There are few books written by expatriates who have spent some time in Sofia that give a sense of time and place, post-communist era, in the Bulgarian capital; notable mentions must include John Hamilton’s The Good Balkans and Randall Baker’s Bulgariana.
The books by Hamilton and Baker are both memoirs, a genre that in relation to the heady days of Bulgaria’s transitions, so far outnumber novels.
Patrick Brigham, whose resume in Bulgaria includes having been the editor-in-chief of an English-language publication The Balkan Western News in the 1990s, fortunately has now added to the canon of fiction with not one but two novels – Herodotus: The Gnome of Sofia, and Judas Goat: The Kennet Narrow Boat Mystery.
With both novels, but especially the first-mentioned, Brigham has presented a challenge to anyone who would seek to add to the list of novels set in a Bulgaria redolent with the sense of sometimes anarchic change and eccentricities of a society populated by characters peculiar to their times.
One such character is Sir Arthur Cumberpot, fictional British ambassador in Sofia in 1996, and the protagonist of Herodotus: The Gnome of Sofia.
Through the device of nimble leaps back and forth in time, Brigham takes us through the career of Cumberpot, from the modest suburbia of post-war Croydon to the punting and partying of Oxford in the 1960s, the beginnings of an ultimately doomed marriage to odious harridan Annabel and on, falling into the FCO and acquiring a posher accent and mannerisms, to a place as the Ambassador from the Court of St James in the Bulgarian capital.
The plot device that sets a chain of events of increasing absurdity in train is Herodotus, quite literally a gnome, received at the embassy with horror by Cumberpot as a gift from a doting if distanced father, but whose place in the garden is secured by the machinations of Britain’s secret services.
Along the way, we meet other characters as Brigham weaves a fabric of ever-deeper absurdities, doing so in the finest traditions of British humorous writing, not sparing the colourful characters of Bulgarian political and diplomatic society as the narrative unfolds.
His reach in the wider context is adept, awarding Annabel a birth father who was a defector to the Soviets, a back story reminiscent – although this is not part of the plot – of communist-era documentation relating to visits to Black Sea resorts of yore by one Kim Philby.
To say more than this would be to give too much away about a novel well deserving of a read by anyone who has spent time in Bulgaria and who would nod and chuckle at many of the references. That is not to say that the tale of Herodotus would not be appreciated by anyone with a taste for comic writing.
Brigham’s other work, Judas Goat: The Kennet Narrow Boat Mystery, is quite different in genre, as he rows through a range from the river waters of Oxford to the high seas, narrating a story that is a murder mystery and more.
Judas Goat is a much more complex work than Herodotus and devotes just a part, however significant, of its scenes to a visit to Sofia by a Thames Valley detective investigating the killing of man identified as previously having been an English-language editor-in-chief in Sofia (worse, the fellow is South African, but fortunately – in the book – was following this trade well before the arrival of another South African newspaper editor-in-chief at the end of 2001, who would edit a publication entirely different from that under the stewardship of the fictional Liam Side).
It is clear that serious research went into the writing of Judas Goat, considering the global themes that it embraces, although this reviewer would quibble with the accuracy of the portrayal of some of the processes of post-apartheid South Africa.
While we have reached the quibble moment, it is also regrettable that both books could have stood a tad more sub-editing, especially for a number of notable misspellings: assent for ascent, surplice for surplus, and so on. I also was struck by the name of a well-known (and commendable) Sofia restaurant being rendered as Poddly Pita, which must be assumed to be Pod Lipite.
But these are mere quibbles. Even amid the unfolding drama of the murder mystery, in Sofia we meet some rather striking long-term expatriates; to mention just one case, I am reasonably confident whom I recognise to be portrayed by the character Richard Hampton.
Kudos to Brigham for pulling off these two novels, which achieve the feat of inspiring curiosity about the views of others who read them, as I have no doubt about recommending that they should.
Herodotus: The Gnome of Sofia (Memoirs Publishing, Circenster, 2013)
Judas Goat: The Kennet Narrow Boat Mystery (Mereo, 2013)
Also available as e-books, including Kindle.