16 June 2016
The Balkans have had some bad press: from the verb ‘balkanize’, frequently used during the wars of the 1990s, which describes the process of fragmentation or division of a region to the frequent coupling with pejorative words like ‘feud’ or ‘bloodshed’. But when you look at it more objectively, why should a region as rich and varied as the Balkans be classified by violence any more than a area like Alsace-Lorraine, which has surely seen its fair share?
In the end, it all comes down to PR and perception. While Alsatian wine, gastronomy and chateaux are well-known tourist attractions, the Balkan countries also have their culinary delights, their liqueurs and their share of palaces, be they Austro-Hungarian or Venetian. When Istros published Faruk Sehic’s transformational novel based on memories of his beloved river Una, the title of the book had to be changed from the original Book of the Una to Quiet Flows the Una in order to indicate the name of a river unfamiliar to English readers. The same problem would not have occurred for a book written about the Rhine. Likewise, people feel alienated by stories from Skopje and Sofia, simply because they reach our public consciousness far less often than Strasbourg.
Balkan Day 2014 was billed as ‘a celebration of culture and identity’ and featured regional writers like Dubravka Ugresic, Andrej Nikolaidis and Muharem Bazdulj, among others. This was the first step of an initiative on behalf of Istros Books and the British Library to promote and raise awareness of the region and its culture here in the UK and to raise awareness.
Balkan Day I was greatly appreciated in academic and literary circles, and it is our great hope that this year’s follow-on event will be just as popular, as we welcome Bulgarian/British writer Kapka Kassabova and the poet Fiona Sampson as well as translators Christopher Buxton, Mevlut Ceylan and Stephen Watts to Balkan Day II: A Rich Heritage of Stories. It will also be an opportunity to view the screening of Hermann Vaske’s riotous documentary film, Balkan Spirit, a film which is rarely shown in the UK but which goes a long way towards breaking down stereotypes and highlighting the positives. The director himself is coming along to this special screening and will be available for a Q&A afterwards, before an open-mike session where all participants and guests can voice their own experiences and thoughts.
In both events, we focused on local literature and translation of those stories into English, in order to highlight the links between the cultures, and the efforts being made to build cultural bridges to further understanding of a much-maligned region. At the recent UK launch of the above-mentioned Bosnian novel, Joseph Cock of Today’s Translations gave us an historical reminder of those links:
Perhaps translation in the Balkans has a far greater historical pedigree than we recognise. After all, Jerome, the patron saint of translators, hailed from Illyria, the name given to the Balkan Peninsula in Classical Antiquity.
However, he goes on to point out a fact we know too well:
Yet despite the multitude of stories waiting to be told from the recent history of this region, the literature remains woefully underrepresented to English-speaking audiences.
On 24 June the British public will have the rare opportunity to hear the only two Albanian to English literary translators working today: Robert Elsie and John Hodgson, without whom the UK reader would not have been introduced to the novels of Nobel-nominated Ismail Kadare, or heard the voice of one of Albania’s best-known political dissidents, Fatos Lubonja. There will also be the chance to hear about how the stories of their respective homelands affect the writings of Bulgarian comic author, Alek Popov, and Romania’s Ioana Parvulescu, who is also an historian at Bucharest University. Her broad knowledge of fin-de-siecle Bucharest, of the whims and charms of people of that age, make this an enchanting book and a wonderful example to life in Europe at that time. In both cases, the stories these authors have to tell open new worlds and new perceptions to readers who may have shied away from literature in translation.
Susan Curtis-Kojakovic, Istros Books
11 May 2016
In another Q&A post with a writer featured in tonight’s European Literature Festival Writers’ Showcase event, we meet Bulgarian author Alek Popov whose novel Black Box is published by Peter Owen
How did you become a writer?
I started by recording a dream many, many years ago.
Do you have a favourite character in your fiction? If so, who? And if not, why not?
I like very much my secondary characters. They come to life so spontaneously and sometime even contest the leadership of the protagonists.
You’re coming to London for European Literature Night. Is there a British author you particularly admire?
Joseph Conrad if he counts. I admire both his talent and his personal strength. What he managed to achieve in a language which was not his native was highly remarkable and could serve as an example of how national barriers and cultural prejudices could be overcome.
Other than reading literature in translation, how else can we break down barriers between people of different nationalities and cultures?
There will be always barriers between universes, otherwise there will be only one universe. Transcending these barriers either natural or stereotypical always requires efforts, ability to change and learn, and is often marked by internal growth. Curiosity helps a lot. Some degree of generosity too. If you are determined only to sell and not to buy anything from abroad barriers will remain for obvious reasons. Self-indulgence in your own culture and the sense of self-sufficiency can make things even more claustrophobic.
