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Valeri Petrov: The bard of Bulgaria

He is a great European poet, who has written films and translated Shakespeare’s verse

    Valeri Petrov (right) with Oggy Boytchev
    Valeri Petrov (right) with Oggy Boytchev

    He writes in a language spoken by a mere seven million people. But he is revered as the master of modern Bulgarian poetry. And he is the only person in the world to have translated the complete works of Shakespeare in verse. He was 92 earlier this year and his name is Valeri Nissim Mevorah, better known by his pen-name, Valeri Petrov.

    With a Jewish father and Bulgarian mother, he says he feels Jewish regardless of the technicalities, especially “when the person opposite me feels that I am Jewish… My father knew Lenin — and Trotsky, when he was a student in Switzerland.”

    When Petrov started writing, in 1935, there was, he says, “a lot of prejudice — my mentor at the time, a leading left-wing literary critic, very uneasily suggested: ‘You can’t write about the idyllic Bulgarian countryside and sign it with a Jewish name’. He meant well.”

    Sitting opposite Petrov in the attic of his father’s house in a leafy part of Sofia, I can’t believe my luck.This is his first interview in perhaps more than 30 years: “I just don’t want to create unnecessary noise… especially when people mainly want to talk to me about politics.” And not without reason; unlike many in post-communist Bulgaria, Petrov has remained loyal to his communist convictions. “The society we tried to build after 1944 was unproductive and the elite was unable to reform it. But what’s on offer at the moment is not acceptable to me… the promised freedom is a total fiction. We’ve had not just decline, we’ve had a total collapse in the past 23 years, economic and cultural collapse… communism created modern agriculture, eradicated poverty. And what’s happening with the Bulgarian countryside now? It’s been devastated.”

    To his detractors, Petrov is at best a naïve apologist for a harsh Soviet-style regime or, worse, a willing participant in the repression of millions of people. Yet he is praised on all sides for the brilliance of his poetry — melodic, gentle, intimate and touching.

    Petrov still writes: he has produced a volume of poetry in each of the past five years, some of it suffused with anger. He openly refers to mafia-style capitalism in present-day Bulgaria. As he puts it in one poem: “There’s nothing in our life today that makes me happy to have lived to 92.”

    The Bulgarian language has been through great transformation in his lifetime. But he is on top if it; his language is impeccably modern. He is of a generation that fought to change the world and he took part in the armed resistance against the pro-Nazi regime, in which some of his friends were killed. He also clashed with the communist regime in the 1970s after refusing to sign an official petition denouncing the awarding of the Nobel Prize for literature to Solzhenitsyn. He was not allowed to publish, so he turned to Shakespeare.

    In just over 10 years, he managed to translate the complete works in verse. His translations are widely recognised as bringing out Shakespearean poetic imagery with sonorous rhymes — no minor accomplishment given that the Bulgarian-English syllabic ratio is 3:2.

    Under communism, Petrov battled with censorship — or, as he says, “self-censorship. It’s even worse knowing how far you can go, and no further.”

    If you ask anyone in the streets of Sofia to name a Bulgarian film, the chances are he or she will say A Knight without Armour, written by Valeri Petrov in 1965. The story is told through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy. Petrov’s screenplay for the film, Yo-ho-ho, again about a little boy, was bought by a Hollywood studio and released as The Fall.

    Now, happy to have remained in the country of his birth, his only regret is “that my language is so small that I can’t show its beauty to the world.”

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