s gaze. She tells us about her teenage LSD trips and the “Christian thunderstorms” that would flare up overhead. Other times, her voice lacquered in sarcasm, this narrator depicts her Bulgarian homeland. She spits out lyricisms about its garbage-strewn streets, inedible cuisine, and population of “blonde bombshells.” At the height of her moods, she swerves into tangents on Bulgarian angels whose wings would be “ceaselessly colliding, getting tangled…crackling and crunching.”
This narrator breathes an unlikely mix of fear, mania, humor, and spirituality into Apostoloff, the first novel by Büchner prizewinner Sybille Lewitscharoff to be translated into English (translation by Katy Derbyshire). The story begins when the narrator and her sister, two grown women living in Germany, agree to a grand scheme. A rich neighbor from their childhood community reveals his desire to salvage his circle of deceased Bulgarian friends by uniting their remains in a communal Bulgarian grave. He offers the sisters a large sum of money to allow for the excavation of their father, who committed suicide when they were children. They assent. Their father’s skeleton undergoes cryoengineering, a Russian technique that turns his bones to crumbs, and their wealthy friend invites them to join the grandest funeral procession that Bulgaria has ever seen. On the way they meet Rumen Apostoloff, the Bulgarian patriot who chauffeurs them on the post-funeral tour that comprises the rest of the plot.
But Apostoloff’s storyline is merely the vehicle for its thematic cargo. The events of the sisters’ journey are far less intriguing than the fierce brew of questions they stimulate: What is salvation, what is damnation, and how do we respond to the divine? As the narrator moves from one Bulgarian site to the next, she contends with the death of her father and the afterlife of her post-communist fatherland. Through a series of encounters and breaks with divinity, the narrator begins to churn out some complex answers.
At the novel’s highest thematic lies strange, nationalistic salvation. Every day of the sisters’ trip presents a new bid for Bulgaria’s undecided fate. Rumen takes it upon himself to portray his post-communist country with heavenly merit. He drives the sisters to monasteries, churches, and monuments, recalling the holy sites’ histories with gusto. He points out the hills and the sea and relishes each chance to adorn the Bulgarian landscape with praise. Rumen’s national loyalty is no act of self-indulgence. When they arrive at the monument to 1300 Years of Bulgaria, Rumen trembles with emotion to describe the meaning of the mosaics: “It was remarkable, more than remarkable,” he begs his companions to understand, “that the communist party…wanted to mark Bulgarian history, and not only the history of communist Bulgaria as was usually the case, but the history of Christian Bulgaria.” Bulgaria, for him, is a country of tiny miracles.
The narrator has none of it. If Rumen is Bulgaria’s angelic advocate, she is its devilish detractor. She sees the same monument Rumen praises and unleashes an inner diatribe: “Rough filth, miscreant filth, insidious filth, repugnant, extortionate filth—yes and yes again, but this monster cannot be stormed with words.” She hopes that Bulgarian artists will be forbidden from so much as touching mosaics that could become future shrines. Throughout the novel, the narrator continually finds occasion to point out the decay left over from communism’s absolution. The cities, the countryside, the churches, the people inside of them—anything Bulgarian-bred has little worth. Each divine encounter that Rumen cultivates, the narrator strikes down. Even her narrative method seems calculated to her cause. With lyrical streams of consciousness, she costumes her ugly surroundings in beautiful language and then disrobes them. Her thoughts speed through images in poetic cadence—but each beat checks another box on the list of Bulgaria’s shortcomings.
Parallel to the national issue of Bulgaria’s redemption, the narrator contends with the individual issue of her father’s suicide. He too faces judgment. Many times, the narrator is kinder to her father than she is to her country. She recounts his Orphic voice, his prized gynecology practice, and his willingness to listen to made-up newspaper stories read aloud by his young daughter. When the narrator imagines her father in various forms of afterlife, divinity starts to shimmer. Angels become a refrain in her thoughts. She compares her father’s impeccable hearing to spirits who “pick up even the tiniest grains of messages in the words floating, drifting, fluttering on the draughts.” She pictures his voice among the angelic choirs and one day launches into a frenzied and elaborate portrayal of Bulgarian heaven. She shocks Rumen and her sister with descriptions of celestial choruses so powerful they “echo incessantly.” Angels crowd into her mind and speech as she propels her attention upwards toward the empyrean.
Her ascent only lasts a few hundred feet. She brushes up against the divine only to jerk away. Her references to angels are cut short by qualifications (“A terribly silly example, I know”) and demoralizing digs (“Just eat your angel salad and be quiet for a while”). When the angels retreat, her father enters her mind with a noose draped around his neck. She speaks of him time and again as a miserly creature, a man who attempted multiple suicides before landing on the right technique. She criticizes her father’s parenting skills and pointedly counts him among St. Augustine’s massa damnata, those undeserving of salvation. She memorializes him with her sardonic lyricism as “that large, ugly thing in the evening sky, drawn like a smudge of dirt,” and she assures us that “worms have gnawed away all the hirsute Bulgarian flesh on his bones.” Ultimately, her father cannot escape the bond that ties him to deplorable Bulgaria. The journey only begins once his bones have been dug up and reburied with his compatriots’ corpses. They undergo judgment together.
Toward the end of the novel, Rumen Apostoloff delivers a striking quote. He professes to the narrator, “I understand the difference between our lives and the consequences.” Unlike his companions, he sees the distinction between Bulgaria’s pain and the wounds the country incurred on its residents. He knows the difference between a pile bone-powder and the haunting spirit of dead father. Amidst the narrator’s divine struggle, Rumen pulls salvation from his life like a dirty bedsheet. He rejects the narrator’s evaluative system—and his choice paradoxically saves us. If not for Rumen, the story would straddle a line of cynicism all too entertaining and all too easy to dismiss. The chauffeur keeps the wheels in check. He is the constant alternative to the narrator and the reality she gives to us. There is good reason the novel is titled Apostoloff.
Stephanie Newman’s writing has appeared in The Millions, The Harvard Advocate, and elsewhere. She is currently based in Berlin.
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