Bulgarian novelist who is fascinated with Lithuania

  • 2012-03-07
  • Interview by Rokas M. Tracevskis

Stanislava Ciurinskiene Vinciune, a 36-year-old Bulgarian novelist, provoked big media interest with her novel Second Life, which was recently translated into the Lithuanian language and published by what is probably the most prestigious Lithuanian publishing house, Baltos Lankos. Ciurinskiene Vinciune is married to a Lithuanian diplomat and now lives in Brussels. It is her second marriage. Her first husband was a Lithuanian too.

She is a psychologist and journalist by education. In the past, she worked for an NGO that takes care of mentally ill people. Ciurinskiene Vinciune wrote Second Life, which was presented at the Vilnius Book Fair in February, after an unusual experiment: she rented a flat and locked herself in there for six months, communicating with the outside world only via the Internet. Then she got in contact with some other people who, for more than a decade, have communicated with other people only via the Internet. After six months, she wrote a novel about life on the Internet, based on this experience. Now Ciurinskiene Vinciune is considering writing a novel based on Lithuanian themes and she says that she is fascinated with Lithuanian history.

According to her, while Lithuanians were fighting against the USSR - their guerilla war in the woods and, later, using some less dangerous methods of resistance - the Bulgarian state’s communist leaders, facing not much opposition in the country, considered submitting application forms for their country’s membership in the USSR. The Kremlin, however, rejected these suggestions from Sofia’s communists regarding Bulgaria as the 16th Soviet republic, preferring to have Bulgaria as a loyal satellite state. Now Bulgaria is a staunch ally of Lithuania in NATO as well as a family member via both countries’ membership in the EU. During the so-called Golovatov incident in Austria, the strongest diplomatic support outside the Baltics for Vilnius came from the Bulgarian foreign minister. The Baltic Times talked with Ciurinskiene Vinciune about Jonas Basanavicius (1851-1927), an activist of Lithuania’s national revival who worked as a doctor in Bulgaria, as well as literature issues and other matters.

What did you know about Lithuania before your first acquaintance with a Lithuanian? Did you know about Jonas Basanavicius, the ideological godfather of the re-establishment of Lithuania’s independence in 1918, who lived for a long time in Bulgaria?
In the beginning of the 21st century Russian propaganda was still very strong in Bulgaria. Jonas Basanavicius was “Ivan Basanov” and was officially Russian. That only changed after the visit of Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, and especially after Lithuania opened an embassy in Sofia. Then “Ivan Basanov” was finally introduced to the Bulgarians as the Lithuanian Jonas Basanavicius. I am not sure, however, if we still don’t have a couple of Ivan Basanov streets. But back in 2002, when I first visited Lithuania, quite a few Bulgarians were still brainwashed to believe the Soviet Union was one huge happy family, and not many people understood why it had collapsed. We also believed Lithuanians were Slavic (but I guess Lithuanians also believed Bulgarians were Slavic, which we are not). You can imagine my shock [upon] landing in Vilnius and seeing all these Nordic faced-people, the unfamiliar language (not Russian, mind you!), the lack of typically Soviet sights.
What was your impression during your visit to the KGB museum in Vilnius? The communist-era was somewhat less brutal in Bulgaria, I guess.
Communism in Bulgaria probably had a more human face after 1956, compared to what happened to Lithuania. At least it was more subtle, not so openly brutal. That is why it is so hard for me to understand how come it caused much greater long-term damage in Bulgaria than in Lithuania. Bulgarians survived 500 years of Ottoman occupation and came out of it strong and determined to re-establish their state. And then just 45 years of communism destroyed us completely, killed our discipline and ability to work hard, to set goals and achieve them, and made us obedient and passive, while Lithuanians simply dusted their selves off and went on building their future. I guess, a part of it is the way the two nations dealt with the trauma of communism. The KGB museum in Vilnius is a good example. Bulgarians had their [concentration] camps, too, but I’ve never seen one because they are not open to visitors, they are destroyed and obliterated. We haven’t even started to really admit what happened to us during those 45 years of communism. We’re in denial. And that’s why I was so shocked to see the drama of the Lithuanian torture victims so openly disclosed for the world to see. That was my first real touch with the horror of Soviet violence. I was shaken to the bottom of my heart.
You have already published four novels. Tell us a little bit about each of them. What inspired you to write them?
I started writing some seven years ago, when I found myself in Amsterdam, completely disillusioned about human nature. I was hired there to do some work for a non-governmental organization, when I was attacked by a friend and a colleague who was on drugs and could hardly recognize anybody. I sought help, but back then prejudices towards Eastern Europeans were very strong and I didn’t get any support from the authorities. The irony of it all was that I had left my country, disappointed by Bulgarian society, which refused to allow people with mental illness to live among ‘the normal ones.’ I had moved to Holland believing that in the Western world help for those in need (which was my job at that time) is a value. Once I found out it wasn’t so, I bought a return ticket to Bulgaria, but I had a few days before the flight. So I stayed at the hotel and wrote something that later on turned out to be my debut novel, God Bless Stu. A year later appeared Finger Eleven – a novel I am deeply ashamed of. Then Second Life brought back my self-confidence as a writing person. After a three year break, this spring I released my fourth novel, I Was Caught Stealing. My Lithuanian translator read it and said it is so heavy that she had to stop reading and get some rest after every five pages.
During your meeting with your book’s potential readers at the Vilnius Book Fair, you said that you cried when you watched a documentary film about unarmed Lithuanian civilians standing in the way of attacking Soviet army tanks in Vilnius on Jan. 13, 1991. You said that Bulgarians would not be capable of such sacrifice. Then a Bulgarian man living in Vilnius, who was present at the readers’ meeting with you, started to shout in Bulgarian and a translator told the audience that he says that he was also standing together with Lithuanians in Vilnius on Jan. 13, 1991. Was this a surprise for you?
I don’t say Bulgarians never sacrificed their lives for the nation’s greater good. Literally millions of my compatriots lost their lives throughout the 1,300 years of Bulgarian history. Nowadays, however, we are a nation of individualists and - like in many other countries - the word “motherland” has lost much of its value. I don’t say this is good or bad; I simply point at a fact. But in recent history Lithuanians experienced much more threats to their national identity than Bulgarians. External pressure can keep a nation united more than anything else. So yes, I was surprised there was a Bulgarian at the TV tower on Jan 13, 1991.
The Lithuanian publisher of your novel Second Life told the audience at the Vilnius Book Fair that your novel gives an idea to men for what a woman expects from men. Could you give some tips for men?
That was actually the interpretation of Dr. Arunas Germanavicius – one of the top-faces of Lithuanian psychiatric reform. I was surprised to hear it myself. If he said it, there must be quite a lot of truth to this, but I have never seen Second Life from this perspective. As I am always careful with gender generalizations, I will simply say women are different and they expect different things from men. Lithuanian women, for example, seem to be very different from those in Bulgaria. Bulgaria is a female-dominated country; women are expected to be the main breadwinner at home, to be good with the screw-driver, to raise their children with not much, or any, help, to be good professionals and good-looking as well. They expect a lot from themselves and not much room is left for expectations targeted to the other gender.
Why don’t you like Brussels, and dream about moving to Vilnius?

