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Yordan Radichkov: Les récits de Tcherkaski [Tales from Cherkazki]

As you can see from the publishing history below, this collection (a French collection of some of his Cherkazki tales) was originally published in two separate collections published in Bulgarian, with one collection published in English and one in French. The English collection is very difficult to obtain (available at the time of writing for £45) so I have read it in French. Though a short story collection, the stories are linked as all involve the village and inhabitants of Cherkazki.

If you have read Claudio MagrisDanubio (Danube), you may recall that Magris devotes a chapter to this book, saying The bard of Čerkazki is the genuine voice of the oral tradition. (Part of the chapter is quoted verbatim in the French edition.) Magris goes on to say Radičkov is the most famous writer in Bulgaria today. He seeks for the wisdom that lies deep in everyday ingenuousness, intelligence concealed behind what seems foolish, poetic madness masquerading as simple-minded common sense and grumpy obstinacy, Don Quixote disguised as Sancho Panza.

I can only agree with Magris in his assessment. These tales are absurd, very funny and very much in touch with the oral, folk tradition. We start off with a story called Verblude. If you know Russian, you might recognise this word as верблюд, the Russian for camel. (The Bulgarian for camel is, by the way, камила (i.e. kamila.) Radichkov makes it clear that this is entirely coincidence though the verblude does sometimes have a hump. So what is a verblude? There is an entire story devoted to telling us and you will be not much wiser after reading it. It is everywhere. God creates, the verblude destroys. It can and does convert anything to sand and is responsible for the desert behind the Great Wall of China and for the Sahara. It can be a tree, a dog, an epitaph, a corridor or even a human being, just as it can be a lizard. It could be behind your door without your realising it. In short it can be anything at all and take any form. It frequently take the form of a smiling woman, as many inhabitants of Cherkazki can testify.

And what does it do? Well, because of the verblude, the inhabitants of Cherkazki could see Noah’s Ark. As you die, you will see the smile of the verblude. As mentioned above, it can convert a landscape to sand. It can take the form of a fire-breathing monster and destroy everything and everybody in its way. The men of Cherkazki would have been the first to discover America but the verblude put up giant waves in their way. In short, the verblude can do pretty well anything. It is, if you will, a generic monster/spirit. However, since man invented time it is less common, though it certainly has not gone, even in the present day (i.e. 1960s).

Some of the remaining stories are also absurd while others are simply humorous. The second story, for example, tells of a sledge arriving in the village, without its driver but carrying a dead wolf, the man’s cloak and his rifle, with one shot fired. A relative sets off to investigate. The sledge again returns with a dead wolf, the cloak and the rifle, with two shots fired. Finally a group of the men set off together.

Some of the stories are less sinister. One of the few named characters is Gotsa Gueraskov. He appears in several of the stories. He seems to have some ability to go beyond the village. For example, he decides to take a rocket to the Moon and does just that. He is not impressed when he gets there. It is very dusty and it makes him sneeze, so he comes straight back home and tells his fellow villagers that it was a waste of time. On another occasion, he decides to go to Paris. His leg warmers, which are made of quality deer hide, are in need of some repair. He is sure that, in Paris, their leg warmers will not be of the same quality. He also sees his wife having problems with the laundry. She has hung it all out but, as it is freezing, it has all become brittle and started to break into little pieces. Whether these two issues are factors is not clear but off he goes, with instructions from the local ladies to bring them back some handkerchiefs. We follow his journey. He is no more impressed with Paris than he was with the Moon (it is the summer holiday period so most Parisians are away.)

One of the funniest stories concerns the men taking various animals to the market. While we follow the events – the duck flying off, the animals getting frightened, nearly being hit by a lorry and various other minor disasters – the narrative is alternated with the tale of the man who lost his pig (a Serbian pig, of course). The man notices one evening that the pig has gone and he describes in considerable detail his efforts to find it, as he wanders around (in the dark) looking for it, crossing rivers, climbing mountains and even mistaking a fallen tree trunk for it. The men finally arrive at the market, where they learn that everyone is selling and no-one buying so, after all their great efforts, they go back home.

UFOs, strange birds, an escaped barrage balloon, an independent hieroglyph, Flying Fortresses, flea-size spies, termites and, inevitably, poor peasant women having trouble with their drunken husbands are all to be found in these stories, and much more. They are funny, imaginative, often absurd and highly colourful. It really is rather unfortunate that they are not readily available in English.

Publishing history

Свирепо настроение and Горещо пладне first published in 1965 by Narodna Mladež
Hot Noon published in 1972 by Sofia Press
Translated by Peter Tempest
Les récits de Tcherkaski published in 1994 by L’Esprit des péninsule
Translated by Marie Vrinat et Kracimir Kavaldjiev