by Violeta Toncheva
Irina Papancheva starts her novel strikingly. She first makes the reservation that she is not the main character. “In fact, I am not in it at all. But, apparently, I’m not too happy with that, because I seem to keep going back to myself here, changing even the beginning for that matter. Full stop. No. Just stop. Page break. This story starts on the next page.”
The next page quotes the famous poem by Edgar Alan Poe:
“For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee”
Immediately after the epigraph whose romantic sadness after the lost and unattainable love creates certain expectations, Irina Papancheva faces the reader with her Annabel: “Annabel was steadily turning the bike pedals through the rain, the large drops were glancing off her bright blue rain coat, trickling down on her face, soaking into her soaking wet jeans. She didn’t feel cold but still she felt the unpleasant e coolness of this rain, combined with the sharpness of the morning air. Once she had loved the rain but in another version, during the sweltering summer days, rain which is pouring as if God had spilled a huge ewer of water over His flock on Earth.”
The cinematographic image recreated by the artist Dimitar Kelbechev on the cover of the exquisite printed edition (the publishing house Janet 45 makes again no exception of its publishing principles) appears at the beginning and at the end of the plot. Important for understanding of the whole novel, it displays the message to move, change, re-assess the values. The bike ride from Amsterdam to the sea – “the fulfilled dreaming for limitlessness” – is long enough and hard enough to contain the emotional, intellectual and even physical effort required in the final stretch of the heroines’s journey to herself.
Complicity of nature, built as if by Stanislavsky, is indicative of the author’s main method – parallel plotting that directs the reader to comparison and reflection and offers different (at least two) points of view to the topic. Two time zones, separated by 13 years, which mark the stages in the development of the main character and her transformation from the “young, vicious, impulsive and destructive” artist Annabel to the cold, prudent and perfect businesswoman, the youngest Director of the International Relations Department in the ministry, are compared. Following her strategy for survival in the man-dominated world of governance, she uses selected (but not all) means to get to the top, where soulless administrators and flexible cosmopolitans, so necessary for the functioning of today’s global community, reside.
Annabel leaves painting because of the negative result at the Art Academy, but also because of the death of her beloved father – the only one who believed in her talent. Decoding in her own way this cause-effect connection, she concludes deeply within part of her innermost which needs art and unlocks her other selves. She unlocks Annabel, who manages her life, makes only right choices, does not believe in love but in sex as a means of control etc. Returning to Amsterdam after 13 years she faces her own ghosts from the “season of proficiencies” and the clash becomes so shattering that it revives the previous Annabel: “As if I have never left this city and I have dreamt these 13 years”.
The parallel story is told on behalf of the main character and on behalf of the author with interesting connotations between them in which, reality and fiction are, undoubtedly, intertwined. In this sense the novel is built in the style of the post-modern writing but what unlike other similar readings, it is not fragmented and scattered but well-composed and communicative, with a deep intelligence and high self-esteem, deriving from it. It likes brevity, key words and expression of direct message. It prefers rapid exchanges of words to the circumstantial adverbs. It is keen to reach the deep meaning of things and so it requires feedback on the merits. Openness and tolerance for otherness and other’s opinions are innate to it. In the web space, the contemporary internet agora, a similar way of sharing is displayed in the blog, the virtual diary. Of course “Annabel” is not a blog but it relates to blogging communication as it introduces in the novel’s structure text in the text. It weaves into the fabric of the novel (again in parallel) a virtual diary and more precisely a virtual café called “The Cosmopolitans” (probably in analogy with O’Henry’s short story “The Cosmopolitan in the Café” to which the novel refers). “In this cafe I will share my ideas about Europe, identity, citizenship and cosmopolitanism. I will do that without ceremony and without structure, as if we were in a cafe. You are my guests. Welcome to Cosmopolitans Cafe. For this cafe to exist, your opinions are exactly as important as mine”, reads the invitation to audience.
