Friday, December 16, 2011

Street Without A Name, a Review

In my fiction writing, I am trying to give a faithful portrayal of Bulgaria. Having lived in Sofia for two years and after extensive travels across the width and breadth of the Balkan country, I feel confident that I will be able to express some of my appreciation for my temporary home in my writing. However I wonder if I will ever be able to fully describe Bulgaria as it really is.

Describing Bulgaria is not a problem for Kapka Kassabova, who was born and raised in Sofia but now lives in Scotland. Her 2008 book, Street Without A Name, is part memoir, part travel documentary. As listed on her website, the book is a “coming of age story at the end of Communism, and an unsentimental journey across post-communist Bulgaria.”

The first half of the book is the memoir and tells what it was like growing up in Bulgaria during the Communist era. The scenes of family life and school days are portrayed in the gloomy shades of totalitarianism.  Hearing that the Central Universal Store in the center of Sofia had just received a shipment of red children’s boots, Kapka goes there with her mother and younger sister only to discover that “half of Sofia’s mothers fought for red boots while a handful of distressed-looking militiamen tried to hold the crowds back from the shoe counter, to prevent small children being crushed to death.”

The end of Communism in Bulgaria didn’t improve conditions. “Back in Sofia, things were grim, very grim. The euphoria of democracy and blue badges was gone, and what we had now was chaos, crime, and deficit.” Kapka’s family sees salvation only in emigration, and much time goes by before they get through the paperwork necessary to move away. At the end of the memoir section of her tale, Kapka’s youth is gone and she bids farewell to her native land by saying “I don’t know where the hell I’m going, but I never want to come back.”

Travels Around Bulgaria

Kapka does return to Bulgaria, apparently for frequent visits, as the second half of the book is a travelogue of her journeys around the country. “And here I am again, fourteen years after that decisive farewell, waiting for the tram and inhaling the mountain air of Sofia, thick with pollen and pollution,” Kapka writes.

Kapka travels around her homeland as a tourist, but one who just happens to speak Bulgarian. Traveling by train she enters into conversations with the fellow passengers, learning their stories and their views on local politics, and exchanging homemade meals. Most of the places Kapka visits bring back memories from her childhood, and it is only when she travels to the northern town of Silistra, on the banks of the swollen Danube, that she can say “I have no memories here. Along the Danube, I tell myself, I can be just a tourist.”

I have many memories of my two years in Bulgaria and as Kapka traveled across Bulgaria, I was reminded of my own visits to Melnik “endearingly known as ‘Bulgaria’s smallest town’; to Balchik on the Black Sea shore; and to the Djumaya Square in Plovdiv. But my memories are those of an outsider, one who never spoke the language and could only get a surface-deep, although positive impression of the country.

Bulgaria Has Many Faces

Kapka Kassabova had previously published two poetry collections and her first novel, Villa Pacifica, was published this year in the United Kingdom. She has written travel articles about destinations around the world, from Macedonia to Ecuador. Kapka translated Deyan Enev’s Circus Bulgaria into English, a short story collection that I look forward to reading.

In the opening of Street Without A Name, Kapka says that “Bulgaria has many faces” and she’s sure she “got it dead wrong, in places.” In her book, Kapka’s portrayal “of modern Bulgaria, then and now, is almost always personal and almost never flattering.”

Street Without A Name brought me back to the streets of Sofia and to my memorable travels around the country with a new understanding of what Bulgaria is all about.

Buy Street Without A Name, and read it now!


  1. I wonder what exactly motivated the author to decide to share her bitter memories of a country struggling to start on a new path (her family left Bulgaria just after the fall of Communism there). And to make it 17 years after that! One would expect to learn from her about how they started their lives from scratch in UK and after that in N.Z. But no, she prefers to spit on everything she grew up with. Jerome K. Jerome could have written his stories without the humor and they would have been just as bitter unflattering pictures of England. There is a comic travalogue, there is a thriller travelogue and now there is a new sub-genre: hater's travelogue. What a difference from Bulgaria that you describe!

  2. Thanks for reading my book review and for taking the time to list your comment. I can't speak for the author, and I can't really imagine or understand what it was like growing up in Bulgaria. My blog is dedicated, in part, to promoting the good side of Bulgaria. I felt it was important for my readers to know of this book.

  3. The book is on my pile of "To be reviewed" books. Your write up sounds interesting, I guess I will give it a try very soon.