Best-selling author: Cultural closeness is key to enlargement

Alek Popov.jpg

In some ways Turkey is completely European, indeed more European than some Balkan countries, but in other ways it is not at all, best-selling Bulgarian writer Alek Popov told EURACTIV after a year-long exchange with cultural actors in the region. But he said the same phenomenon was true for the Balkans in general.

Alekbrid Popov’s novel 'Mission London', a satire of Bulgaria’s politics and diplomacy in the years of transition to democracy, has been widely acclaimed as 'the funniest contemporary Bulgarian book'.

Popov’s short stories have been translated into German, Hungarian, Polish, Serbian, Czech, French, Danish, English and Turkish.

He was speaking to EURACTIV's Georgi Gotev.

You are the author of 'Mission London', the best-selling novel in Bulgaria's transition. You are visiting Brussels with other writers and cultural actors from the Balkan region. The initiative, 'cultural bridges', is funded by the EU and focuses primarily on Turkey – the largest candidate EU member, most of the territory of which is in Asia and where the predominant religion is Islam. What do you expect from such an initiative?

This visit to Brussels is only the concluding part of the programme 'cultural bridges'. In fact, the initiative included several events, including a visit to Turkey where writers from several European countries – the Balkan countries but also Austria, Germany, Hungary and Belgium – visited some 50 Turkish cities. And they were together with a group of some 20-30 Turkish writers, who came to Sofia, Bucharest and other cities in Europe to exchange views and gather impressions in an informal atmosphere.

During our concluding event in Brussels, we will hold meetings with members of the European Parliament and officials in charge of cultural cooperation, with the aim of giving some flesh to the idea of cultural bridges and, in a next stage, laying the ground for a European cultural industry.

As a Bulgarian, you know Turkey well. Do you think that the difficult historic background is being overcome today? When one looks at how people vote in the Eurovision Song Contest, for example, it appears that the former foes are now the best of friends…

There is nothing more natural than this. People in the region are becoming more mature. If people want more wars and disasters, they can easily have them, exploiting old hostilities. But apparently people are learning from history. I'm speaking in general, because there are also a few people who do not learn lessons from history.

Does culture help overcome negative stereotypes about others, about one's neighbours?

It can help for sure, but sometimes it also aggravates the hostility. To be honest, the greatest prejudice is to be found in literature. In the past, in times of crisis, culture and literature have fanned prejudices about the neighbouring nation to unprecedented levels. We can find such examples all across Europe. But such works do not normally remain in the national cultural patrimony.

Having said this, even in modern literature, prejudices are sometimes recycled.

In your novel 'Mission London', in the Bulgarian tradition of 19th century writer Aleko Konstantinov, you describe the national character with a lot of humour. Is it possible to tag a nation with one very short description? Like 'the Germans don't have a sense of humour', or 'the French are womanisers'?

If the 'tags' that you mention exist, it's because of literature having created those stereotypes during decades. Some people get offended by such stereotypes, which in fact only shows that the stereotype takes hold. There is nothing one can do, stereotypes will always exist, but any intelligent person knows that individuals are so different that you cannot just tag a nation.

As Churchill said, the Balkans produce more history than they can consume. Balkan nations are obsessed by history, by their reading of history. Could you accept such a tag, applicable to all nations from the Balkan region?

This is a provincial syndrome. But I think that any new attempt to make history bend to accommodate a nationalistic design is doomed to fail. One should try to learn the history objectively, even if in the Balkan region this is not always an easy undertaking.

Let's take an example. Turkey takes offence at using the term 'genocide' to describe the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians during forced removals in 1915 by the Ottoman army from what is now Eastern Turkey. Some say Ankara overreacts to the term, and others caution that one should be more careful when making such strong qualifications. Who is right and who is wrong?

I think this is an issue that will be overcome in the near future; there have already been signs of rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia. I think this is only a matter of time and maturity. One has to accept that certain things took place. It is much easier to face the future when you have accepted your past, and this is very much true for Turkey.

