It would be easy to describe Apostoloff as a ‘road’ novel – the book is structured around a journey across Bulgaria taken by two German-Bulgarian sisters, escorted by a family friend, the eponymous and slightly obscure Rumen Apostoloff. But that would be to simplify what is a complex, nuanced and very subtle study of heritage, parentage, religion and grief.
The first sign that we are not on a typical journey is that the novel begins part-way through what turns out to be a sidetrack to the main trip the sisters have taken. Before the book opens, they have been part of a bizarre convoy travelling across Europe from Stuttgart to Sofia, carrying the disinterred remains of a group of Bulgarian immigrants back to their home country.
After the remains are reinterred in an elaborate ceremony, Apostoloff takes the sisters on a tour of the various notable sights of Bulgaria – its national monuments and tourist attractions – and it is this, not the trans-Europe trip, that forms the novel’s backbone.
We do learn the reasons for the surprising project: a surviving Bulgarian-German, the Svengali-like Tabakoff, has a vision of his group of friends being resurrected from a grand mausoleum in Sofia: ‘his rusty voice informed us of how he pictured the resurrection – in one flying whoosh. Delicate clouds in the sky. God would wait in a pink tunic’.
It is, however, on the side trip the sisters take that we discover the main thrust of the book. The sisters’ father is one of the reinterred immigrants, and it is his presence that dominates the novel, the mind of its narrator, and also the mind of her older sister, which our narrator assures us she is able to read. It transpires that he had in fact taken his own life when the sisters were young. Now middle aged, it is clear his action has dominated their lives and how they see themselves. Throughout the trip, he appears to the narrator as a figure in the sky – a Christ-like presence – his name was, in fact, Kristo. But even when he was alive, he was no benign character. At the very beginning of the book the narrator reflects: ‘A father who puts an end to it all before he wears down the whole family deserves more praise than damnation.’
Religion features heavily in the book: Bulgaria, it seems, never truly discarded its Orthodoxy – and despite their secular German upbringing, the sisters retain an uneasy relationship with it, as they do with their dead father. Visiting a convent, they view some icons:
‘icons are only in possession of their rights when they gleam out of a consecrated space, but only briefly, then they ask to be restored to the darkness, disappearing as secretly as they came’.
This, of course, refers to the mystery at the centre of Christianity, but it reflects the mystery at the centre of this book: why Kristo killed himself, and what this really means for our narrator. For she explores these very serious, very complex themes in a wry, often caustic, and irresistibly funny voice – translated into hilarious English by the great Katy Derbyshire. The humour is surely covering great pain. And by the end of the book, our narrator is admitting as much:
‘It’s not love that keeps the dead in check, I think, only good-naturedly indulged hate.’
Reviewed by West Camel
Written by Sibylle Lewitscharoff
Translated by Katy Derbyshire
Published by Seagull Books (2013)
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
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West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for new press Orenda Books. His debut novel, Attend, is out now. www.westcamel.net.
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