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He has been called the greatest Bulgarian poet of his generation. Can one literary scandal bury his whole career?
I met the Bulgarian poet Kiril Kadiiski in the fall of 2002, at the Festival Internationale de la Poésie in Trois-Rivières, Quebec. At this annual gathering, not only are poets from all over the world put up in the fancy Hôtel Gouverneur, they are continuously fed in local restaurants and cafés, where patrons take in poetry along with plates of food with names like Saumon Meunière aux triples asperges.
Unlike most of the poets at the conference, who dressed down, Kiril always wore the same expensive brown tweed suit, which, by the looks of it, he’d paid a lot for in Paris. Behind his worldly facade, he struck me as odd and needy, and he took full advantage of the gastronomic nirvana. When he became bored with the long conferences and media events that took up the time between meals, he would slip out to a Chinese buffet a few blocks from the hotel and load his plate with chow mein, sweet and sour ribs, fried won tons and other delicacies you might not come across in Bulgaria. One afternoon he invited me to go with him for a late lunch, and there he asked me if I would translate a few of his poems from French to English. I agreed to consider it, and he gave me a copy of La mort de l’Hirondelle Blanche, a published collection of sonnets. We ate together a few more times, and on our last day in Trois-Rivières, we visited the studio of a Vancouver-born woman who made livres d’artiste. Kiril spent a long time closely examining the typefaces and papers, and talking prices with the artist.
The following summer I landed in Greece and found the copy of Kiril’s book in my luggage, having carried it with me from Kamloops to California to Germany. Now that I had a home for a while, I had time to unpack it and read it, and I liked it.
I translated ten of the sonnets and emailed them to Kiril. He liked the translations, showed them to friends, who also approved, and sent me more poems. He also offered to pay me—a pittance, but he was living in Sofia, and I found I enjoyed translating. It took me away from my own history and into someone else’s life through poems that were often lyrical and personal, and sometimes autobiographical.
Before I knew it, I was buried in French translations of Kiril Kadiiski, and striving to complete the assignment and make something in English that resembled what I imagined was the original Bulgarian, of which I knew not one word. It was heavy going and I also had my own book, which I was writing in a wooden cabin behind the house on the island of Lemnos, a short walk from the beach, in 35-degree heat that knocked the cicadas out of the treetops while my Greek boyfriend threatened to cut off the electricity to my laptop if I didn’t stop typing, typing, typing. As I sweated through the pages, I sometimes thought, Kiril Kadiiski publishes too much—he should be more selective. I often felt like the maid, sorting through a man’s dirty laundry. I would throw out a few worn-out socks and keep the nicer shirts and ties. I remembered his suit, the one he had worn to all the readings in Trois-Rivières. An academic kind of suit, but also elegant—nothing Communist about it.
Nothing very Communist about his poetry, either, for that matter. As I translated page after page, his painstakingly detailed biography took on life and drama. Born in the era of Stalinism, he emerged in the poems as an individualist, a misplaced spiritual seeker deprived by history of a monastery. What impressed me was his sincerity, a quality of innocence, what one critic called a sense of wonder—rare commodities these days in the West. In his best poems, he shone like a choirboy, in poems exploring the vast incomprehensible frontiers that once divided Communism from capitalism.
It rains, it pours. Mayakovsky is alone in Moscow
And wears a silvery futurist wig.
. . .
I will toast you from the cup of my skull, brimming with verse!
. . .
Alas, I must be off. I have sworn to overcome all obstacles.
. . .
Up ahead, puddles of light. I’ll wade right across them,
I’ll march forward, side by side with the Moscow trees.
—“The End of the Day” (1979)
Perhaps later those frontiers dissolved into a no man’s land of the Slavic, post-Communist soul. Or perhaps while wading through mud and barbed wire in the Long March from one set of metaphors to the next, Kiril Kadiiski took a wrong turn? It’s hard to say. Sometime after 1989, his name was included on a list of intellectuals banned from the Bulgarian media, and—as Communism fell—he took part in the first free literary reading at the University of Sofia. In the ensuing chaos, as systems crashed, he saw the outstretched hands of fellow poets beckoning him to Paris, and he grabbed his chance.
From then on, he spent more and more time in France, where he became famous and made many friends, including Miriam Cendrars, daughter of the poet-adventurer Blaise Cendrars, whose earliest published writing, which had been lost for decades, Kiril miraculously discovered in Sofia in 1995.
That much of his history I knew, vaguely, from having translated hundreds of pages in my cabin, and later in the tiny public library at Lemnos, presided over by the world’s most talkative librarian.
In 2004, Kiril moved to Paris to take up a position as head of the Bulgarian Cultural Centre. It dawned on me that he might actually be important. That would explain the handsome tweed suit. I tried, half-heartedly and unsuccessfully, to negotiate a higher rate for my work. Kiril said he was poor at the moment, with a wife and children to support back in Bulgaria, but when he won the Nobel Prize, I’d be on the platform with him. He emailed me some letters of recommendation written by his friends to the Nobel committee; these also need to be translated.
