We crossed Dondukov Boulevard, and then the square in front of the Presidency. We could see how they were dismantling the temporary mausoleum a little farther down the street. On the yellow cobblestones, the heads of carnations were still rolling, along with popped balloons and paper funnels that once held sunflower seeds . . . The rain had stopped and the day was gradually clearing up. We passed St. Nedelya Church. Twenty-five kilos of explosives under the main dome, plus a bottle of sulfuric acid to asphyxiate any survivors, and at 3:20 in the afternoon on April 16, 1925, Bulgaria became the absolute world record holder for the bloodiest terrorist attack in a church at that time—150 men, women, and children killed. By the radical wing of the same party that now headed the Movement for State Socialism. If someone really wants to go back to the 1920s, they’re going to have to tackle this issue as well, I thought.
The whole time, Demby was going on about how the ideologies of the past had changed the nature of the market, bringing back forgotten professions—piecework seamstresses, gunsmiths—and inventing new ones, most likely he meant his extras for revolutions. The market truly was enormous. For example, an endless and unemployed army of actors sitting around provincial theaters suddenly had their moment in the sun. It was precisely professional actors who made up the backbone of every reenactment. There was always a need for either a Thracian king or a fertility goddess, or even a Proto-Bulgarian khan with dramatic cheekbones, while all the blondes were immediately transformed into Slavic concubines in long white robes. There were roles for everyone—Ottomans, Janissaries, bandits . . . Suddenly unemployment in the theater sector dried up. Theaters no longer needed to stage plays and could get by just by renting out costumes and props, old weapons, golden cloaks and Damascene swords . . .
Then idlers of all ages who were hanging around the pubs in the towns and villages suddenly turned into “actors-in-waiting.” That is, they were still hanging around the pubs, but now they had hopes, a dream, you could say, that they, too, would be called up to play perhaps a rebel or an Ottoman or even a commie guerrilla. True, Demby admitted, village folks had stopped working the land. Since you could make twenty, thirty, even fifty bucks a day just like that, why roast in the sun out in the fields? If the city council was funding the reenactment, the pay was terrible, but still, even those twenty bucks were nothing to sniff at. But if some local strongman was putting on a private theme party—say, the Battle at Klokotnitsa or Krali Marko freeing three chains of slaves—then the money was better and the job was easier, especially if you were on the chain.
Wait, let me show you something, Demby said suddenly, and stopped.
We had reached the intersection of Angel Kanchev and Patriarch Evtimiy, directly across from where Kravai Café had once been—an underground “cult” place (to use the jargon of the time) in the ’80s, where the first shoots of punk sprang up in Bulgaria, in Milena’s husky sarcastic voice . . . if they had picked the ’80s, they would’ve needed to restore that place, to revive the legend.
We’re going to NPC, he said.
Isn’t there any nicer place? I tried to protest. The giant concrete turtle that was the National Palace of Culture, also from the ’80s—built quickly, as everything had been for the 1,300th anniversary of the Bulgarian state—stood between us and Mount Vitosha. There was one enormous auditorium for party congresses and a dozen other halls scattered around the various floors. No matter what cultural event you held there, be it a concert or a reading, in some strange way everything always coagulated into a pale imitation of a party plenum. And all the clapping at the end sounded like “wild and unabating applause and cheers of glory to . . .” as they put it in those endless transcripts of party congresses published in Worker’s Deed daily back in the day.
We went into the building through a side entrance near the giant flagpoles. The security guard nodded at us silently, then Demby used a key card to open some doors farther inside and we headed down to the basement. I had never been there before. We were walking down long hallways reminiscent of bomb shelters—I wouldn’t be surprised if that was exactly what they’d been designed to be. Finally, we arrived unexpectedly in front of a large glass door that led us to a windowless hall with a low ceiling. What I saw there was something halfway between gymnastics practice, training of the national honor guard, and rehearsal for a demonstration. About fifty young men and women with athletic figures were practicing various movements. They suddenly raised their right arms, bent at the elbow, fists clenched. And at a barely visible command, they shouted, Glory . . . Glory . . . Glory.
