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Alek Popov: Мисия Лондон (Mission to London)

Slav authors famously have produced many excellent works of satire, the Russians and Czechs in particular, but certainly not only those countries. Here we have a very witty Bulgarian satire, based on Popov’s time as cultural attaché at the Bulgarian Embassy in London, in which he satirises both his own compatriots and the British (though the former more than the latter).

The novel is set primarily in the Bulgarian Embassy, though also elsewhere in London, in 1999. The previous ambassador has returned to Sofia but his successor has not yet arrived. However, at the beginning of the novel, he turns up unexpectedly at the Embassy. He does not receive a warm welcome. His purpose in turning up like that had been to cause a certain amount of panic among the staff, of whom he had not heard particularly good reports. However, the effect is not quite what he had estimated. Indeed, everyone else in the Bulgarian community on London seems to know of his arrival before most of his staff. Varadin Dimitrov – which is the name of the Ambassador, which we eventually learn – seems to have obtained his post by pulling a few strings, in particular with Mrs. Pezantova.

Devorina Pezantova was the wife of an influential Bulgarian politician but did not consider herself merely as a wife but as someone of importance. Her head was a murky vortex of boundless ambition and grandiose plans and she frantically aimed to join the exclusive club of the world elite. She decided to do this by organising charitable concerts in cities where there was a Bulgarian embassy. However, she had been disappointed with the efforts the diplomats had made to promote her concerts. Varadin Dimitrov had realised this and had assured her, were he to become ambassador to the United Kingdom, he would promote her cause. He got the job over other perhaps more worthy candidates.

However, it is bad news when he arrives. Second Secretary Kishev had been instructed to invite the Queen to the concert. The day Varadin Dimitrov arrived, Kishev had received a letter from the Palace declining the invitation (wittily signed by someone called Muriel Spark). He fears that this will cost him his job and his fears are justified. One of the major issues that concern the staff is being sent back to Sofia or, even worse, posted to some less pleasant spot. They all want to stay in London and will do what it takes to do so.

While the concert is the key concern, there are other things going on. Varadin Dimitrov had been greeted on arrival (in a less than friendly way) by the cook, Kosta Pastricheff. Kosta, as well as having a miserable marriage (like Varadin Dimitrov) is also up to dirty deeds with two other men – a former Bulgarian film star and his thuggish henchman, Batushka. They persuade Kosta to let them store mysterious goods in the fridge in the kitchen of the Embassy. The whole business inevitably degenerates into a farce.

We also follow the story of Katya. Katya is a young Bulgarian woman who is in London to study but supplements her income in two ways. Firstly, she works as a cleaner in the Embassy. Indeed, one of Varadin Dimitrov’s first introductions is when she is cleaning his room and, when she learns who he is, she requests a new vacuum cleaner as the one she is using no longer works properly. She also works as a pole dancer/stripper which leads to a strange offer. She looks like the late Princess Diana and is persuaded to dress (and undress) like the Princess, nominally for an acting role. Varadin Dimitrov, with his estranged wife in Sofia, hopes to have sex with her.

Meanwhile in the Embassy, Varadin Dimitrov is threatening the staff, trying to clear out the various people who seem to live on Embassy property for no apparent reason, and organising the Bulgarian attendance at a key EU conference in London, which the Bulgarian prime minister is to attend. He is also dealing with the fall-out from the criticism of Bulgaria over treatment of its orphans. In all cases, particularly the concert with the Queen inn attendance, it all goes wrong and Popov wittily mocks all parties, British and Bulgarian.

Alleged cannibal ducks, Princess Diana and Stephen Hawking porn, a huge quantity of bed pans, a burning art exhibit that goes very wrong, not to mention the Russia Mafia and the Peruvian Shining Path guerilla movement, all add to the fun of this book. Popov lays it on, making his fellow-countrymen seem corrupt, incompetent or both ( Dimitrov could not understand how, in such a small area as the Embassy, there could be concentrated so much idiocy!). The British seem incompetent, snobbish or both. It is certainly a very funny book, well within the tradition of East European satire. It had a huge success in Bulgaria, both as a book and as a film.

Publishing history

First published 2001 by Zvezdan
First English translation by Istros Books in 2014