‘When they see a human being, they stand up on their hind legs and start rocking from side to side. As if they were begging … for bread … a sip of beer, a caress, or to be free of pain. Pain that nobody has been inflicting on them for years.’
This is the sad truth about the ‘dancing bears’ of Bulgaria, who used to earn money for their Roma keepers by moving to the music of the gadulka, the rhythm of their dance dictated by the musician’s hand as the hand pulled on the iron ring piercing the bear’s delicate nose. Though freed by an animal protection association when Bulgaria joined the EU and given a pleasant new home in wooded parkland, these unfortunate bears cannot adjust fully to a free life. Unable to forage adequately, build shelters for hibernation or raise their young, they revert to old patterns of behaviour at times of stress, particularly when they spot their former owners.
Witold Szablowski’s fine book of reportage, which follows in the tradition of the late Ryszard Kapuściński, depicts two separate, though related, phenomena. The first half of the book deals with the history of Bulgaria’s captive bears and the efforts to create a decent new life for them. The dancing bears are also a metaphor for people inured to life under authoritarian regimes – especially those of the former Eastern Bloc – who suffer when forced to adapt to a freer way of life. These people are the subject of the book’s second half.
The chapter titles of the first half are repeated in the second half, accompanied by quotations pertaining to the dancing bears. This stylistic device works better in some chapters than in others. In the chapter about the Russian-speaking minority in Estonia, for example, the quotation is both sardonic and apposite and works well: ‘We sit in our observatory and watch how they behave, and we work it out – how much aggression we can allow them …’
The vignettes in the second half range from post-communist Poland to Albania, with excursions to the Cuba of Fidel’s last days and Greece in 2010, convulsed by protests and economic collapse. Szabłowski has a wonderful eye for the surreal, be it the eccentric ‘Lady Peron’ who holds court in Victoria Coach Station; the Hobbit Village with its female Gandalf which has replaced a state farm near Lublin, or the supposedly ‘apolitical’ Radovan Karadžić tours of Belgrade. Szabłowski allows his protagonists to speak for themselves, trusting his readers to draw their own conclusions. Their voices, well conveyed in Antonia Lloyd-Jones’ translation, are more convincing than the slightly overstretched metaphor of the dancing bears. Szabłowski’s remarkable pot pourri of anecdotes and characters will inspire wonder in readers at the sheer strangeness of human nature.
And, as Szabłowski warns us, the Western reader would be well-advised to note that pathological behaviour is by no means the preserve of former communist countries:
‘Longing for someone who will relieve us of some of the responsibility for our own lives (is) not confined to Regime-Change-Land. In half the West empty promises are made, wrapped in shiny paper like candy.’
Reviewed by Fiona Graham
DANCING BEARS: TRUE STORIES OF PEOPLE NOSTALGIC FOR LIFE UNDER TYRANNY
Written by Witold Szabłowski
Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Published by Penguin Books
Fiona Graham, Reviews Editor at the Swedish Book Review, is the translator of Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947:When Now Begins (publ. Scribe, 2017). In early 2018 she was selected to take part in New Books in German’s scheme for emerging literary translators.
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