I remembered how the previous day at the demonstration I had been struck by the strange synchronicity of the chanting, something difficult to achieve for people who had not practiced and who had just gathered together spontaneously on the square. As if reading my thoughts, at the next command the group suddenly broke up their perfect formation, and (well-rehearsed) commotion ensued. The one giving commands was a short man in military fatigues, I could hardly see him from where we were standing. Somebody in the group shouted, Resign . . . and gradually, deliberately disorganized at first, other shouts joined in. From the side it really did look spontaneous and authentic. Faces took on angry expressions for a moment. Then one man bent down, picked up an invisible rock, and hurled it toward an equally invisible building. His gesture was immediately taken up by the others around him. Soon everyone was throwing rocks at the target. I was startled when I heard the sound of breaking windows, but Demby just glanced toward the speakers. A short while later the “police” struck back and clearly started advancing, because the gymnasts, so to speak, went on the defensive. They crouched down, trying to escape the tightening noose, they took out wooden sticks that had been prepared in advance, so that for a short while the scene looked like aikido practice. The commander’s voice was harshly barking out instructions and curses, Not like that, dumbass, kick him in the balls, fall down, now yell, scream, scream already goddammit, the cameras are rolling, so they’ve gotta hear you . . . that must have been directed at a woman who was on the ground shrieking . . . Things seemed to be smoothly shifting into a different phase, the victim phase. Suddenly a white-haired man appeared, his head cracked open. I hadn’t noticed him before, blood (paint) was running down his temples and dripping onto his T-shirt. He ran his palm over his face, lifted his bloodied fingers over his head, and as if on cue the others began yelling, Killer cops! . . . Killer cops! . . . Killer cops! . . .
Get your hand up higher . . . come a little farther forward, the shrimpy commander was shouting, the cameras need to catch you, panic a bit, your head is bleeding, after all . . . go over to the police, yeah, that’s it, taunt them, taunt them . . . into coming after you so they’re in the shot, too . . .
With a glance, Demby signaled that we could leave if I wanted to, it had gotten pretty stuffy in there.
Those are my people, he said outside, exhaling smoke from his little cigarillo that smelled like cherry. Then he struck a ceremonious pose and quickly launched into a spiel: The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light. For the law of writ and the liberty, these are the only men. Hamlet, Scene Three, Act Two. I know it by heart, I tried out for the theater academy with it once upon a time, disastrously . . . But now I’ve got my own troupe . . . Now and then I invite some of the professors to teach them. Those who sent me packing . . . I toss ’em a few bucks.
So these are the extras for revolutions, I said.
Some of them. That was the rehearsal for the protest platoon, but we’ve got lots of other stuff . . . Lots of other stuff, he said again.
I thought that with a hundred or so people trained like this, or probably even fewer, you could seriously destabilize governments, bring about international incidents, get into the agencies’ breaking news. I told him that.
I know, he replied. But why would I do that? There’s nobody to step into the vacuum. I can destroy and turn things on their head, but I can’t sustain a new installation . . . or a system, if you will. Whatever comes after that fake coup will sweep us away, too. When there is something like an approximation of a state that nevertheless maintains some kind of order, that’s good for us. We work in that alimentary environment. Something like a virus within the body of the state, when the body is weak—that’s great for us; but when it disappears completely, we disappear as well. We don’t have any political ambitions, Demby said. By the way, I tried some social initiatives along the same lines, he said.
And . . . ?
And, well, diddly-squat . . . (a word from forty years ago, that’s what we’d say back in our neighborhood).
And it was an amazingly well-thought-out project, Demby said, and waved his hand dismissively.
Excerpted from Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov, translated by Angela Rodel. Published with permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation. Copyright © 2022. All rights reserved.