‘East of the West’: Book exhibition dedicated to contemporary Bulgarian literature and the Day of the Cyrillic Alphabet (24 May)

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Every year, on 24 May, many countries in Eastern Europe and Northern/Central Asia celebrate the Day of the Cyrillic Alphabet. The Cyrillic alphabet is used by more than 250 million people across 50 languages and is the 6th most popular writing script on the planet.

This year, the EUI Library is organizing a book exhibition dedicated to contemporary Bulgarian literature. This book exhibition presents several contemporary Bulgarian writers whose books have been translated into English, Italian, French, and German.

Contemporary Bulgarian Literature

The year 2023 was significant for Contemporary Bulgarian Literature as Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov won the International Booker Prize.

“A ‘clinic for the past’ run by an enigmatic therapist offers a promising treatment for Alzheimer’s sufferers: each floor reproduces a decade in minute detail, transporting patients back in time to a familiar, safer, happier moment.

An unnamed narrator is tasked with collecting the flotsam and jetsam of the past, from 1960s furniture and 1940s shirt buttons to scents, and even afternoon light. But as the rooms within the clinic become more convincing, an increasing number of healthy people seek refuge there, hoping to escape the horrors of modern life – a development that results in an unexpected conundrum when the past begins to invade the present. Soon, entire countries want to emulate the idea, with referendums taking place to decide which particular version of the past will shape each nation’s future.

Intricately crafted, and eloquently translated by Angela Rodel, Time Shelter cements Georgi Gospodinov’s reputation as one of the indispensable writers of our times, and a major voice in international literature.” (The Booker Prizes)

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova attracted the public’s attention.

“In this extraordinary work of narrative reportage, Kapka Kassabova returns to Bulgaria, from where she emigrated as a girl twenty-five years previously, to explore the border it shares with Turkey and Greece. When she was a child, the border zone was rumored to be an easier crossing point into the West than the Berlin Wall, and it swarmed with soldiers and spies. On holidays in the “Red Riviera” on the Black Sea, she remembers playing on the beach only miles from a bristling electrified fence whose barbs pointed inward toward the enemy: the citizens of the totalitarian regime.

Kassabova discovers a place that has been shaped by successive forces of history: the Soviet and Ottoman empires, and, older still, myth and legend. Her exquisite portraits of fire walkers, smugglers, treasure hunters, botanists, and border guards populate the book. There are also the ragged men and women who have walked across Turkey from Syria and Iraq. But there seem to be nonhuman forces at work here too: This densely forested landscape is rich with curative springs and Thracian tombs, and the tug of the ancient world, of circular time and animism, is never far off.

Border is a scintillating, immersive travel narrative that is also a shadow history of the Cold War, a sideways look at the migration crisis troubling Europe, and a deep, witchy descent into interior and exterior geographies.” (Goodreads)

East of the West: A Country in Stories by Miroslav Penkov inspired the title of the book exhibition.

“A grandson tries to buy the corpse of Lenin on eBay for his Communist grandfather. A failed wunderkind steals a golden cross from an Orthodox church. A boy meets his cousin (the love of his life) once every five years in the river that divides their village into east and west. These are Miroslav Penkov’s strange, unexpectedly moving visions of his home country, Bulgaria, and they are the stories that make up his charming, deeply felt debut collection.

In East of the West, Penkov writes with great empathy of centuries of tumult; his characters mourn the way things were and long for things that will never be. But even as they wrestle with the weight of history, with the debt to family, with the pangs of exile, the stories in East of the West are always light on their feet, animated by Penkov’s unmatched eye for the absurd.” (miroslav.penko)

The Cyrillic Alphabet

The creation of the Cyrillic alphabet is related to the life and work of Saints Cyril and Methodius – Byzantine missionaries among the Slav nations (9th century). Around the year 855, they created the so-called Glagolitic script, which was initially spread among the Czech and Slovak people (in the kingdom of Great Moravia). But towards the end of the Middle Ages, it remained in use only among certain Croat communities in the Adriatic. Later in the 10th century, the contemporary Cyrillic script was developed by the disciples of Saints Cyril and Methodius in the territories of the Medieval Bulgarian Kingdom. There they found refuge following the beginning of persecutions in central Europe. Later on, the liturgical and theological texts translated by them from Byzantine Greek into Church Slavonic in the medieval Bulgarian capitals of Pliska and Preslav became well accepted among the other Slav groups – namely the Kievan Rus’ after its Christianization (988) and in the Serbian lands. This Byzantine-Slavic cultural heritage has exerted a considerable influence on the development of many Eastern European nations to this day. The Cyrillic script is composed of 30 to 32 letters depending on the language.

Due to the common origin from the Phoenician script through the Greek one, there are many resemblances between Latin and Cyrillic letters. For example, in Cyrillic the Latin “P” is pronounced as [R], the Latin “B” is pronounced as [V] or the Latin “H” is pronounced as [N]. Some of the letters are pronounced in the same way both in Latin and in Cyrillic such as “A”, “T” and “K”. Serval letters are unique for the Cyrillic like “Я” [ya], “Ю” [iu], and “Щ” [sht]. Some of the rare sounds are “Ъ”, which is pronounced between [a] and [u] as well as “Й”, which is pronounced as short [i].

Since the Bulgarian accession to the EU in 2007, the Cyrillic has been the third official alphabet of the European Union alongside the Latin and the Greek alphabets. Furthermore, Bulgaria is the only EUI contracting state that officially uses this writing system. In 2018, the Cyrillic letters were depicted on the logo of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU. The Cyrillic is one of the three scripts used on the euro banknotes: “EBPO”, which is pronounced evro.

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