Alek Popov (born Sofia, Bulgaria, 1966) is a leading Bulgarian writer, author of four novels, several collections of short stories and essays, scripts and plays. His hugely successful first novel, the comic satire Mission London, based on his experiences as diplomat, has been translated in sixteen languages. The book was filmed in 2010, becoming the most popular Bulgarian film since the revolution of 1990 and being described by Variety as ‘a breakthrough phenomenon’. The film won the Unbribable Award of Transparency International Croatia’s program “Culture against Corruption”. The Black Box (Elias Canetti Prize), his second novel, has so far appeared in six languages, including English, followed by the historical saga The Palaveev Sisters. In 2012, Alek Popov was elected corresponding member of the Bulgarian Academy of Science in the field of Arts. He is a member of Academia Balkanica Europeana.
There are such moments when the curtain of daily life is moved aside, though for a short while, and one can see a bit of reality beyond their immediate cares and issues. Beyond the complacency. Happy moments, filling the heart with a smile and warmth, and a mind with enlightenment. At first glance, what I will tell you now has little to do with the solemn occasion of our gathering. However, I will take the risk of sharing it with you, and you will decide if it really is like that.
A few weeks ago I was again in Skopje. We sat with my wife at the Old Bazaar, we were eating “kebap” at the Tourist taverna, when we were approached by one of those ‘eternal’ shadows, wandering in the markets since the beginning of the world to remind ourselves that the taking hand also needs to give from time to time. Together with her there was she, walking, rather jumping – a full-bodied curly girl about 6-7 years old. We had already given our part to another beggar who had just left five minutes ago and we still did not feel ‘guilty’ enough to do it again. The Roma girl turned around us, and then moved to the adjoining pubs, where a group of men, reluctantly, started to dig in their pockets. But the little girl did not give up so easily, she returned to us, propped her elbows on the table, and rolled her eyes. It looked like one of the angels of Raphael at the foot of the Sistine Madonna. A pointed 9mm Magnum, loaded with charm. She was perfectly aware of how to handle her weapon. Still – completely innocent! I gave her 10 denars. She grabbed the money and ran to her mother to surrender them with such indescribable pride, as if there were at least two additional zeros on the note. Upon her return, she looked at us with a shrewd look, she winked and moved away. The language is poor to express the whole wealth of gestures and mimics that accompanied this spectacle. And I still have a bit of a shame that only 10 denars parted away from my heart. But the truth is that such moments are not bought with either 10, 100 or 100.000.
They are priceless! Because they show us something real. Something about the very essence of life that cannot be described in words. I will always remember that devilish wink with a smile, but also with admiration. A poor Roma child, who at that moment was the boss of the world. It was God! I think that art will never be able to achieve the depth that life achieves with the ease every such moment. It is therefore unnecessary to try to imitate her. Even prose, which has the ambition to be closest to reality, is actually only a pale shadow of what is actually happening. Sometimes this discovery can cause you to drop the pen. But it could even make you look at your work from another angle. Not as a reflection of life but as a natural continuation. As a form of life in itself, blooming on the white page. I believe this is the field where the prose can get a certain rematch. For, even when we narrate such, perhaps insignificant events, we are expanding, at least metaphorically, the habitable area of the planet. Tertullian said: I believe in it because it is absurd. I would say: I write because it is absurd. This is my attempt to reach my human heart, to understand something about the world, which, I fear, is unattainable and beyond our individual experience.
But go back to these reflections. I accept this award as an expression of recognition for something that is often overlooked by the literary circles with high stakes – at least in my country. The irony, paradox, humor, travesty, carnival. Distinctive features not only of my style and view of the world but, in general, of our entire Balkan culture. Perhaps it is the most vital part of this culture! Snobbism, not only in literature, is disgusting, and the result of it is misery – conceptual and creative. It was not by chance that I decided to tell you a story from the periphery and to focus precisely on teasing and winking. Some of our intellectuals are painfully excited about the issue of “the center and the periphery”. I think they should take an example from this little girl at the Bazaar. For her this question does not exist. With a magical wink, she becomes the center of the universe. The big boss!
I am afraid that if we lose the senses for this marvelous dimension of life, the icy wind of pride and hatred will soon start to blow in our hearts. Here, in the Balkans, and not only here, we cannot survive without humor and irony. The joke is an intelligence test we should be subjected to every day. Because without intelligence, there is no tolerance. And without tolerance we are lost. No matter how trivial it sounds.
Thank you for the honor to be in the company of such first-class writers from the Balkans and Europe! Thank you for your attention!