Pete Mitchell reviews Party Headquarters by Georgi Tenev

Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Open Letter, 2016)

In 1985, the Romanian film director Copel Moscu was commissioned to make a film about a poultry farm. A state film made for a state enterprise at the height of Ceaușescu’s baroque period of National Communism, A Day Like Any Other was intended to promote safety and glorify socialist production. That’s not quite how it turned out. Moving through a dystopian vista packed with chicken batteries, the camera picks out endless racks of hens, lingers on fields of eggs glowing beneath a permanent UV daylight; then it cuts to a theatre where the pupils of a model school are instructed in the workings of an orchestra. Back to the eggs; then the children again; then the poultry farm workers sorting chicks and the glassy alien eyes of turkeys keening together in communal spasms.

Needless to say, the film was never shown at any poultry farm, but it was re-cut after the 1989 revolution. Moscu retitled it There Will Come a Day. The penultimate shot is a long rush up a corridor toward a door with a glass panel. The corridor is dark, the angle low, and tufts of pale down tumble over the lens. Behind the glass there is a bright light and a clamour of children’s voices which reach toward a crescendo. The camera cuts to black before the door opens: and then a single still shot of chickens hanging headless and plucked in silence. Although the film lasts only twelve minutes, it feels longer. It’s difficult to look directly at the relentless succession of images, the clinical focus, the urgency with which the camera shows you what it has found. You begin to wish that the camera’s eye—avid, pornographic, appalled—would blink.

I thought of There Will Come a Day while reading Georgi Tenev’s Party Headquarters, translated by Angela Rodel, the latest Bulgarian title from the reliably excellent Open Letter Press. Party Headquarters is about the crisis and disintegration of Eastern Bloc socialism, and the terror and disgust bred both by that system and by what followed it. It is short, violent, impressionistic, and unforgiving, and it vibrates with a manic, denunciatory energy that can make it hard to look at directly.

Tenev’s novel makes gestures, at least, toward the formal coherence of a thriller, enclosing its riot of jagged imagery and tortured recollection within a framing narrative that frequently seems about to disintegrate under the pressure. It opens in Hamburg, some time after the fall of Communism, with the unnamed narrator collecting a suitcase containing 1.5 million Euros from a high Party functionary who is dying of cancer. The functionary, K-shev, is the narrator’s father-in-law, or at least the father of someone with whom he has been involved. He hangs out on the Reeperbahn, attempts to amuse himself with prostitutes, runs until he vomits, passes through various violent emotional states in his hotel room, and remembers—although the temporal framing of the novel, like everything else, is elusive—a communist childhood and adolescence of Pioneer camps, sexual awakenings, dreams of being a cosmonaut, and then the boredom and brutality of national service and the sour disillusionment of a Glasnost-era young adulthood.

But none of these recollections seem quite real. Boundaries between fantasy and memory are not so much permeable as non-existent; characters fray and twine into each other; time frames flicker back and forth without warning; text breaks up into parodic verse, lists, asides, and paragraphs isolated in typographic space. There seems, much of the time, to be no core to the narrative and no stable datum-line from which to measure the amplitude of the swings it takes. You might get frustrated by the digressions if you could identify anything to digress from.

But there are certain symbolic centres of gravity around which this scree of riffage and association moves. There’s K-shev and his daughter; there’s the Party Headquarters of the title, a High Stalinist neoclassical wedding cake in central Sofia, memorably torched by angry crowds in the summer of 1990; and there’s Chernobyl.

K-shev is a kind of ultimate Bad Communist Dad. He’s an avatar of everything the system was and did: a dull, craven, frightening little man in a pompadour, delegate to Moscow from his little tomato republic, an eminence staring out of retouched photographs on the walls of schoolhouses and police stations and abandoned Party buildings, and finally a runaway, absconding with state funds to die. But both he and his daughter have a hallucinatory indeterminacy about them. In some moments he seems to shade over into a version of Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s long-term Soviet dictator, while his daughter flickers in and out of focus, becoming several different possible women, objects of adolescent lust and adult misogyny, products of S/M fantasy, dread, guilt, and loathing. The three-way relationship between the two of them and the narrator plays out in appalling intimacy. Fluids are exchanged in unexpected combinations, bodies rent and torn, and psychosexual violence doled out liberally and without pause. A few vignettes approach Cronenbergian body horror in their sheer ickiness, and in reading them you can feel the novel begin again to kick against its bounds.

But these characters and their intimate violence are, of course, conduits to something like a psychic history of Bulgarian Communism. This takes in K-shev’s early heroics with the partisans—a flashback scene set in a mountain monastery, with a donkey standing beneath a lean-to roof and the rain bucketing down, is as close to a sense of spaciousness and peace as the novel gets—and the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989 and 1990, the sour anticlimax of the system’s dismantling.

