“Brussels is my greatest lover. I can never get enough of him; he always grips me, seduces me to unexpected places, introduces me to extraordinary people, pampers me with stories”.
This is probably the last thing we imagine when we hear the name of the European (and Belgian) capital. In our country, it is still stereotypically and prejudicedly associated only with the countless institutions, with the complex bureaucratic hierarchy, with the eurobureaucracy, with budgets, funding and “imposed” rules. The latest novel by the Bulgarian writer Irina Papancheva , who has been living and working in Brussels for many years, completely refutes its image as a boring, impersonal, administratively gray city. In an undreamt of and neglected as a tourist destination, a place where you can only work. In “Brussels Naked” (Znatsi, 2022), the “capital city” of Europe is not just a background, as in other novels by the author. It is more than even living, plastic decor. Brussels itself is a protagonist.
Many, and somehow enumerable and predictable – and perhaps even “easy” to describe – are the cities that have remained in literary history. Compared to James Joyce’s Dublin, Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, Elena Ferrante’s Naples (if we have to mention only a very small part of them), Brussels is far from being literary discussed. Even more so in novels translated into Bulgarian. Even more so in those written by Bulgarian authors. There are exceptions, of course: the city features in “The Experience” by Rusana Burdarska, who works as a translator for the European Commission and writes from the Belgian capital; in the works of Dimil Stoilov, who lives in Brussels, including “Innocent Women in Brussels” and “The Children of Don Quixote. Belgian and other stories” ; in the novel “The Wandering Albatross” by Demetra Duleva, whose heroine, a Bulgarian emigrant, briefly passes through the city in search of a better life.
Incomparable, however, is the degree to which Brussels is laid bare, shown, traversed and experienced in Irina Papancheva’s novel. A complex, polyphonic text that sounds with the voices of its various inhabitants: the Bulgarian Iris, the author’s alter-ego (as well as a heroine in her previous novel “She, the Island”), Belgians, Croatians, Senegalese, Moroccans, Dutch, Australians. We meet Muslims who do not leave their neighborhood, including girls who emancipate from family and religion; suffering refugees who reached Europe by boat; long-standing generations of immigrants who marked whole neighborhoods with their presence and commerce; resentful but also sympathetic and helpful locals; fancy companions and street girls of the night; creators, publishers, employees of various institutions and banks; permanent residents, non-residents, transients, cosmopolitans…
Each of them lives their own story, intertwined with that of others, to unravel and retangle as the City holds and pulls all the strings. Each of them lives their own Brussels, lives in their own Brussels. Often he equates to the hologram of his own homeland. What an irony that even when you have left it, or even escaped it, you can find yourself back there, in its Brussels projection. “We were all foreigners in this city, sticking together like rice, and although Matongé (the so-called African quarter – n.a.) was an imitation of home, on the surface at least, it was ours. was an imitation of home, at least on the surface, it was ours,” says Senegalese Amadou. Or the Portuguese Alberto: “I left Portugal only to find another Portugal here”. Because Brussels offers islands, illusions and tastes of home – “shelter of longing for what we have left behind” when we chose it as our new home.
Both Brussels and its inhabitants are carefully and lovingly mapped. Each chapter carries a title composed of a particular neighborhood and its postal code (the idea is Mitko Novkov’s, editor of Irina’s ‘Pelican Feather’ and ‘She the Island’), as well as the narrator’s name and nationality. Here are Sablon, Molenbeek, Uccle, Matonge, Schaerbeek, Saint-Gilles, Marolles…, some of them infamously known to us from the news. Irina Papancheva demonstrates an intimate knowledge of the present and past of every street, restaurant, hotel, exhibition hall, building, theater, park, etc. “Is it possible for one person to satisfy all your needs?” asks one of the heroines. And is it possible for a city? Probably not either. But Brussels, we are convinced, is not one city. Brussels is as many cities as there are people who engrave their stories in it. And “to fit into its history is our chance for an anonymous eternity”.
Personal stories are inevitably intertwined with the big one, that of the European Union. Although more of a backdrop, it is marked through its milestones, with the novel beginning in 2003. The growing Union is a complex, dynamic, often troubled family. There is the debate and subsequent collapse of the European Constitution when Iris arrives in the city as an intern with a visa and non-permanent status, the signing of the Lisbon Treaty, the first major enlargement followed by the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, the refugee crisis and acts of terrorism that led to the unprecedented closure of the city, Brexit and the Bulgarian presidency of the Council.
Arriving from a country that has abandoned the illusion of a bright future, Iris joins the ranks of those who look to another, common European (and presumably also bright) future. She though arrives at the feeling that “we left our native countries years ago, chasing the ghost of a bright future, only to find that we have arrived not in a place, but in time, the time of the mortality of the bright future”.