Two more years went by, and corrections were beamed back and forth between Sofia, Paris, Lemnos, Montreal and Vancouver. Kiril found a publisher for the poems, but the deal fell through.
Meanwhile, I kept translating his cv, which he was constantly updating, with bulleted highlights of a life in poetry that began at age seventeen, when he wrote his first poem. He was also a respected translator who had once worked for Bulgarian state radio, and he had won some important European poetry prizes, including the Prix Max Jacob. In 1995, his chance discovery of a rare copy of Blaise Cendrars’ The Legend of Novgorod in a used bookstore in Sofia, Bulgaria, became the literary event of the year in France, making Kiril the toast of Paris. Prizes and honours followed, along with poetry cruises down the Danube and the Black Sea and around the Mediterranean, and an invitation to the 1998 Poetry Olympics in Stockholm, where he won two poetry medals.
Finally, in 2006, the hefty trilingual edition of his collected poems appeared in print in Paris and Sofia, co-published by L’Esprit des Péninsules and Saint Clement of Ohrid University Press, translated into French by Sylvia Wagenstein and Nicole Laurent-Catrice, and into English by Ann Diamond. I couldn’t imagine this enormous black-jacketed production, weighing a kilo and entitled Poems & Poèmes, becoming a bestseller.
Having missed the Paris launch, I awaited the reviews. None appeared, but then these things take time. And in June 2007, Kiril sent me an article calling him “the greatest Bulgarian poet of his generation” in the pages of no less a publication than Le Nouvel Observateur.
In Greece that summer, my boyfriend and I made a living by renting rooms to backpackers, including a group of three Bulgarian tourists, two of whom spoke French. I mentioned my translations of Kadiiski. They told me that an article on the “greatest Bulgarian poet of his generation” had recently been published in Le Figaro. Had I seen it? No. They doubted that he was really the greatest, and their eyebrows remained raised for the rest of the conversation. They were hiding something, I could sense it. Their tone implied intrigue and literary espionage. Besides, said one of them, who came from a town in the mountains of Rhodopes, his poetry is much too personal for a Bulgarian. I said it was difficult for me, a Canadian, to make such judgements, although I found his manners at times a bit overstated, perhaps even comically so. Still, I said, he has written some very good and a few great poems. The Bulgarians nodded.
They went away after photographing our dog and epileptic cat, and highlights of our day trip to the archaeological sites of Lemnos. They promised to send email from Luxembourg. Again I waited for news, but nothing came. I let it drop. Too much else to do and think about.
In September 2008, Kiril sent me a new cycle of thirty-five sonnets and asked me to translate them. I was shocked by their melancholy tone, bordering on suicidal. What had happened? He phoned and asked if I could find him a North American publisher. I said I would try. My hard disk had crashed, so I had to Google my own translations of his cv to send out to editors.
That’s how I happened to stumble upon a series of blogs and a French Wikipedia entry about a major literary scandal in France. I also read the article in Le Figaro that the Bulgarians had mentioned; it accused Kiril Kadiiski of forging The Legend of Novgorod, the lost early poem by the legendary Blaise Cendrars, and selling it to a Swiss collector for $50,000.
Apparently, just as he was launching his 792-page trilingual tome, a Russian doctoral student examining The Legend of Novgorod for her thesis had discovered certain discrepancies, including a computer-generated typeface that strongly suggested the book was a fake. Faked by whom? Suspicion had landed on its discoverer, Kiril Kadiiski. Blogs lit up with strings of witty comments by armies of amateur critics, and the consensus was that the Bulgarian poet did it. There was no getting around the forensic evidence, specifically the computer font known as Izhitsa.
My heart raced as I read the blogs and comments. For the first time since our meeting in 2002, Kadiiski made sense to me. All along, I had underestimated him as an oddity. The peculiar bearing, the expensive suit, the lists of publications and prizes that had failed to impress me, even as I laboured to translate them. Now his sudden emergence as a literary rascal hit me like news of a resurrection. Just as Sylvia Plath’s poems gained a ghostly resonance once I’d soaked up the lurid details of her relationship with Ted Hughes, Kadiiski’s stature seemed to grow along with the stack of unflattering press reports. It was Negative Capability in action.
Had Kadiiski always wanted to be Blaise Cendrars? Both were sent to boarding school and ran away to Russia. The Legend of Novgorod was itself somewhat legendary. Said to have been Cendrars’s first published poem, its existence has never been proven. In his memoirs, Cendrars claimed to have written it in French at age seventeen as he crossed Russia on the Trans-Siberian. In Moscow a publisher remembered only as “R. R.” later translated the poem into Russian and privately published a limited edition of sixteen copies, in a gesture aimed at encouraging the young Swiss poet, whose real name was Freddy Sauser. Sauser could have settled into a more predictable life as a Swiss banker’s son, but instead he chose to become a writer, traveller, filmmaker, fabulator, under the pen name of Blaise Cendrars.
