Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Aleko Konstantinov: Happy and Glorious

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Aleko Konstantinov: Happy and Glorious

Article excerpt

Still going strong a century after his creator's death, a hero of Bulgarian literature who stepped out of the pages of fiction into real life.

It is a rare occurrence for a hero of literature to leap off the page, turn his back on the writer who created him, and go off and live his own life.

I only know of one such case in Bulgarian literature. His progenitor was Aleko Konstantinov, who was born in Svishtov in 1863 and met his end on the road between Peshtera and Pazardhzik in 1897. Konstantinov was a lawyer, publicist and journalist, who signed his works with the pen name "Happy". Democrat, musician, nature-lover, mountaineer, traveller and bohemian, he was an intellectual aristocrat and perhaps Bulgaria's most brilliant writer.

After producing a travel book about America, Do Chicago i nazad ("To Chicago and Back", 1894) Konstantinov used a blend of love, hate and satire to create a character of a type we come across every day of our lives, a character we thoroughly detest and with whom at the same time we feel a secret complicity. Ostensibly we expel him from ourselves but at the same time we leave the back door wide open for him, because when we are in a tight spot we need his inventiveness and his extraordinary adaptability. We loathe his impudence and braggadocio, his crudeness and lack of sophistication, but we know that we have the same intolerable quirks as he does.

Aleko Konstantinov created his character effortlessly, with aristocratic nonchalance. He gave him the name Ganyu, that of a merchant of attar of roses he had met in Chicago, to which he added the name Balkanski, meaning "Balkan" - a bold yet justified generalization - and made him the central character of a series of short stories.

The Bulgarian public has taken Ganyu Balkanski so much to heart that it has virtually forgotten his origin as a fictional character. This earthy, authentic figure is so successful, active and alive that he is at home in all kinds of settings and plots. He crops up in Prague and Vienna, in Switzerland and Russia, where he has picked up the secrets of journalism, the principles of unprincipled politics, election-winning tactics.

Some critics have seen Ganyu Balkanski as the archetype of the Bulgarian petty bourgeoisie which was to be almost squeezed out of existence by half a century of socialism. To the amazement of the Marxists, however, Aleko's hero did not go under with the bourgeoisie but continued on his sprightly way, marching at the side of demonstrators brandishing the red flag.

In the popular imagination, Ganyu has acquired a heroic dimension. …

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