Ilija Trojanow – Writing Multilingual in One Language

Language is our wealth, our tradition – and a tool to understand the world.

If anyone understands the importance of languages, it is the German-Bulgarian author Ilija Trojanow. With a Bulgarian mother tongue, German schooling, English and French surroundings – switching language gears has become a way of life.

The result: Trojanow writes in German, but thinks and develops stories in a complex multilingual way. As a “citizen of the world,” he constantly travels to write and writes to travel, his languages at his site. Currently, he lives in Vienna and is considered one of the most compelling and versatile novelists and travel writers in the German-speaking world today. His books have been translated into 31 languages and his literature received numerous awards.

“Salvation Lurks Around the Corner”

Trojanow was born in Sofia, in 1965, but his family fled in 1971 for West Germany, where they were granted political asylum. A year later, he moved with his parents to settle in Kenya where his father got a position as an engineer. Here he graduated from the German School in Nairobi, and in 1984 came back to Europe to study law and ethnology in Munich.

His first travel books were about Africa, researched during his travels around the continent, followed by an anthology of contemporary African literature translated into German. To popularize them, he founded the publishing houses “Cyril and Methodius” and “Marino”. In 1996, he published his first novel in German The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner (Die Welt ist groß und Rettung lauert überall), which was based on the story of his family’s escape from Bulgaria and became an immediate success. In 2008, the Bulgarian film director Stefan Komandarev adapted the book into a film, one of the most successful productions of contemporary Bulgarian cinema.

Trojanow’s first novel, ‘Die Welt ist groß und Rettung lauert überall’ (1996), is partly based on his own life and was widely praised./(C) Ilija Trojanov

The pathways of his life are reflected in his books: From Sofia, Nairobi and Munich, to Bombay (1998 to 2003) and Cape Town (2003 to 2006), and now his home in Vienna. But in between, he always returned to Bulgaria, following the sociopolitical developments in the country and narrated in his books and films, examining archival materials and collecting local stories: The essay A Time of Dogs: Homecoming to a Foreign Country from 1999; the film Forward and Never Forget – a Ballad About Bulgarian Heroes for ZDF from 2007; and the novel Power and Resistance from 2015.

Mastering His Mother Tongue

“Since I was 14 or 15, it was clear to me that I was born to be a writer,” Trojanow told Metropole. He sees language “as wealth, as a tradition, and as the most important tool for understanding the world.” The Bulgarian language had an essential role in this. “Without much thought, it seemed strange not to use such a treasure,” he said. But he had never been to a Bulgarian school and didn‘t know how to read and write in Bulgarian. When he was 15, his grandmother sent him a Bukvar primer, and he began to learn. Over the years, she and his aunt sent him Bulgarian classics and he learned the language on his own without any help from his parents.

“By the time I graduated from the university, I had read the most important Bulgarian authors and had started translating them into German.”

A Multilingual Mind

“I write in German, but I write multilingually in German,” Trojanow explained, reaching for clarity. “This sounds like a paradox, but it is the everyday life of my writing.”

In our interview, he explained that in his head, he thinks in several languages. With Bulgarian as his original mother tongue, from time to time, he comes up with idiomatic expressions in Bulgarian that he needs to adapt to German. He sees this as an expansion of his language skills, provoking him to invent new formulations in German that correspond to what is created in his head through Bulgarian, or through English or another language. But he speaks Bulgarian rarely, only when he is in Bulgaria, or when he talks with his parents.

“It irritates me that I am not in complete control of the language; that I search for words; that I do not speak it as well as I speak German.” However, he doesn’t feel any emotional distance. Bulgarian is not “a foreign building where I am a guest.” But, he admits, it’s “an ambivalent ratio.”

As an author, Ilija Trojanow writes novels but also nonfiction books and travel guides. Furthermore, he translated many works by African authors and also published an anthology on African contemporary literature./(C) Thomas Dorn

The Balkans Begin at the Rennweg

Living in Vienna, he treasures the diversity of the city. “Vienna is currently one of the most multicultural cities in Europe,” Trojanow observed, “…the way I am, too.” It’s in the center of Europe, but with “a strong presence of the Balkans and the Orient.”

So what does this imply for the Bulgarians? He smiled. For a start, “the Balkans are a mountain range in Bulgaria – most people don’t even know that!” At which he launched into the old story of the Bled agreement, signed in 1947 by Georgi Dimitrov, a Bulgarian communist leader, and Josip Tito, a Yugoslav leader, that was to lead to unification in a new Balkan federal republic. The agreement was reversed after the Tito-Stalin split in 1948.

This Trojanow regrets. “I have always thought that this was a unique historical opportunity to create a diverse Balkan country,” he said, “with an abundance of different cultures, forms and traditions, but also with a community.” Today there are a lot of small countries which shows only “that nationalists have no sense of anything great,” he said. “The nationalists lack imagination.”

Ilija Trojanow rowing on the Danube./(C) Ilija Trojanow

His books are locally inspired and put foreign cultures, history and religions in a global context. They explore the consequences of climate change, the clash of civilizations, globalization, and give the reader the chance to re-examine cultural “otherness” from a political and social point of view. During our conversation, he points out that “the good thing about fiction is that it describes something specific, but with a desire to point out the universal. Through the concrete to the universal.”

There is no way to deal with current or future problems if we do not develop some strategies that build on past attempts. “There can be no realized utopia without pointing out the progressive moments in history,” he said.“And they are there.”

Bulgarians United?

In his books and documentary movies, he examines Bulgarian history from the perspective of today. He is one of the few who writes about the terror in Communist Bulgaria with all of its facets, tredding on real stories. This is something that has yet to find broader discussion in the country.

The predominant discussion exaggerates glorious legends while depicting the national tragedies as the obstacles that interfered with the society’s development.  Bulgarians complain of a lack of national ideals or a public spirit, and we were curious about his opinion. Other than joining forces against the Ottoman Empire, “Bulgarians were never really nationally united,” Trojanow explained. After 1878 and the founding of modern Bulgaria, developments were shaped more by more selfish interests. Still, there were periods of greatness: “Perhaps the most impressive era in the Bulgarian history was the time of the agrarians, and the anarchists, who had a great passion for freedom and social equality,” he said. “But even this was crushed by the court and the army. So I don’t see where this national spirit is.” Most people live in the clouds, “in einem Wolkenkuckucksheim,” in a world of fantasy. This is exactly my profession; it is literature that can enter into these illusions, using them in order to question them.

Trojanow often speaks out in interviews about the social and political problems in Bulgaria and criticizes people’s tendency to stare too much into their own culture, which creates only illusions and myths. And he doesn’t mince words: “Nostalgia is perhaps normal for a nation that has somehow to fill the hole of its own insignificance with a mythology that is too exaggerated,” he said. 

So as an observer and an international, he is often provocative, and a deliberately polarizing figure for Bulgarians; he wants to point out that the belief in exceptionalism can distort your ability to see things clearly. But by doing this, he also makes space for different points of view.

Mariya Tsaneva
Mariya is an artist and PhD student at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. She explores the presence of culture and history in the city and is interested in how public spaces can be transformed into narrative ones. She loves the small Viennese cinemas and always looks forward to the summer open-air film projections.

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