At the centre of this dismal history sits the Chernobyl catastrophe. Chernobyl’s usefulness as a metaphor of Communism’s original sin—negligently hubristic fathers, poisoned children, toxic legacies, corrosive secrecy and shame, etc. etc.—is obvious, and Tenev throws himself at it with enthusiasm. There is a passage about a childhood pen pal in Pripyat, the nuclear town that was evacuated after the disaster: a sweet blonde-haired Ukrainian girl to whom the narrator still sends letters that go unanswered, and whose father died from exposure to radiation, head down on the breakfast table amid the bread and tea and Bulgarian cherry jam. Great hay is made from the various metaphorical and allegorical uses of nuclear fission. Sunsets are invariably radioactive. Occasionally you find yourself wondering whether what you’re reading is a brutal depiction of an obsessive mind, or simply a novel that’s sagging beneath the weight of signification being piled onto it.

But it makes sense, this bludgeoningly frequent return to motifs of half-life, contamination, invisible poison: what Tenev creates, ultimately, is an anatomy of a society whose pathologies are coded deeply into all its children, and into the very texture of the physical world that it has littered with its ruins. And that texture is important. Party Headquarters is obsessed with the textures of Communism, its felt and lived worlds. This fascination extends to the text itself: the novel is shot through with the culture of the late Soviet era, the echoes of stale pedagogy and hectoring media and state-sanctioned kitsch. Parodies of proletarian and patriotic poetry from the official canon, snatches of Glasnost-era pop songs and scraps of propaganda are all thrown into Tenev’s cement-mixer prose and spat out twisted and broken. None of the fey, semi-ironised Ostalgia of a Goodbye Lenin here: Tenev remakes a favourite sentimental pop song as the Greek chorus to a deliriously grim hospital scene. (All this, by the way, is communicated in the kind of footnotes that most translated novels need and too few have: minimal, unpatronising, and pitched with an intelligent appreciation of what’s worth explaining and what isn’t. This kind of superstructural intervention is testament to the unusual amount of care and thought Open Letter put into their work as publishers of translated fiction, and their obvious sense of their job as something that goes beyond the traduction of texts. It also provides further evidence, as if any were needed, of the frankly terrifying density and turbulence of Tenev’s writing. For Angela Rodel to have made an English translation that not only reads beautifully but succeeds in communicating the novel’s precarious balance of chaos and control seems a miraculous achievement.)

Like its language and folklore, the physical world of Communism persists in ruins and junk, the abject and the obsolete. First, there’s the Party Headquarters itself, which the narrator imagines exploring one summer afternoon with K-shev’s daughter. The adults are all elsewhere, making important decisions, and the palace seems already to be in a state of abandonment: “lots of stone, granite, marble, and from time to time the wine stain of the curtains, red pedestals without statues, only here and there peeling names and letters in flaking gold cellophane used to inscribe mottos.” She is in a Pioneer uniform. They fuck in an office, beneath—although the narrator can’t swear to the veracity of the memory—her father’s official portrait. This is, clearly, all happening in the space of transgressive fantasy; but when the building burns (as it did in real life), the sense of what’s happening, of the narrator’s position in space and time, of the reality of this or any other situation, breaks down entirely. Just as this spiral into delirium threatens to become tiresome, though, it collapses into something with the simplicity and weight of a real memory:  “What I remember most is this: it smelled terrible. Be it from the hissing panels in the hallways, from the droplets of ageing tar mixed with decades-old dust that came sizzling out through the holes, burned away by red hot nails . . . It smelled terrible, that much I remember.”

That’s one ruin. There are more. Late in the book, K-shev's daughter visits the site of the seaside Nomenklatura villa where she spent summers as a child, wandering amongst its broken walls and weeds and choked puddles, remembering the terrified young security guard who tremblingly removed a splinter of seashell from her finger when she was very young. Again, Tenev pulls off the trick of balancing the narrative’s centrifugal tendencies with an emotional counterweight of remembrance. Later, at the very end, the narrator enters an extended fantasy about taking the suitcase of Euros to Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Kazakh space launch facility, in order to become, belatedly, the third Bulgarian cosmonaut. But Baikonur, in this imagining, is a decrepit shadow of its former self, where the remnants of a long-failed space program moulder. This is, of course, precisely why we’re there, and the narrator waxes lyrical about the shabby vintage equipment, the patched jumpsuits with their obsolete flags, the wires and fittings of Bakelite and superseded plastics. The structures and technologies of Communism might be in a state of permanent decay, but they have long half-lives: like the ravaged body of K-shev or the burned-out hulk of the Party headquarters, they persist toxically into the present. For Tenev, the past penetrates the given world insidiously and totally—like, yes, radiation—and the only ways out of it involve some destruction or leaving-behind of the self or the world: K-shev’s death, the burning of the Party headquarters, or the unreliable transcendence of a shabby Russian rocket.

If there’s some equivalent in Party Headquarters of that final rush toward the backlit door at the end of There Will Come a Day, the strange comedy of the sequence in Baikonur might be it; but the sequence gives out before the leap into speed and abstraction, abandoning the narrator as he wonders whether he should buy the last remaining launch technician some booze as a thank-you gift. Before anything truly spectacular can happen, we’re back on the Reeperbahn, exhausted, a little unsteady, concentrating on how to fill the time now that Comrade K-shev has finally died. All the sincere and concentrated fury of the last 120 pages collapses, leaving us with a morning in Hamburg, a narrator stepping quietly into the dawn. The crescendo of voices cuts out. The screen goes black. You wonder what it was that you were about to see.