The reader stops 15 times for 165 pages at Cosmopolitans Cafe and each time after the name of the café comes the topic which the blogger (the author) offers for discussion, starting with her own opinion. Subheadings as “Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism”, “Citizenship and Identity”, “Euro-incubator”, “Schuman and Schumann” (funny sketch-fantasy about the similarity in the names of Robert Schuman, the father of the EU and the composer Robert Schumann) give an idea about the content of the blog, which to a some extent plays the role of a removed commentator on cosmopolitanism. The innovative approach allows Irina Papancheva to share her thoughts on the theory and practice of the emerging and changing culture of cosmopolitanism today. Like her main character, the author is among the very few Europeans invited, after winning an essay competition, to participate in a public debate in Amsterdam on the “the new cosmopolitan”.
This topic definitely needs discussion at both a local and global level – it is enough to remind ourselves of the drastic examples with the successful and unsuccessful Bulgarian European Commissioner, respectively Meglena Kuneva and Rumiana Jeleva.
Burning and informative, the cosmopolitan plot in the plot stands out in the novel’s context with a journalistic charge and essay style which are particularly powerful in the opposition “homeland/non-homeland” and ”cosmopolitism/nationalism”: “…is the cosmopolite someone who has crossed the boundaries of the national to arrive at a place of absolute freedom and non-belonging? Is it possible to cut someone’s roots without amputating a vital part of their identity/spirit/soul?” Asking these and many other questions in Cosmopolitans Café implies reactive position of the addressee although in their only capacity as a reader they cannot articulate their position in real time by pressing the key “send”.
If we return again from the cosmopolitan to the intimate in the novel, we find that the image of heroine is shown in parallel and in opposition to the image of her friend Erika. Once again the parallel, the comparison provides a measure of truth. Erika, in contrast to Annabel, does not change her values, remaining faithful to art and to one man, but being disappointed with him, she is somewhat surprised by herself as she is finding love with Annabel’s assistant, Magi (the soul has androgynous nature).
The ups and downs of the intimate aspect correspond also with Annabel’s attitude towards both sexes, which culminates in the dramatic first virtual and then real relationship with Nicola in which it appears that the fantasies, when taken beyond words could also be dangerous.
The meeting with Vincent, the Dutch speaker in the project she coordinates, shakes the heroine not less but in a completely different way. In Vincent she recognises the lost love of her father, the understanding, forgiving and watchful guardian, which – according to the Oedipus complex models the image of the beloved man. On the other hand, the overall aesthetic positions, the similar perceptions of the paintings of Van Gogh and the boundless admiration of the “Sunflowers” turn the professional meeting to an intellectual communication between soulmates. The growing closeness of Annabel and this wise man, having seen through the meaning of love, bearing even the name of her favourite artist, is somehow predestined. It wakes up the hidden artistic nature of Annabel, revives her love for art and brings back to life her once frantic need for painting.
Each turn of the page prepares you for the experience of this catharsis which turns the fate of Annabel to return her to her actual life, to art.
This dynamic change is set at another level also by the quotes from Van Gogh (in the letters to his brother) with reflection on the relationship between life and art, between man and nature, between people.
On a third level the same suggestion is encoded in the magnetic effect of “Sunflowers” on the main character – the little Annabel, the student Annabel and finally the business woman Annabel whose buried artistic essence breaks through her cosmopolitan veneer of a successful administrator. Because “sin is to be endowed with art and not to create”…
“Annabel” is a novel, read through the “Sunflowers”, one of the most beautiful paintings in the world cultural heritage, which entails, in Vincent’s words, the whole life: “Birth, maturity and death, it’s all in that sunflower vase”.
Besides the existential truth about the necessity to find one’s true “I”, the novel of Irina Papancheva speaks out one of the most important truths about art as a recreated experience. Annabel, having rediscovered her vocation, rushes, 13 years later, not to self-repetition in art but to self-expression, to designation of the meanings of transformation, to putting the paths of true living. Great art is never born ex nihilo, it wants to be experienced in advance.
This article was published also in the leading Bulgarian literary platform, Literary Newspaper.