Apostoloff is a kind of literary road movie and, like many tales of a journey, is an account both of the road and the traveller.
There are three travellers in this story: two sisters, now middle aged, driven by a family friend, Rumen Apostoloff. The road is the route from Sofia to the Black Sea coast in Bulgaria, via the well known tourist spots of Arbanassi, Schumen, Varna, Nessebar and Plovdiv. The sisters are exploring Bulgaria after attending the reburial of their father in Sofia: his remains had been brought there together with the remains of twenty or so other Bulgarians who had settled around Stuttgart after the Second World War. The sisters had accompanied the procession of black limousines transporting the mortal remains on the first leg of the journey, as had other members of the Bulgarian/ German community. A second level of the narrative recounts this part of the journey and describes, often with mordant wit, the characters known from childhood who form part of the entourage.
A third level of the narrative is the journey back through time expressed through the memories of the narrator. As she travels away from Sofia, memories of her father come to mind: these are sometimes brief and fragmentary as he died from suicide when she was 11 and her sister 13. Other family members are remembered: her German grandmother; her Bulgarian grandparents; her mother. The traumatic experience of her father’s suicide attempts and final success and the impact on the sisters and her mother only emerges gradually and has all the more impact for the slow lead- in.
So what of the travellers? What are they seeking and are they changed by the journey? Through her exploration of memory, the narrator is looking for her father, as if trying to know and understand him better. But she is also looking for Bulgaria and what it means to be Bulgarian. We learn from early on that as children she and her sister hated her father’s glorification of all things Bulgarian- the landscape, the choirs- and loathed the sounds of the language. On this trip, she is revisiting Bulgaria, seeing it afresh through her own adult eyes. So she marvels at the gold in the Arbanasi convent and the unspoilt historical centre of Plovdiv, but is aghast at the ‘leprosy’ of many resort developments on the Black Sea coast and the recurrent unimaginative concrete block architecture. The aesthetic nadir for both the narrator and her sister comes with the visit to the monument 1300 Years of Bulgaria, a huge block of concrete with a decoration on top like a split skull. Words fail them and the faltering string of nouns which follow several lines of dashes in the text convey their utter horror and dismay that Bulgaria is summed up by this monstrosity.
And what of the Bulgarian people? The narrator depicts vividly the personalities and lives of members of the Bulgarian community in Stuttgart. She manages to convey the dignity and resilience of some family members living in Bulgaria refusing to be beaten by Communism: I was moved by her description of the aunt with lips painted way beyond the contours of her own mouth, wearing dresses made from large patterned flowery curtain material to cheer herself up amidst the dismal greyness and grinding poverty of those days. Yet she gives the Bulgarians she meets now on her journey short shrift, claiming she has not seen a single elegantly dressed woman and that the men look like thugs. Even less appealing is Apostoloff’s childhood friend , one Saschko Trendafilow, who they meet up with. Much to Apostoloff’s discomfort he has become a Mafiaboss in the meantime, living in some Dallas- like luxury mansion, with a vast array of hunting trophies on the wall and no books in the house.
Now given the subject matter you might take this book to be a depressing read, but in fact I didn’t find it so. Poignant and sad in places yes, but there is wit, energy and humour in the interactions between the travellers, as in all good road movies, which kept my spirits up. The descriptions of some characters- Frau Zankoff with her blond hair like yellow painted concrete- had me laughing out loud and I and enjoyed the narrator’s mischievous teasing and observations of her sister and Apostoloff. There is a sort of closure for the narrator in the ending, but the last sentence took me as a reader by surprise. And I am intrigued by the book’s title being the name of their driver, a quiet and relatively passive character in the journey. Still thinking on those two things I really recommend this novel which I read in German but available now translated into English by Katy Derbyshire.