Brussels may be the dream city for everybody who is after making a career in the EU institutions. But it’s a very wrong place if one needs atmosphere to write stories. The city, at least to me, resembles a huge office building full of people who are always in a hurry.  I am afraid my next story will be like Brussels – plastic and cold. I love most other large cities of Belgium, but Brussels scares me. Vilnius, in turn, has the right air. It is one of the most inspiring cities I’ve ever visited. It is both solemn and cozy. My temper fits perfectly to the place.
Could you compare the features of the national character of Bulgarians, Lithuanians and Belgians?

I am not going to pretend I understand the Belgians. I’ve been observing them for some two years now but I still don’t know the first thing about them. They are always polite, nice and moderate about everything, but try to dig deeper and you will face a stone wall. I love them for their absence of a short temper, though – something one will easily find both in Lithuanians and in Bulgarians. The main difference between our two nations is, I guess, that Bulgarians are very expressive - they need to share every single thought or emotion. Lithuanians are trained to hide their feelings, displaying them is somewhat inappropriate. Many foreigners mistake them for being cold, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Lithuanians go through the full scale of emotional experiences, only they avoid showing or sharing it. They talk about basketball instead. Another common misperception is that Lithuanians are conservative. They are not. In fact, they can be pretty extreme. But being socially acceptable is very important in Lithuania, so people watch their public image. Public image is something Bulgarians don’t have to worry about – we accept everything as a part of human nature and we don’t hide the ‘weak spots’ in our biographies. Apart from that, we are much more similar than one can imagine.
There are some Lithuanian pensioners who decided to move to Bulgaria due to warmer weather and a less expensive life there. Some Lithuanians are interested in buying villas there. Would you recommend such a life in Bulgaria?
The Lithuanian community in Bulgaria is very active and helps their new members to adjust. Bulgarians tend to be very friendly and responsive to foreigners, too.  There is some almost mystic chemistry between Lithuanians and Bulgarians that helps them live a good and interesting life together. We, as people from different nations, complement each other very well and I think sooner or later every Lithuanian starts feeling perfectly at home in Bulgaria. Once they start enjoying our milder climate, Lithuanians start to smile more often.
Your husband is a Lithuanian diplomat in Brussels. What is your forecast for the EU’s future?
The EU is not having the best time right now and we all admit it. But sooner or later every union that includes human beings - be it a family, a country or a group of countries - goes through a certain sort of crisis. If crises are managed properly, they have educational value and lead to growth. From where I stand, I believe that’s exactly the case and the EU countries will go out of the difficult times stronger and united.