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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Stephan Gechev in Translation by Richard Zastrow

Published with an Introduction by Georgi Vasilev

An author from the future

By way of brief introduction we can say of Stephan Gechev (29.1.1911-4.1.2000) that he is a Bulgarian writer whose achievements fully entitle him to world recognition. In his plays The Case Of The Disappearance Of The Body Of Jesus Of Nazareth (staged in Washington, 1995) and The Golgotha Of Barabbas (both published in 1999), he created two of the best contemporary interpretations of the personality of Jesus Christ.

When awarding him the Greek Golden Cross Of The Legion, Ambassador Atanasios Sideris called him ‘kalos kai agathos’, thus borrowing a term from the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato to compliment the Bulgarian author on his spiritual greatness. A year later France made him Chevalier de l’Ordre de l’art et de la litterature for his “contribution to world art.”

Despite such international tokens of appreciation, his achievements were not duly recognized in his native country. The former communist dictatorship took repressive action against him in 1967 when his modernist poetic Notebook was denounced for its “bourgeois decadence.” For almost 30 years he was silent as no state publisher would agree to publish his work. Things did not change drastically after 1989 when Bulgaria began its transition to a market economy: no mark of official esteem was ever shown him.

The poetry of Stephan Gechev may be said to have literally come from the future. His volume of poetry Questions (1994) introduced poetic prose into Bulgarian literature.

Stephan Gechev’s novel Victory And Her Sons (1995) provides the best key to the complex history of Eastern Europe in the 20th century. In 1999 he published his short novel Crime on the Former “Snowdrift” Street, which portrays a fantastic journey into the unfamiliar area of the unconscious. His collections of short stories Cruel Benefactress and The Prisoner Of Signor present wonderful examples of highly original philosophically tinged imagery. Stephan Gechev’s translations into Bulgarian will long be remembered. His beautiful renderings of works by Kavafis, Seferis, Elitis, Dicteos and other Greek poets overcame the restrictions imposed by the Iron Curtain, thus making it possible for Bulgarians to familiarize themselves with the highest achievements of contemporary European poetry. The anthology French Surrealist Poets had to wait for 10 years before finally appearing in 1992 to add a new dimension to the Bulgarian literary perception. His commentaries in Anthologia Palatina (1995-96) explain and interpret some of the basic works of Hellenic literature.

The literary critic Athanas Svilenov best summed up the inexhaustible presence of Stephan Gechev in Bulgarian and world literature by saying: “In the new century which we are entering Bulgarian culture will be sure to find substantial support and recognition because of the pioneering work of Stephan Gechev.”

Georgi Vasilev

Stephan Gechev

The birth of Orpheus

Who taught the Rhodopean Orpheus to his musical art?
Some people say Apollo. Others — his mother — the beautiful muse Calliope. But we, who since ages are listening to the legends of the mountain, know something different.
Since his childhood, without realizing it, he knew everything. He left secretly his birthplace in the valley, as he was feeling attraction to climb up alone distant peaks. (Who put him up to it? Ask the cock fraternized with the Sun.)
On his difficult road he was listening closely to the sounds emitted by the pine branches under the fingertips of the blue Rhodopean whiffs and white winds,
To the song of the jolly streams, to the silver thunder of the waterfalls,
To the mysterious peal of the sage rocks, to the deep resound of the caverns.
To the sound of the thin arrow crossing the green air of the forests.
When on one bright night he climbed finally the peak, he raised his head and heard the singing of the stars. He bent on his knees. And the star-beams ran through his eyes, his open palms and heart.
In the morning, when the sun poured out generously its yellow gold, he reached in the cove in the rock and carved himself a lyre.
But he did not put only strings made from star-beams, as would have done some mute sage, but following the example of the very life:
For a first chord he put a star-beam;
And, when he was descending slowly on the way back —
A silver thread from fine waterfall, hidden behind the rocks,
A pine branch with smell of solar resin,
A vibrating flying arrow aiming the heart of one eagle,
And a gold hair from the head of a girl who he met in the vale and who he brought back into the mountains.
Five chords — to be understood by beasts, birds and even by people.
He was playing on this lyre with his soft fingers as a night breeze in the mountain.
And he never stood alone. He was loved with hope by all the creatures.
And he loved Eurydice. And she loved him.

Orpheus and Eurydice

No, the ancients are wrong, they did not understand.
On his long way back from the bosom of Hades until the portals lit by a warm light, Orpheus, filled with the sage cold of the hereafter of the dead, with the images and dreams he saw down there, fell in geometrical thoughts.
He was telling himself that if Euridyce turned back in the world of the mountains, of the beasts and the birds, he would never be alone and whole (as the musician should always be).
But one even more terrible thought came into his mind:
How he could not resist the charm of the Bacchantes if he is with his beloved Eurydice? So then her presence would save him from the arms of the priestesses of Dionysus — yearned death for everyone forward looking not to the kingdom of Hades, but to the world of the dead in the Skies.
When they reached the portals lit by sun Orpheus decided:
He turned round, looked at Euridyce with infinite death in his eyes and she disappeared in a violet silence.
And he — alone and whole, returned
in the dreadful light of the world.

The death of Orpheus

Not the scarlet lions with golden manes, nor the bears with dark blue coats and white nails, nor the tigers resembling to quick zebras, nor the dinosaurs higher than the pines with thousands of teeth and sharp muzzles,
Which were gathering round the sage crag to listen to the attentive and simple sounds of his lyre promising to the entire beasts one star in the heart,
not they suddenly and distrustfully tore the musician (they had credence in him for eternity),
but that did the priestesses of Dionysus who wanted (the Sun assigned that lot to him) the animals to remain, and the people to forget that they were made from earth and nothing else and that they would become earth, offer them as a consolation the earthly joys, to remember nothing else —
They, his priestesses, in a sunny trance tore Orpheus piece by piece and scattered the bloody pieces over peaks and forests.
Fortunately, he had not a beloved, nor a sister as his great-brother Osyris. That is why the lot (great and tender) fell to us — to be looking for the pieces of Orpheus and to gather and resurrect them —
And maybe ourselves with him.

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