[Sandorf Passage; 2024]

Tr. from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

Sixteen years after the end of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria and the first multiparty elections, Bulgaria’s parliament established a commission in 2006 to examine and disclose public figures who collaborated with the communist state security services. Despite demands for a more sweeping declassification of files, the scope of the law was considerably limited due to powerful opposition—including by former operatives. But the commission’s findings proved shocking, nevertheless. A 2008 release exposed one agent who had begun secretly collaborating with the security services in 1969: a celebrated seventy-nine-year-old author by the name of Vera Mutafchieva.

Born in 1929 to an academic family in Sofia, Mutafchieva was an acclaimed novelist and screenwriter. She was also a prominent historian of the Ottoman era, and she drew upon this expertise in her 1967 novel, The Case of Cem. A classic of Bulgarian literature, the novel has now been translated for the first time into English by Angela Rodel, the most distinguished translator of Bulgarian to English today and winner of the 2023 International Booker Prize with author Georgi Gospodinov. The Case of Cem takes place in the fifteenth century, when the world was crudely split between East and West—not unlike the Cold War world in which the novel was written. In both times, the division between the two sides and their corresponding ideologies was treacherous, as Mutafchieva herself would find during democratic Bulgaria’s reckoning with its communist past.

A grand historical epic, The Case of Cem tells the story of the attempted rebellion and subsequent exile of Cem Sultan, son of Mehmed the Conqueror, who challenged his older brother Bayezid for control of the Ottoman Empire after their father’s death in 1481. The novel unfolds as a series of testimonies written in unembellished reportage by the witnesses, accomplices, advisors, and statesmen surrounding “the most significant international affair of the fifteenth century.” But what explains Mutafchieva’s preoccupation with Cem Sultan in 1960s Bulgaria? With a sense of portent nigh on apocryphal, Mutafchieva’s novel is in fact a story of the internal other: the stranger within, against whom we base our own self-image.

So, what makes this fifteenth-century Ottoman sultan so unusual, so sublimely other? When the reader first meets Cem in his role as provincial governor in the city of Konya, he’s described as “an unbroken stallion,” vigorous in spirit and beloved by his men. Unlike his cold and calculating brother, Cem fills his court with poets and singers. They live and breathe Persian poetry; every day in Cem’s court was “a great holiday of the spirit.” Cem is thus no ordinary leader, and even his closest companion Saadi, a Persian bard, describes him as “a poet who had gotten inopportunely mixed up in history.”

But Cem isn’t just unusual; he’s perceived as overtly “foreign” even by his own men. Cem’s mother is a Christian Serb, and Saadi wonders whether Cem has “more foreign blood than Turkish.” But soon enough, Cem’s perceived foreignness becomes all too real. After his uprising is quashed by Bayezid, Cem decides to flee to the Christian West and rally support in Rumelia (today’s Balkans). To escape, he must negotiate safe passage through Rhodes under the Knights Hospitaller. Cem fears the decisive step of exile, but Saadi comforts him that a “‘poet never belongs to anyone. . . . Our homeland is not of this world.’” Saadi, it turns out, is being overly idealistic.

Cem sets sail for Rhodes and thereafter spends the rest of his life in foreign lands, where Westerners stare at him with both fascination and disgust. In their Orientalist gaze, Cem comes from “a country the West knew nothing about” and is “shrouded in mystery.” To them, “the Oriental was not even a human being . . . they were the manure upon which our strength, trade, and culture flourished.” Mutafchieva emphasizes Cem’s foreignness through her use of “Turkisms”—such as baltacibashi, defterdar, divanhane, and selamlik—which Rodel preserves in her translation. No matter where he is, Cem will always be a foreigner: “a Serb or nonbeliever here, a Saracen or Moor among Christians.” He belongs nowhere.

Along his journeys, Cem repeatedly falls victim to the schemes of his Western captors, and Saadi laments Cem’s “laughable gullibility.” Eventually, Bayezid promises a fortune to the Knights to “protect” Cem, and the hero is sent to live out his days in the French estates of the Knights: a de facto imprisonment. There, Cem remains at risk of kidnapping and bids from rival powers, including Hungary, the Vatican, France, the Holy Roman Empire, and Venice. But, uniquely uncorrupted, Cem never seems to fully grasp their intentions.

As Cem’s sole companion throughout his exile, Saadi gives by far the longest series of testimonies, providing unique access to Cem’s thinking and everyday life. But Saadi has this access—in a remarkable element for a book published under the communist censors of 1960s Bulgaria—because he’s also Cem’s lover. Particularly in the context of the book’s publication, Cem’s queerness is an essential element of his otherness (many cite The Case of Cem as Bulgaria’s first gay novel). Saadi retrospectively explains the social meaning of queerness in the fifteenth century: “In Cem’s court, not only did we not find relationships between men unseemly, on the contrary: we were proud of them.” And it is Saadi’s love for Cem that allows him to be his faithful witness, as “only love causes you to feel through another person’s senses, to suffer his pain and to think his thoughts.”