Is there a book you wish you’d written? If so what is it?
Unfortunately I don’t have the guts and the patience of Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote…
What advice would you give to anyone just starting out?
If you don’t like loneliness, don’t start this journey.
What are you reading now?
A piece of fiction that irritates me on almost every possible level… But sometime you can learn a lot from such a book. And I am curious to see how far it will go.
Can you tell us anything about your next book?
Well, I am working on the sequel of my latest novel Snow-White and Partisan-Red. The story is set in turbulent times – World War II and the subsequent Cold War. I follow my characters’ steps through bombed Sofia, guerilla trails in Yugoslavia and the streets of London in the 1950s. Two girls from an affluent family taken by dreams of freedom and social justice finally find themselves on the opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. It’s a story of survival, delusion and excitement told in a humorous way, challenging the clichés of history and ideology.
09 May 2016
As European Literature Festival 2016 begins, we welcome back journalist and broadcaster Rosie Goldsmith to our blog as she introduces the events and gives a hint of what to look forward to at the Writers’ Showcase event on Wednesday 11th
For European Literature (EL) lovers, the month of May is the equivalent of Christmas, Hanukkah or Eid – it’s the festive highlight of our year when we celebrate our year-round efforts to publish and promote our beloved EL. Time to polish the champagne glasses (Boyd Tonkin), buy a new T-shirt (Daniel Hahn) and get out those red shoes (Rosie Goldsmith). This May we have an embarrassment of international literary riches: our first ever European Literature Festival and the first ever annual Man Booker International Prize (MBI) in conjunction with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP: RIP) .
Eight years ago we had a dream, that we could gather together the best writers from the rest of Europe to London for a one-night-only special event. It had never been done before. Thanks to the mass collaboration of sponsors and partners, our dream became reality. The event became European Literature Night (ELN), initiated by EUNIC London, the Czech Centre and the British Library, and taking place in London and cities all over the continent. Over these eight years our ELN evening has become a week, then a month and this May it is the showcase event in our first European Literature Festival (ELF), embracing more than 30 countries, 60 writers and including poetry, graphic novels, literary fiction, non-fiction, crime thrillers and translation workshops. This year we also have some real British celebrities to boost the brand – Kate Mosse, Mark Lawson and Ian McMillan – and not just cut-price slebs like me and Danny Hahn. EL in the UK has itself become a celebrity. Next year maybe the cover of Vogue? Although we’ll have to do something about our acronyms.
Here’s the full, fabulous programme: www.europeanliteraturefestival.org.uk and congratulations to ELF’s Artistic Director Jon Slack for making it happen.
As chair of the judges, Director of European Literature Network (ELNet) and host of ELN (keep up!), May is my personal merriest, busiest month. And I can guarantee that we have pulled it off again: the best of contemporary European literature (ok, EL!) is coming your way. British Library (BL – of course!), Wednesday 11th May.
Our six ‘winning’ writers are all literary celebrities ‘back home,’ magnificently translated and selected by us, the judges, from a pool of 65 European writers submitted by publishers and cultural organisations last November. Joining me on stage will be: Burhan Sönmez (Turkey), Dorthe Nors (Denmark), Gabriela Babnik (Slovenia), Peter Verhelst (Belgium), Jaap Robben (Netherlands) and Alek Popov (Bulgaria). They are all outstanding - unique, original, mind-expanding and fun. I love ELN and my two hours on stage, vicariously bathing in the reflected glory of our stars, conducting the equivalent of a BBC Live broadcast. (British Broadcasting Corporation!)
As our ELF Publicity promises: “The discussion will travel from the Turkish prison cells of Burhan Sönmez’s Istanbul, Istanbul to the turned upside-down-lives in Dorthe Nors’ twisted and imaginatively-realised streets of Copenhagen; to Slovenian writer Gabriela Babnik’s seductive tale of forbidden love on the dusty plains of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; via Peter Verhelst’s deadpan Belgian humour in his Gorilla-narrated fable about the story of human civilisation (and its collapse). There is a tormented relationship unfolding between widow and son on Dutch-writer Jaap Robben’s remote and stormy island (located somewhere between Scotland and Norway); and we finish in Alek Popov’s strange and comic novel that moves between Bulgaria and New York, where two brothers question whether their long-deceased father is, in fact, dead.”
As our ELF superstar-host Kate Mosse says: “At a time when the countless shared histories and stories from our many friends and strangers in Europe are danger of being lost in the politics of the EU debate, an initiative like the European Literature Festival is more important than ever.” Who needs supermodel Kate Moss on a Vogue cover when you have superstar novelist Kate Mosse?
