It’s taken me a long time to post this review. That’s because I was savouring the book. Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s novel Apostoloff won the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair back in March – and deservedly so, if you ask me.
It’s a road movie of sorts, of the slow-moving kind; no car chases or police sirens here. Two sisters are being driven around Bulgaria by the Apostoloff of the title. The younger of the two, the narrator, hates everything about the country, pouring scorn on the greasy food, the ugly architecture, the tasteless hairstyles, the despotic history; you name it, she criticises it. Everywhere they go turns out to be a disappointment, feeding the narrator’s glee at finding fault. For Bulgaria is the sisters’ father-land; their father left the country for Stuttgart in the mid-1940s and married their blonde German mother. A popular gynaecologist with all the outward signs of success, he committed suicide when the girls were young.
All this is revealed early on; what the novel explores is the sisters’ childhood in Stuttgart’s tiny Bulgarian-German community, their lives since then and of course their relationship to Bulgaria and their father. The plot is held together by a slightly farcical framework – the last of Stuttgart’s post-war Bulgarians has gathered the next generation together on a luxurious trip to the homeland to rebury their dead. The final act is a symbolic burial, as it turns out part of an elaborate PR campaign for the organiser’s new business venture.
There are two things I particularly liked about the novel. The first is the precise and sardonic language, neatly expressing the narrator’s almost malevolent public character: “The wind rose of patriphobia swirls up many a spark of patriphilia, I say inaudibly to my sister as we leave behind us the red dust clouds of the Kremikovsky metallurgy combine, once a child of Bulgarian-Soviet friendship.”
And the other is the fact that there is no saccharine closure; the sisters do not come to terms with their father’s suicide. True, they do unearth some unknown sides of their family history and find a genuine Bulgarian beauty spot in Plovdiv. Yet there is no forgiveness – the last emotion in the book is still hate.
This is a book to be read slowly, a book that shows the ugliest side of a post-communist country from an outsider’s point of view. There are various well-drawn minor characters, including the terribly likeable eponymous driver, and the two sisters come across as very credible as they struggle with their emotions. And yet there were times it made me laugh out loud, often at the sheer wickedness of the narrator’s commentary.
Interestingly, I note the translation rights have been sold to Bulgaria.