"A Second Story" by Georgi Gospodinov translated by Magdalena Levy and Alexis Levitin
I must tell you this – Cornel Esti began. – The last time I was sitting around with a bunch of friends, someone said that he wouldn’t travel to a country whose language he didn’t speak. (…) I have seldom had such an experience, because, as you know, I speak ten languages… in fact, it happened only once, when on my way to Turkey I crossed Bulgaria.
Dejo Costolani, Cornel Esti
All night train passengers crossing borders in the Balkans are very much alike. A discerning anthropologist might try to find some differences, but he wouldn’t get much beyond differing degrees of volubility, some paraphrased curses with common roots, a variety of cheap brands of cigarettes smoked mainly in the compartments, and that’s about all. A striking resemblance to other Balkan nations doesn’t provoke that skeptical pan-Balkan contentment any more. Since 1989 that nice Balkan-Slavic family gathered at the Black Sea, say, in the idyllic configuration of a Bulgarian husband, a Czech wife, and Hungarian kids, has broken irreversibly apart into its component nationalities. Like people who have done a number of illicit things the night before, in a situation of accidental intimacy, and who cautiously avoid each other the next day, unable to remember a thing.
I have grown accustomed to the thought that every time I travel by train, I will inevitably come across some talkative old women or men who remember in detail the last fifty or sixty years of their lives, ladies complaining of their malicious daughters-in-law and other such characters. Beautiful women always seat themselves in the compartment next door.
This time, walking into the compartment and seeing the brunette sitting by the window, my first impulse was to check my ticket, thinking that I had obviously made a mistake. I hadn’t.
“Balkan Express, right?” I asked, still not daring to sit down.
The girl nodded benevolently, or so I thought, and smiled. There was no mistake. After a while the train took off. We were alone in the compartment, the car half-empty. I took out a pack of cigarettes and offered her one, she thanked me, but took a pack of her own out of her purse; I then offered her a light and she accepted it. I knew that I was supposed to say something in order to start a conversation but, of course, every opening phrase seemed banal and doomed to failure. I usually travel immersed in a book in order to avoid conversation. My first sentence came as a surprise even to me.“My grandfather travelled this line for forty-eight years. He was a conductor” – I interpreted her glance as reassurance and decided to continue: “ He was very proud of one of his stories. He used to tell it twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. It was like a ritual. He had a locker that was his own and nobody else’s, where he kept an old conductor’s bag. We all knew what he would take out of it – a yellowed number of The Railwayman’s Voice of 1939. So, he opens it, then passes it on to me, and I start reading. I read one story from beginning to end. I remember it filling the next to last page. The story had been written by some Hungarian, in fact, it might not have been a story, but a chapter of a novel, not that it mattered. The author recounted how he once had conversed for several hours with a Bulgarian conductor without speaking a word of Bulgarian. The conductor didn’t even notice, and the Hungarian was very proud of his wit in having created such a situation, and he really enjoyed those hours of conversation with the Bulgarian who had unloosened his tongue.
We all knew that this conductor was my grandfather. I even knew at which point in the story – where he had been described as a “plump Bulgarian with a black moustache” – he would mutter that here the Hungarian had added a bit of himself to it. When I would finish reading, all of us would fall silent while my grandfather would light a cigarette and, after his third puff of smoke, begin to tell his story. He used to talk slowly, like a self-confident, good storyteller, and we always listened to him reverentially. I enjoyed noticing the difference each time he told the story, the new details that appeared with each new telling.
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Per Contra Spring 2007