On behalf of ELNet & EUPL & with thanks 2 ACE & ELIT I’ll c u 4 ELN @BL! LoL RGx
14 March 2014
Headpiece of the Gospel of St Mark from the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander. In the red roundel a portrait of St Mark shown copying the Gospel surrounded by the young Christ (above), John the Baptist (left) and Isaiah (right). The design of all headpieces in the Gospels follows a circular pattern on a decorative floriated background.
A famous Bulgarian manuscript, the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (British Library Additional. MS. 39627) will be celebrated once again at a forthcoming seminar in the British Library. The manuscript will be discussed in the context of our shared European cultural heritage and as the cornerstone of literary and cultural developments in the Balkans. The Balkan Day seminar is at the British Library on 13 June 2014.
The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander – in Bulgarian Четвероевангелието на Цар Иван Александър, and also known in Bulgaria as the ‘London Gospel’ (Лондоското Евангелие на Цар Иван Александър) – is a manuscript of great importance and generally referred to as a masterpiece of Bulgarian, Slavonic and Byzantine medieval art. In Bulgaria the Gospels are celebrated as a national treasure and often seen as an important cultural link between Britain and Bulgaria.
During the rule of Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331-71), the Bulgarian medieval state was already past its height, but this period was marked by cultural revival before the country was finally subdued by the Ottoman Turks in 1396. The Gospels were made for the Tsar in 1355/56 at Tŭrnovo, the centre of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185–1396).
After the Ottoman conquest of Bulgaria, the manuscript was taken to safety first to Moldavia and afterwards to the monastery of St Paul on Mount Athos in Greece. Here the manuscript was presented to the Hon. Robert Curzon, fourteenth Baron Zouche of Harringworth (1810–1873), a traveller and collector of manuscripts. The manuscript was bequeathed to the British Museum Library (now the British Library) in 1917.
At the beginning or the end of each Gospel in this codex is an image of the Evangelist presenting his manuscript to Tsar Ivan Alexander. Here is image of from the Gospel of Mark, with a a scene from the Ascension of Christ depicted above. (Add.MS.39627 f.134v)
The Gospels were displayed and celebrated as an outstanding artistic treasure in at least nine major national and international exhibitions in five cities (Sofia in 1977 and 1996; London in 1977/78, 1994, 2007 and 2008/09; Liverpool 1989; Athens 2002 and New York 2004). They have also exhibited in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery several times, most recently in 2007 to celebrate the entry of Bulgaria into the EU and in 2012/13 to promote the publication of a full digital version of the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander, which is available on the British Library Digitised Manuscripts website.
The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander are written in Bulgarian Church Slavonic and were the work of a single scribe. The first pages of each Gospel display his calligraphic skills in ornamented initials, titles in gold and formal uncial letters in black:
Headpiece of the Gospel of Luke. In the vertical arrangement a roundel portrait of St Luke is in the centre. A bearded Christ (above) and Zachariah (below) are depicted in two smaller roundels. Add.MS.39627 f.137r
The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander have been a subject of scholarly interest ever since they were deposited on permanent loan to the British Museum Library in 1876. Since then a number of studies and catalogue entries have been written about the manuscript. In the 2000s Bulgarian scholars from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the University of Sofia and The St. Cyril and Methodius National Library in Sofia thoroughly researched the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander with the aim of providing a detailed codicological description of the codex.
The British Library holds over 70 Slavonic and East European Cyrillic medieval and early modern manuscripts (Russian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Ukrainian, Serbian, Macedonian, and Bosnian); some of them are of very fine workmanship. The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander constitute the first digitised manuscript in this collection.
For more images and description of the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander see the British Library Medieval manuscripts blog post of 17 September 2012.
Milan Grba, Lead Curator South-East European Collections
Ralph A. Cleminson, Union catalogue of Cyrillic manuscripts in British and Irish collections. The Anne Pennington catalogue. (London, 1988) 2725.e.600
Ekaterina Dimitrova, The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander. (London, 1994) YC.1995.b.3420
Slavianski rŭkopisi ot Britanskiia muzeĭ i biblioteka = Slavonic manuscripts from the British Museum and Library. (Sofia, ) 2719.e.11
Byzantium: treasures of Byzantine art and culture from British collections. (London, 1994) YC.1995.b.5285
Byzantium: faith and power (1261-1557). Edited by Helen C. Evans. (New York, 2004) LC.31.b.1397
Sacred: books of the three faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. (London, 2007) YC.2008.a.6318
Byzantium, 330-1453. (London, 2008) LC.31.b.5843
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