Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
(Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2016)
Clocking in at only 121 pages, Georgi Tenev’s taut novel Party Headquarters is at once a tragedy, a comedy, a love story and thriller, with echoes of A Clockwork Orange and Apocalypse Now. Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel, it tells the story of a man tasked with visiting his father-in-law, a former Communist party boss. The father-in-law then sends him on a mission to bring back a suitcase containing a million Euros suspected to be pilfered from the coffers of the Bulgarian Communist Party. The whole story is set against the backdrop of the meltdown of Chernobyl, and if the basic plot seems like the kind of high-octane premise that Hollywood would deliver, that makes sense: Tenev also writes for film and TV.
As a child of the Eighties, enough movie plots like Red Dawn, War Games, and The Hunt for Red October have permeated my psyche that it was easy for me to assume I knew the world of the Eastern bloc. To my superficial satisfaction, this novel immediately embraces the kinds of details that I am conditioned to expect: paranoid agents, pilfered funds, thugs drinking vodka in ramshackle flats.
What kicks Party Headquarters out of the familiar loop is Tenev’s keen understanding of his main character, a disillusioned young man with a few illusions still intact, a man with conflicting desires for discipline and entropy, companionship and solitude. In short, the author captures the mindset of a kind of man, aged eighteen to twenty-four, who we send to fight for us on the battlefields, and he does it with frightening precision.
When we meet our hero, he is in the middle of a spat with his girlfriend/wife:
Even without the tears I still want to hit her, painfully hard. But when she cries it just gets out of control. The victim’s magnetic attraction inflames the perpetrator. I’m driven to tears myself—out of frustration that I can’t force myself to finish it off, to do absolutely everything I want to her. In exactly the order I would like.
As a mother of two young sons, I’m terrified yet fascinated with this age; it is also the age of Charles Whitman, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Travis Bickle. Indeed, the same emotions flow through our hero’s thoughts as are expressed in one of the more chilling lines Paul Schrader gave Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver: “Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.” It would be easy for me to write off these sentiments as simply psychotic—my liberal rational self would like to, but I fear (and know) it’s not so simple. Underneath the crude language is a primal urge.
Tenev weaves his tale in compartmentalized chapters, mimicking the disjointed mindset of his hero. From the spat with the girlfriend, our main character (who is unnamed) then traces the steps of K-shev, his father-in-law. Interspersed is a flashback to his training in the Bulgarian army:
Marching is an art, the Comrade Sergeant was always saying; finding ourselves in the museum itself, we stumbled along to obliviousness on the exhibits that were our feet.
How and when did we give someone else the right to command us like mechanical toys, right down to the smallest movements of our arms and legs, fastened with bolts at the joints?
Here, in this beautifully written prose, Tenev is tapping into the mind of a Bulgarian soldier, but it could just as easily be an American’s. I see shadows of Beau Bergdahl here too. The similarity isn’t even just that he and the unnamed Bulgarian are both soldiers. No, it is more than that—these are two men at the height of their physical powers, grappling with the effect they can or can’t have on the world. I asked my husband what it was like for him at age eighteen. He shared the following: he felt finally like a man on his own, learning about life on his own terms. He felt he was trying to reconcile an idealistic view of the life he had been taught to believe in with the encroaching realities of life as it is. He added that at that age, men aren’t yet tied to the world insomuch as they have no real responsibility to anyone but themselves.
It’s a position that I find hard to identify with, and perhaps that’s why I find it so intriguing and frustrating all at once. As a feminist, I would like to believe there is no difference between men and women. Experience tells me there is. For example, I am a physically strong woman. I was an athlete (even featured once in Sports Illustrated) yet I cannot physically overpower most men. I don’t know what it is like to have no real responsibility to anyone but myself (though this is perhaps not a female thing but a personality thing). I have always felt responsible: for my parents or my sisters, my spouse, and now my children. It’s why I can’t fathom Chris McCandless’ character in Into the Wild while I simultaneously envy it. I consider myself to be an independent person, and yes, sometimes I wish I could light out for the horizon (don’t we all? See the astounding success of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild), yet I can’t truly imagine disappearing into thin air.
I can, however, identify with the underlying motivation:
The desire for freedom, that is at the root of everything. As long as there’s a law, it doesn’t matter what law, freedom does not truly exist. Lawlessness is the only absolutely free territory, there rules are created at every individual moment and only last that long. In that sense, I believe Comrade Todorov, that the first of all natural laws best summarizes this tension: the law of gravity versus the freedom to overcome it.
The first former Communist I ever met was a woman I will call Irina, but she was not yet a woman when we met. We were sixteen, attending a prestigious all-girls school in Dallas. Irina had a murky backstory, but the few details I could nail down were these: she was from Russia, her parents were scientists, and she had told the school she was living with her grandmother, but instead she rented an apartment nearby and lived on her own. Irina was a cipher.
We’d never spoken a word to each other before she leaned in to me one day at lunch and started telling me about her life. Did I imagine it? In my memory, I’m sure that she said at some point in this conversation, “ The Russian heart is dark and full of secrets.” Of that I am sure. It was as good a line as any I’ve heard in my life. Instantly it made me feel the imagined chill of the Cold War.
I’ve known a few more former Communists now and (to steal from George W. Bush) “I’ve looked the man in the eye…I was able to get a sense of his soul.” What I know is that it’s not just the Russian heart that earns a mysterious distinction. It is also the American heart, and the East German heart, too. It’s the French heart and the English heart. And as Party Headquarters so eloquently explores, the Bulgarian heart too The human heart is dark and full of secrets, but we try to know it anyway.
| | |
Cassie Hay is a writer, director and producer. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The Literary Review, TLR Online, New Letters, This Great Society and Electric Literature. The Liberators, a feature length documentary she wrote, directed and produced, recently had its World Premiere at SXSW. Hay lives with her husband and two young sons in Austin, Texas.