Kadiiski’s life (in a Communist country) seemed destined to be more confined. In an early act of dissidence, he rebelled against the limits of speech in Communist Bulgaria where “the only way to escape the system was to learn to make use of metaphors and euphemisms.” Later he travelled to Budapest and Vienna, repeatedly tried to publish his poems, and was repeatedly rejected for membership in the Bulgarian Writers Union. He married and settled down in Bulgaria, where he became a well- known translator, working for national radio. He had already set his sights on France when he began translating the great symbolists— Verlaine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire—into Bulgarian.
Did romantic enthusiasm change into perceived opportunity at some point? If Kadiiski did get the idea that he could write Cendrars’s lost poem and pass it off as the genuine article, fate had handed him the means. He had mastered Russian. Having grown up in Bulgaria under Communism, he knew the culture and history by heart. How easy to imagine himself as the seventeen-year-old Cendrars on a whirlwind tour of a country careening into revolution. Another parallel: Kiril wrote his first poem at seventeen. Later, as a young poet, he travelled to Russia as a guest of the Soviet writers’ union. He went to Moscow and Leningrad and grasped the romantic mentality that fired the young Cendrars to travel the Trans-Siberian in 1905 and, two years later, to write a long poem for the girl he left behind, who died in a fire.
Cendrars, who never shrank from battle, lost an arm in the First World War. After that nothing could stop him: the one-armed veteran learned to write with his left hand and climbed the ranks of symbolist poets. Then he left them behind to set sail on a round-the-world voyage, and eventually washed up on the shores of modernism, becoming a twentieth-century literary hero. A man who believed in nothing, and everything.
Cendrars was prone to invention and hyperbole, to put it mildly; therefore, The Legend of Novgorod may be just that, a legend. But Cendrars insisted that it had been published in Moscow. What an opportunity for Kadiiski, a state-supported translator at war with the apparatchiks of Bulgaria. A frustrated poet attempting to defect from the country of his birth. A man with a family to support. He had the contacts in France, who regarded him and his work favourably. He had the motive, the poetry and literary background to back him up, and the chance to create a sensation. All he lacked was the means to emigrate.
In a way, what could be more natural? A scholar, translator and publisher of literature. Someone who ran his own publishing company in Bulgaria. Someone with a background in Samizdat publishing, and a knowledge of the literary world and an interest in small presses that produce limited editions—as I saw in Trois- Rivières, where he showed such keen interest in the livres d’artiste.
Kadiiski may even have thought he was the reincarnation of Cendrars—a fairly common fantasy among writers, one that can throw open creative doors. As Cendrars’s ghost, he could escape to Brazil on a freighter and become a well-known capitalist trading in oil—or to Paris and hang out with gypsies and other famous poets. He could follow the path of fame without getting lost in the jungle—after all, if it worked for him, why not for me? Perhaps that’s why fraud is so attractive, because a counterfeit is at one remove from reality, and this adds a special excitement.
Mea nwhile, naïve and unsuspecting in my spider-infested cabin between the castle and the chicken coops of Lemnos, where my Greek boyfriend railed against the neighbour’s roosters, I had performed the humble task of translating Kiril’s collected works. The hundreds of poems I laboured over were, to my knowledge, original.
But all of this effort was nothing compared to the meticulous planning and execution that had gone into conceiving, writing, designing, printing, aging, planting, discovering and finally promoting The Legend of Novgorod. How many late-night hours did the forger spend at the computer, correcting pre-Revolutionary Russian spelling and grammar, selecting fonts, painstakingly ensuring that every detail of the pamphlet corresponded to descriptions scattered through Cendrars’s voluminous memoirs?
The only slip-up that could not be explained: the computer-generated font known as Izhitsa. If Kadiiski did it, this was a minor slip-up, considering that all this time he was supporting a family in Bulgaria, gaining fame in France as a poet, moving steadily upward in literary circles, winning major awards and becoming an internationally known figure.
Can one scandal bury a man’s whole career? I must say, I am prone to rooting for fallen angels like Kiril Kadiiski. He may have financed his escape from Bulgaria by faking the discovery.
And deep down, he may have felt that Cendrars would approve. Perhaps, like Alice chasing the White Rabbit, he spoke to too many Cheshire cats and talking sheep in roadside cafés, or to Humpty Dumpty, who asserted that the self is a fiction and life is only a dream. Perhaps he believed he could wake from the dream in France, the land of poetry, through the monumental effort of imagining and creating this elaborate forgery, then arranging to come across it by chance one day, in a used bookstore in Sofia. What would Cendrars make of it? Something wonderful, I am sure.
Twenty or fifty years from now, will we be reading the poetry of Kiril Kadiiski? Time will tell.