Book Review: Alek Popov’s Mission: London

Alek Popov’s Novel of Balkan Diplomacy in the West; A Crash Course on Regional Differences

Entertainment and bureaucracy aren’t usually found together, at least not in life. Even in a novel, this can be considered a pretty hazardous operation. And things get even more problematic if you add the current idée du jour of culture clash.

The Bulgarian novelist and playwright Alek Popov attempted just this in 2001 and the result was Mission: London, a novel that appeared recently in English and German translations from Residenz Verlag.

The story details the first months of Varadin Dimitrov’s term as Bulgarian Ambassador in London. A career centered choleric with inclinations to psychological sadism, Dimitrov is very much aware that this appointment is the decisive test for his future political career, and he is determined to master it.

The key is polishing up the image of the Bulgarian Embassy, tarnished over the years by apathy, common in government employees abroad and a clear obstacle to his ambitions.

“Descending down the stairs, Varadin Dimitrov imagined the despairing faces of his subordinates, and then a smile stole across his face. Let them wait! Let them tremble! He had always known it, and now there was no doubt about it: he had a gang of good-for-nothings up against him, who were enjoying a parasitic life at the expense of the state…

He began to think of what would be the most effective way of making their lives as difficult as possible to remind them of the fact that diplomatic service was not the equivalent to a lottery jackpot. It filled him with joy to observe how they regained their ordinary appearance that resembled the one of terrified little animals. And that was only the beginning.”

Varadin Dimitrov’s callous nature, his sarcasm and inclination towards casual cruelty are reminiscent of characters from classic BBC parodies such as Yes, Minister and Rowan Atkinson’s phenomenal Black Adder series. Acclaimed in Balkan pop-culture, it is likely that Dimitrov was designed leaning heavily on these role models.

Dimitrov is more than just a copy of characters from British TV though. To readers coming from South East Europe, it is no problem to accept the stereotypically Balkan characters, yet to an outsider it might be difficult to grasp the Eastern European qualities Popov places within Western European context. It takes a character like Dimitrov, inherently Balkan but with a strong wanting to be “westernized,” to merge these two cultures into one. A relevant topic given the EU expansion agenda and the skepticism connected with it.

Although carefully developed, the emphasis of Popov’s characters remains more on the East than the West. British characters only enter the pages episodically, and when they do their behavior reflects the influence of the above mentioned pop-culture idols to the fullest.

The caricatures range from an empathic army major who collects all sorts of useless items to ease the plight of Bulgarian orphans, to Dale Rutherford, a zookeeper that suffers almost Wertherian despair when his beloved ducks disappear and end up in the oven of the Bulgarian Embassy.

These satirical aspects open an additional rift between the novel’s two cultures, leaving Dimitrov at loss in no-man’s-land, a position that entertainingly gives his cynicism and cold rationale the most exposure.

The condescending nature of the West towards the East invokes a familiar feeling in readers from the Balkans. Popov tries to set the record straight, and someone lacking knowledge of the Balkan mental process will find this book a useful crash course on regional differences. However even though it is descriptive, the purpose of Popov’s piece is to entertain. Thus it offers little new insight, but makes a fluent and unpretentious read.

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