Greece, Turkey's historic foe, is experiencing a terrible economic crisis. But Turkey did not make triumphant noises – on the contrary. There was a high-level bilateral meeting recently and Ankara and Athens agreed to limit military expenditure. Is this a sign of maturity, to use your term?

That was a wise move. When people work together, they develop a sense of interdependence. Would Turkey, or anybody else, have an interest in the Greeks suffering from a crisis? When your neighbour is down, it doesn't bring you up. By working together, you also develop the sense of opportunities. For people who have long been locked in a very narrow local context, this is even more important.

Do you think that the accession of Turkey to the EU is possible in the foreseeable future?

I am not an expert in EU enlargement and, to be frank, I haven't dedicated too much thought to the issue. It would be a big success if Turkey could join in a civilised way, which would also mean that the country has attained certain EU criteria – not only superficially, but in essence.

Turkey is a big country and there are probably many outstanding issues. The issue I'm interested in is cultural closeness; I cannot imagine that a country could join a community if its culture is not compatible. In any case, its culture could not be exactly the opposite of that of the community. It would make no sense.

Are those cultures compatible?

As I see it, the problem is that one part of Turkey is completely European, even more European than some Balkan countries, but another part of Turkey is not. Having said this, I should add that this phenomenon exists, to a certain extent, in most Balkan countries, where you can distinguish two layers of civilisation. One is completely European, and the other one – not completely.

We have heard Turkish politicians saying 'if the EU is unfair to us, we have other ways'. The message is that instead of being an asset to the EU, Turkey could become a rival, or at least a regional rival, that is probably led by different values. Do you think politics could dictate to culture 'turn your back on Europe'?

I don't know. I think nobody has an interest in following such a direction.

How large a role does religion play in culture and politics? In Serbia, the Orthodox church was very bellicose and helped fuel the successive fratricidal wars. Why did Serbia engage in those wars while other neighbouring nations, like Bulgaria, succeeded in conducting a peaceful transition?

Bulgarians have learned their lessons from history and the very thought of violence makes people sick. This feeling is so strong that you can say it has become genetic. Thank God we are now immune from this. I hate to see religion mixed up with politics. That's true for Turkey, but also all across Europe, because the nature of monotheistic religions is prone to such conflicts.

How would you respond to those European politicians who say that Europe is a Christian club?

It's not that simple. Europe is about values, like freedom of expression. It's not about religion. To take these values for granted today, a very heavy price has been paid in the past. Also, to a greater extent than religion, culture is what brings Europe together. And again, this culture is based on values: tolerance, freedom of expression, accepting diversity.

Everyone stands for tolerance. However, differences become obvious when we have a concrete issue, like the Muslim scarf or the burqa. What is your view on this?

Frankly, I don't have the answer. The bottom line for me is that women should not be forced to wear the scarf by their families or community leaders. I stand for freedom of expression, but am really not sure that all the women who wear the scarf wish to do so.

In Bulgaria, in the transition years, a new kind of popular music developed: a pop-folk style that sounds more oriental than the country's traditions. What do you think about this phenomenon, which also exists in other countries in the region?

I don't think that anyone has been introducing 'orientalisation' on purpose. I think this music is developed with a very strong business model and meets popular demand. I deeply dislike this music, but I'm not in a position to tell others: don't go to their concerts, don't listen to this junk.

But I think that the performers of this music, and also the public, realise the cultural deficiency of this style. That's why we can notice attempts to improve and upgrade the production. This is an industry with a sound economic logic. Having said this, I prefer this kind of phenomenon to a state-sponsored cultural surrogate.

Your novel 'Mission London' was adapted into a film, which is currently enjoying unprecedented success in Bulgaria. What is your next personal project?

I will also try to adapt my novel 'The Black Box' for the cinema.

Is this the road to success for a writer today – the big screen?

There are many ways and strategies, all are very individual. What is important for me is to convey a message that I think is important. Cinema provides much bigger opportunities to reach an audience. But only a story that encodes a broad-reaching message can become a successful film.

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