Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sofia, Bulgaria, Friday, July 17

Friday, July 17, 2009
Sofia Bulgaria.

Greetings. Kevin here.

Today we had our second meeting with a scholar. We met Lilia Ratcheva, a native Bulgarian who is a professor at the Institut für Jugendliteratur in Vienna. Lilia came prepared with an armload of possible texts for us to chose from. She had material from folk traditions as well as examples from modern Bulgarian authors. Much to our pleasure Lilia defines “nonsense literature” in a fairly strict manner, and thus her selections were all pretty fascinating and on target. Among the folk material that she presented us with were several nonsensical count out rhymes, similar in style to the “eenie meenie miney moe” variety known in English. With permission we asked her if we could record her reciting a few pieces in Bulgarian. The mic could have been a little closer, but if you’d like to hear a few Bulgarian count-out rhymes, just listen by clicking below. You will perhaps also hear the Bulgarian music that was playing in the background of the café we were in:

Lilia reading: Click here and then click on "download."

Among the modern literary nonsense Lilia presented us with were some of the works of the Bulgarian children’s poet, Janalu Petrov, whose poems were originally published in the 1920s and 1930s. As she showed us the material Michael and I realized that we were seeing something entirely new to us. Petrov occasionaly wrote nonsense in prose paragraphs, but the sentences within the paragraphs were rhymed couplets. We’ve simply never seen this before.

In the afternoon we slogged our way beneath the searing sun to the bookstores and library located at Sofia University. While we came up empty at the bookstores, we did make one curious ‘discovery’ in the library. We came unannounced, and thus we did not simply barge in and demand they bring forth their nonsense. Instead we stealthily asked the research librarian if they had any books on Bulgarian folklore printed in English. This question led this person to ask another, and that person asked another, until we were finally shuffled off to an office where three librarians discussed our request together in Bulgarian, then brought us back to the main reading room, where several more people helped us. They were all most gracious and tried very hard to find what we were looking for. In the end it became clear that Bulgaria—probably for historical and political reasons—does not have many books translated into English. But with no little effort on their part two books were eventually delivered to us. While we didn’t find nonsense, per se, we did locate a discussion of a most curious oral tradition. It seems that in various villages in Bulgaria there is a tradition referred to in the book we were reading as “Unorganized Polyphonic Lamentations.” Unorganized polyphonic lamentations are made by a group of people who all sing the same song, but not in the same key, and not “together” in any way. The quote in the book suggests that while the ‘singers’ are performing the same song they disregard the idea of performing pitch, harmony or melody together in an organized manner. The result would be a kind of collective babble. As the word “lamentations” suggests, this babble is engaged upon in sad situations, most often when someone has died, but Bulgarian soldiers also perform unorganized polyphonic lamentations when they are marching off to war.

While “unorganized polyphonic lamentations” are not literary nonsense, they share a relationships to certain traditions in English and French custom that also involve babbling, and nonsense verses. The English custom, popular in the middle ages and in the Early Modern period, is sometimes referred to as “rough music” (or in French, “charivari”). In these traditions a large group of people (perhaps better described as a mob) would get together and drive someone “evil” out of the village. Usually this evil-doer was a wife-beater, or had committed some other such crime. When this bad person was identified the villagers would gather and march through town babbling, reciting nonsense verses, and clanging pots and pans. They would march up to the house of the accused and keep babbling and singing nonsense and clanging pots and pans until this person gave up and left the village. Apparently it was pretty effective. Would you stay?

The use of nonsense here is interesting. In the English and French customs it seems like nonsense (or babbling) is thought to be imbued with a kind of magical power that can help expel evil, while in the Bulgarian variant the babbling seems similarly intended to purge bad feelings or at least to get the problem out in the open, where it can be dealt with publicly.

In the evening, as the library closed, we entered back into the searing heat of Sofia and made our way toward my lost reading glasses, and then the train station.

One of the last photos I took in Sofia was of this mystical, dark figure who resides high on a soaring pedestal over one of the main squares. I do not know who she is, or what she represents, but it was difficult not to regard this eerie statue with some reverence. The only association I could make with her was of an evil queen from a Disney film.

No doubt, this eminent personality was perched scanning the city of Sofia long before Disney animators brought such caricatures to life via animation.

Next stop: Belgrade Serbia via overnight train.

Kevin Out

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