Last year, the trip to the island of St. Anastasia unexpectedly took me to another island – to “She, the island” (publishing house Trud, 2017). Although it is unusual to choose a perfume by the bottle, this is exactly how I grabbed Irina Papancheva’s book in the small museum shop – because of the cover. Reading this novel at a time when eventfulness had a colour and “freedom” had an expiration date was almost a meditative experience. It turned out that the sandy yellow colour of the cover was significant. “Yellow is the colour of happiness.”
Yellow is the colour of the island of Fuerteventura, the colour of the story of the woman in a yellow dress who returns “to the timelessness of the desert and the immensity of the ocean” – as she herself calls her journey to the island. “Nothing/ has ever been/ nor/ will be/ anything else/but/ sand…”. It sounds like a mantra and sets a rhythm of reading – so much so that you begin to wonder if the story of the woman in the yellow dress is not the story of the Island – She, the Island. The sandy bareness of Fuerteventura gives special freedom and challenges the characters to see and hear themselves better, to reveal themselves to the reader as much as possible – all except the Writer, who “discovers” the cover of “She, the Island” at an exhibition in Brussels – square canvas in yellow and orange with painted boy and girl taking a selfie. Iris, the name of the Writer, we learn almost at the very end of the novel, and her further disclosure is forthcoming in the new novel by Irina Papancheva – “Brussels Naked” (publishing house “Znatsi”, 2022).
Too much bubbles
The shocking public nudity in the “Belgian paradise” of the sauna in contrast to the institutionalised costumed world of Brussels initially startles the young Bulgarian journalist who arrives for an internship at the European Parliament in 2003. The frank nudity and the unequivocal hints of a German MEP thicken the bubbles in the warm jacuzzi for the intern from a “far country”. But the multicultural champagne bubbles with the “sparkling taste of the bright European future” irresistibly attract the Eastern European woman , ready to invest all her “discipline, commitment and loyalty forged through socialism” to be part of the diversity, unity and multilingualism of Brussels, in order to continued to feel “so complete and authentic.” Although she parted with the city “like a lover” – naked, for the last time among the bubbles of the jacuzzi, Iris returns in 2007 with the accession of Bulgaria to the EU – “the beginning of the bright future”. To “dive” into the big bubble of the European capital, because “This is Brussels – inevitably you meet the same people, we are all in the same bubble.” And these people, each with their own story, from their own point of view, will reveal/undress a layer after layer Iris and her personal history with Brussels. The voices of the Dutch Herman, the Belgians Aisha, Brigitte and Pauline, the Senegalese Amadou, the Australian Thomas, the Croatian Bojana, the Portuguese Alberto, the British Claire lead through the invisible trajectories of the neighbourhoods of Molenbeek , Matonge , Schaerbeek , Marolles , Etterbeek… which intersect at one point – the world of the Bulgarian Iris.
For the Belgian Pauline, the Bulgarian intern seems “disappointingly normal”, even boring with her stylish clothes, education, culture and the ease with which she talks about communism – an image that contrasts with the exotic idea of the Eastern European, a victim of traumatic experiences from the “dark communist past”. It turns out that Iris has all the virtues of the “good old Brussels” and perfectly “fits” into this “world of elegance, art, comfort”. But ironically, the Bulgarian journalist will be the breakthrough of multiculturalism in the “oasis of Western culture” of Pauline and her daughter Brigitte, a former flatmate of Iris. It is the Bulgarian woman with her sociability and ability to attract “extraordinary people” from different nationalities and religious communities who invades the comfort of “old Brussels” by introducing Brigitte to the Senegalese Amadou – Schaerbeek and Matonge, respectively, Pauline and the Syrian refugees, Avenue Demolder of the native Belgians and the orientalism of The wild Schaerbeek, Brussels and Aleppo. Following Iris’ idea, Pauline’s comfortable Belgian home shelters for an unusual dinner a Moroccan woman, a Croatian woman, a Walloon woman, a Flemish woman, an English editor, a German reporter, a Turkish family from the Wild Schaerbeek, two Senegalese men, several Belgian women in a joint (successful) attempt to help the Syrian refugee mother and daughter. The irrevocably in love with Brussels Bulgarian who “likes to write, read, dance tango and go to the cinema” becomes the starting point of the story of the celebrated European diversity. This is the image of the Writer, in which different faces of the European capital meet narratologically . Iris invites the Croatian Bojana on an alternative tourist tour under the motto “The Other Brussels”. The “Guardians” of the “Other Brussels” turn out to be women, through which they meet the Brussels of Syrian and Sudanese migrants , the Brussels of the elite companion with a traumatic experience from the war in the former Yugoslavia, the Brussels of endless pleasures. Coincidentally or not, the young artist with whom Iris and Bojana sketch the secrets of Marolles is called Olivier – like Olivier Ruben, the author of the painting that serves as a cover of “She, the island”. In fact, Brussels turns out to be a conglomeration of homesick islands – “all those places that make you feel somewhere else” – in Africa, in Portugal, in Turkey, in Sofia, even in Chicago…
Perhaps that is why Brussels deceives with the freedom of “potential discovery” as an opportunity to “forget the past and not be afraid of the future”, not to be afraid to indulge in the unexpected festivity with which the city surprises you. And this is of particular importance for a person who has parted with the illusions of a bright future and looks with a dose of skepticism towards the new bright future. And Iris indulges herself in the possibilities of unexpected improvisation here and now, just like at a milonga. Her tango with Brussels, the dance of attraction and repulsion, continues with each move to a new home and a new neighbourhood, until the final scene in Uccle – the neighbourhood of the rich, but still “on the border with Ixelles” – where her personal story begins with Brussels. From the rented basement room in Ixelles to the international parties in a wonderful apartment in Uccle. Despite the failure of the European constitution, the migrant crisis, Brexit and the acts of terrorism, diversity finds unity in the bubbles of a bottle of cava in the space of the home in Uccle, in the personal story of the Bulgarian Iris, in which friends from nearly nine nationalities eat, drink and talk in a Brussels Home and in a Novel – “Brussels Naked”.
Veselina Beleva, Doctor of Philology