Despite being peopled by pimps, whores, hoodlums and inmates of the local mental asylum, this marvellous collection of short stories from Bulgarian master Deyan Enev is curiously uplifting. Enev's skill as a storyteller lies in his ability to convey harsh truths about his native country through a combination of Balkan folklore and flights of imagination. These 50 stories are like the fragments of a puzzle that, fitted together, create a detailed portrait of a country.
Tales of princesses, handsome goat-herders and hidden pots of gold provide a welcome antidote to the themes of bitter hardship and regret. Through these stories (translated by Kapka Kassabova), Enev traces the subtle arc of his country's transformation from brutal communist regime to a free-market economy today. Sadly, the poverty remains but it is the gangsters who now wield the power.
A sense that something has been lost is summed up perfectly in "Casablanca". An old couple refuse to leave their one-storey house in the suburbs. All around, dozens of tower blocks have sprung up and the developers are waiting for them to die. They had originally met at a high-school screening of Casablanca. Now romantic young couples use the name as a code and are invited into the couple's home "whenever they wanted a bit of privacy". One morning the pair are found murdered in their bed. The following day their house is bulldozed and "in its place there is a gigantic nightclub. Impressive, blood-red neon letters spell out its name... CASABLANCA."
Animals also feature in the collection; more often than not they are debased or killed. Enev's descriptions of animal cruelty often highlight the degradation of ordinary people. He describes pockets of poverty so abject that for one gypsy family living under a bridge, a discarded pot and a reed whistle become treasured possessions.
The mental asylum is the one constant in the stories, and the experiences of a night orderly provide some black humour. Enev himself once worked the hospital night shifts and evidently likes to explore the blurred boundaries between truth and delusion.
You get the sense that there are parts of Bulgaria that time forgot. Family farmers work the land in the way they have done for centuries. But the new kingpins are the men in Mercedes who thrive on the violence, neon lights and squalor of the cities.