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Ivailo Petrov: Хайка за вълци (Wolf Hunt)

Just a few weeks ago, I read and reviewed Yordan Radichkov‘s Tales from Cherkazki, a set of interconnected stories about a fictitious Bulgarian village. The stories were funny, ribald and very much in the oral folk tradition. This long novel is, to a certain degree, in the same tradition. Though it is nominally a novel, it relies, as with the Tales from Cherkazki, on a series of stories about the various characters in the village, which are often funny, ribald and rely on the villagers getting themselves to awkward situations. As with Tales from Cherkazki, it had considerable success in Bulgaria. The big difference from Tales from Cherkazki, however, is that this book has several tragedies and is often dealing with serious issues and is therefore both serious and humorous.

This village is mainly populated by older people, as the young people have left for the cities and rarely visit their parents and grandparents and, when they do, it is usually because they want money. Indeed, there is only one school-age child in the village when the novel opens. At the start of the novel, it is snowing heavily and, as the roads are unpaved, the school bus cannot come to take him to school. His father is not happy about this. The men are gathered together in the local tavern, both to chat and to taste Ivanov’s wine. The area is a wine-growing area and the men taste each other’s wine and compliment one another on their wine.

One of the men mentions that his sheep have been attacked by wolves and he has no gun to drive them away. One of the hunters, Ivan Shibilev, proposes that the hunters – there are six all together – go hunting them. Ivan did not think anyone would take him up on it but all the other five concur, with Ivan leading the way, despite the fact he has no bullets, unbeknown to the others. However, before we really follow the hunt, we are introduced in some detail to the six hunters, with their intertwined stories representing the bulk of the book.

The stories of each hunter are, of course, an excuse to tell colourful tales. We start with Salty Kalcho. Salty is the local watchman and very lazy. During his career watching the local fields, he has never caught anyone, except for a few stay dogs. Nevertheless, he sits in his hut in his uniform. Because of his uniform, he is also nicknamed Trotsky, as the Bulgarians have some idea that there was a Russian called Trotsky who wore a uniform. (Virtually everyone has a nickname. They even give a nickname to a new-born baby.) He does no work at home, leaving the fields to his wife and daughters.

The key part of his story is the wedding of his oldest daughter, Radka. He is approached by Zhendo “the Bandit” Ivanov (he of the wine, mentioned above), whose son wants to marry Radka. This is unusual, as a matchmaker normally makes the arrangements. Salty is reluctant because he does not want to pay a dowry and he would lose a worker for his fields but an arrangement is made. Of course, things go wrong, as the priest hurts his back and cannot move and cannot therefore officiate at the wedding and, then, after the wedding night, Radka’s nightdress had no bloodstains and therefore it appears that she was not a virgin, which is completely unacceptable. How these issues are dealt with is the cause for both mirth and concern and, sadly, ends in tragedy. We later learn, in Zhendo’s account, why no matchmaker was used and, inevitably, a somewhat different version of events from Salty’s.

The other stories of the hunters follow a similar bent. Zhendo, nicknamed The Bandit is, indeed, a bandit or, rather, was. We follow his career as a bandit, which includes not only standard banditry but what might be described as political banditry. They operate near the Romania-Bulgaria border and, all too often, find the Romanians have been abusing the Bulgarians so they get their revenge on Romanians, which, of course, only exacerbates the situation. They also get invovled, both for and against, with the Communist and related groups.

Political issues come into the story here and in later stories. A cooperative is created but most of the locals are very much against it. Salty is in favour of it, primarily because he has been offered the job of watchman. A lot of antagonism is created, with people leaving the area and some, such as Zhendo holding out, despite imprisonment and even torture. Many of those that do join kill off their animals before joining and hold back grain, hiding it in various places. Those that actively oppose the cooperative, such as Zhendo, are declared enemies of the people. The latter part of the book deals in some detail with the political ramifications of the creation of the cooperative, which fails the first time round but is imposed a second time around by the authorities. Stoyan “Man of Steel” Kralev, the Stalin of the village, takes charge and even his brother, who is the first-person narrator of one of the stories, is highly critical of him, despite supporting the general aims of communism and the cooperative. Indeed, Stoyan’s actions lead to several unpleasant incidents and he makes a lot of enemies, some of whom try to kill him.

We also see the rich versus the poor issue with Nikolin Miyalkov. Nikolin is taken in by a rich man and while the man appears to be essentially decent, his friends, particularly his female friends, are not. They try to seduce Nikolin, who eventually marries a local woman. One of the women says That’s what we are, bitches. Three hungry, lowdown bitches. The rich man kills himself – it is not clear why. Ivan Shibilev, whose story is intermingled with that of Nikolin, is a multi-talented young man, always top of his class, a good painter, a good actor and obsessed with cinema, poetry and theatre. And then he falls in love. Even he agrees that he has not made the most of his life, not least because of his often unsuccessful romantic liaisons.

All the stories end up linking with one another. What may seem a mystery or peculiar in one story ends up being explained or resolved in a later one. A character who seems relatively minor in one story ends up having greater importance in another. Because of the length of the book – some 440 pages – following the many characters can be somewhat complicated but the advantage is that you soon get to know the major characters who keep appearing in the different stories at different times in their lives.

This is a superb novel, complex and detailed and giving us a portrait of rural Bulgaria over a long period (the novel ends in 1965), including the effect of the two world wars, relations with neighbouring Romania and, in particular, the effect of the arrival of communism. Petrov not only tells us several excellent intertwined stories, culminating in the eponymous wolf hunt (which actually takes up a relatively small part of the book) but introduces us to the politics, culture and way of life of rural Bulgaria. The book was very successful in Bulgaria, though I am somewhat surprised it was published, given that it is fairly critical of the communist system. However, we should be gratful that it has now finally appeared in English.

Publishing history

First published 1982 by Bŭlgarski pisatel
First English translation by Archipelago Books in 2017