Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Under the Yoke by Ivan Vazov

Bulgaria’s Victor Hugo
Ivan Vazov (1850-1921) is considered the godfather of modern Bulgarian literature. Under the Yoke, his best-known work, is widely regarded as the greatest classic novel in that nation’s literature. It was originally serialized in a Bulgarian magazine from 1889 to 1890 before being published in book form in 1894. It has since been translated into over 30 languages, including an English edition published in 1894 as part of the Heinemann’s International Library series. Vazov’s novel calls to mind the writings of romantic historical novelists like Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Henryk Sienkiewicz, but with a perspective and subject matter that are uniquely Bulgarian.

The plot of the novel centers around an important event in Bulgarian history known as the April Uprising of 1876. Since the late 14th century, Bulgaria had been occupied by the conquering Ottoman Empire. It wasn’t until 1878 that Bulgaria, with the help of Russia, achieved autonomous rule. At times Under the Yoke calls to mind Victor Hugo’s patriotic novel of the French Revolution, Ninety-Three, except that Hugo’s novel was written 80 years after the fact while Vazov’s was written for a Bulgarian reading audience who would vividly remember the violent events that took place a little over a decade before. Both novels are highly romanticized in tone but still manage to satisfyingly enlighten the reader on historical events. In both cases, the author goes into a level of detail that presupposes a native knowledge of historical events, which can be disorienting to foreign readers (Despite occasional footnotes, the translator of the Heinemann edition isn’t much help.) Amid the patriotic fervor, both novels also display a negative side to jingoism, though I’m not sure it’s intentional in Vazov’s case. Bulgarians who show the least bit of cowardice or don’t wholeheartedly toe the revolutionary line or are threatened with the death penalty. The odd thing about Under the Yoke is that the April Uprising of 1876 was unsuccessful. Just a couple years later, Bulgaria would be free from Turkish rule, but Vazov’s story ends before that happens. Under the Yoke is a novel of martyrs, not of victors.

Vazov is not quite the writer that Hugo is (again, the translator might be partially to blame). Stylistically, his writing bears some resemblance to Henryk Sienkiewicz, the Nobel-winning author of Polish war epics like With Fire and Sword. Like Sienkiewicz, Vazov fills supporting roles with amusing larger-than-life characters, like a burly, boisterous fellow named Ivan Kill-the-Bear. Vazov also devotes much of the plot to a romance that is every bit as chaste and idyllic as one might find in one of Sienkiewicz’s epics. The narrative is driven just as much by the love story between the hero and his soulmate as it is by the historical events of the conflict. To prolong the amorous anticipation, Vazov throws some emotional turmoil in the way of the lovers’ union that feels contrived and unrealistic. He deserves some major credit, however, for not succumbing to a formulaic ending. As mentioned earlier, the rebellion in question was quashed by the Turks, so the story takes a refreshingly darker turn towards the end.

As a historical novel, Under the Yoke is not as well-written as the best efforts of Hugo or Sienkiewicz. It is an intriguing read, however, for the insight it gives the reader into the history of Bulgaria and the Bulgarian national spirit. Lovers of classic European literature will enjoy reading the national epic of a nation whose literature doesn’t often make it into English translation.
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