We also witness that the career drive and the desire to acquire a permanent status are often leading. That important decisions are discussed not only in the offices and halls of the European institutions, but also at the endless extravagant parties and receptions. That a single European identity is an elusive goal in the midst of national diversity – even more so when “catching up” is difficult for those who come from a world, life and culture beyond the Iron Curtain (“Perhaps, after all, one day the differences between us could be blurred, but it would take me years to catch up”). That yes, bureaucracy exists, that your boss can take credit for your work, that sexism in the corridors of Brussels is far from over, and in many cases your chances depend on your gender and appearance, that the condescension of the representatives of the rich and the old towards citizens of the new and poor countries in the EU exists. And that socio-political idealism goes hand in hand with the simple and understandable desire of every next generation of European cadres for an endless “international, free, carefree life”.
Irina Papancheva herself arrives in Brussels at the same time as her heroine. For nine years, she led the EU advocacy of the J. K. Rowling Lumos . The vision of the organisation is that all children grow up in a safe and caring family environment or in quality family-type services in the absence of an alternative. Irina starts alone and gradually builds a team. The dynamic work includes preparing advocacy strategies and leading their implementation, writing policy documents, meeting with representatives of all institutions, organising events. The aim is that the transition from institutional care to family and community-based care is included in key European policies, and that EU funds support this process and are not used to build and maintain institutions (so-called orphanages), extremely harmful for the health and development of children.
Nine years later it is a fact. Irina is particularly proud of the inclusion of the mentioned “transition” in the Regulation that governs the EU external funding for this programming period (2021-2027). This is happening for the first time and is largely the result of close cooperation between the organisation’s Brussels office and the office of the European Commissioner Neven Mimica over five years. At the beginning of this April, Lumos closed its office in Brussels, and Irina has already accepted to work for the same cause at Hope and Homes for Children. In the meantime, she does consulting work for Children of Prisoners Europe (COPE) .
But let’s leave this side of Brussels behind and return again to the title of the novel and to the human stories in it. Because the city is seen above all through love in its various aspects, intimacy and solitude. Love arises or ceases, is absent or changes. Sometimes it is quick, paid or Tinder dating in a city that provides anonymity and transience. Sometimes it is a long-term commitment. Sometimes it is passion, and sometimes it is just humanity and helping another human being. But like a kind of plasma between all these beings floats the loneliness, the original singleness of those who want to live the full of career opportunities, events and fun city. To take planes and trains that bring them home for the weekend and back again for work on Monday. “Constant lovers” change, The City remains.
Sometimes when we read regional books that tell about a place in a universal way, what is happening can feel like it could be anywhere else. And for the place to acquire some sort of mythological status. And so it is, and it is not so in ‘Brussels Naked’. Here, it seems to me, Brussels still remains somehow too special, concrete and real. Non-metaphorical. It invites us to see everything happening precisely on its streets, in its bars, in its secret corners, all with their specific names, with their breath of curious past and bright future. Irina shows us – and tells us – Brussels with many facts, with enviable competence, knowledge and cultural erudition.
In fact, we might think of Iris itself as the City. She stands at the beginning and at the end of this novel, opening the story for it and giving hers to the other characters in whose stories she is more or less vaguely present. Just as Brussels is everywhere and different for everyone, Iris is in almost all stories and has a different meaning for their narrators and protagonists. Mysterious, evasive, provocative, revealing – exactly as we also see here Brussels itself.
Refuting Italo Calvino’s “one should never confuse the city with the word that describes it”, “Brussels Naked” does just that. “But if you give it time, if you free your mind from labels and preconceptions, and instead become curious, following your intuition without a google map, you’ll really start to see it,” promises Irina in this her most mature, complex and extended novel – a European-level novel.
An interesting fact is that the novel was actually written in English, then it was translated and is about to be published in Persian, and the Bulgarian translation is done by the author herself. The book was among the favourites for the new literary award, the Orpheus Prize, but its publication before the end of the competition disqualified it. Its editor is the Hristo Dimitrov-Hindo, with whom Irina has had a close literary collaboration for years. She is also the author of the novels “Almost Intimately” and “Annabel”, the children’s book “I stutter”, the memoir “Welcome, Nathan!” and short stories. She is the winner of the “Southern Spring – 2008” participant award for “Almost Intimately”. Nominated for “Annabel” in the contest of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and Open Letter Books publishing house at the University of Rochester for Contemporary Bulgarian Novel (2014). Her books have been translated into English, French, Arabic, Persian.
Antonia Apostolova, Literary critic and writer, “Manager” magazine, July 2022