The novel charts these men’s relationship, from its youthful passions fed by wine and poetry to their growing sense of alienation, disappointment, and even hatred. After Cem’s entourage is gradually winnowed away, he and Saadi grow accustomed to constant betrayal, suspicion, and fear, which takes a toll on them both. Initially hoping to rally a force against Bayezid, Cem eventually comes to accept the connivance of his Western captors and grows passive and uncaring, “a living corpse” whose dependence on Saadi grows more desperate, until their bond “is no longer love.” Saadi comes to resent having spent his life on Cem and the “irrevocably missed opportunities” of his own poetic work; in the end, he leaves Cem. Tragic as it may be, this story is an astonishingly complex depiction of a queer relationship for its time and place.

In the testimonies that constitute The Case of Cem, various witnesses scramble to justify their roles and motivations to the contemporary reader, as Cem gradually devolves into a source of influence and riches to fight over. Western powers scheme tirelessly against the Ottoman Empire, as well as between and within themselves. In their respective testimonies, the witnesses seek to set the record straight, some looking to rewrite history to cast themselves as heroes, while others seek exoneration. But strangely, we never hear from Cem.  

Why is it that Mutafchieva never allows Cem to speak? In the novel, Cem is all things—a pawn controlled by the West, a threat to Bayezid’s rule, a golden goose for his Christian captors, a legend for poets and troubadours—but never himself. He’s described variously as “a hapless prisoner,” “a victim of court intrigues,” “a symbol of unprecedented power,” “an inexhaustible font of gold,” and “the ultimate bargaining chip in international relations.” He’s never perceived for his humanity, as “a living being with a fate, will, and intentions of his own.” At his core, Cem is an eternal other, a mirror to the desires and schemes of those who seek to possess him, “the canvas upon which they embroidered their whims.”

What lies beneath this image of the internal other as embodied by Cem? Saadi goes so far as to describe Cem as “a tragic amalgam of East and West, an incestuous infusion of Christianity and Islam.” Stereotypical as this formulation may be, Mutafchieva is comparing Cem to that great other of Europe: the Balkans. In her telling, the Balkans are everything that Western Europe is not: “It did not know nations made up of a single people; in its boundless empires dozens of languages were spoken and several faiths professed, alongside quite a few heresies.” And, like Cem, the region becomes a colonial object to be bartered over.

In this novel, Mutafchieva was advancing an argument about the West’s internal othering vis-à-vis the Balkans—a set of ideas that would be defined as “Balkanism” by the Bulgarian scholar Maria Todorova in the 1990s. Rather than recast Cem’s story itself, Mutafchieva uses this historical figure to reinterpret the origin of Western ascendency. At the time of Cem’s affair in the fifteenth century, Western Europe was in a long period of stagnation, split between tiny warring states, only nominally united under the Pope, and having long forgotten the received wisdom of Antiquity. But this knowledge was still alive and well elsewhere: “In the West a king was rarely literate, while not only in Byzantium, but even in its offshoots such as Bulgaria and Serbia, rulers were poets and men of letters.”

But for the West, the “free thinking of the European East,” with its accompanying ethnic and religious pluralism, its economic flourishing, and its subordination of the church to secular power, was perceived as deeply threatening. Counterintuitively, it was the Ottoman takeover of Byzantium and the Balkans that would allow for the rise of the West—which has arguably lasted through today. But the sacrifice that was offered up at the altar to the West’s primacy was, of course, the Balkans. Looking back, Mutafchieva argues that the “liberation of the newly conquered Balkans would never again be as easily achievable as it was during the time of the Case of Cem.”

Western scholars have since posited many theories for the relative underdevelopment of the Balkans, advancing “Balkanist” arguments based on “historical fatalism or geographic predestination,” which position the Balkans as Europe’s internal other, unable to escape its fate. But no, Mutafchieva asserts, this outcome was not the result of fate. The West made the implicit choice “to inhibit the development of the European East, leaving it behind, even condemning it to centuries of suffering.” That choice would leave the region under the colonial domination of foreign empires for the next four centuries.

When the countries of the Balkans eventually won their independence through anti-colonial struggles, new debates arose around who did and did not belong in the new states. While rooted in anti-colonial discourse, this was—at its core—yet another form of internal othering. Similar questions resurfaced after the fall of communism in the late twentieth century and the end of Soviet domination in the Eastern Bloc. Who would belong in the public space of the new democracies? As one answer, many countries pursued a process of lustration, whereby former members of state communist parties, former members of the security services, or civilian collaborators were variously identified, exposed, or sometimes barred from public service.

Such was the case for Mutafchieva, who died the year after her exposure. While conceivably well-intentioned, these lustration processes offered up simple truths and simple answers to a deeply complex period and thorny questions about the methods of oppression, coercion, and deprivation used during the communist period to elicit cooperation. Mutafchieva refused to discuss her case in her final months, and we may never know her true motives for collaborating. Any evaluation, however, must consider that her father’s academic work had been banned by communist censors and both her husband and brother were declared defectors, as it was a widespread practice for the security services to target the families of such “enemies of the people” for collaboration. But who shall be the judge in Mutafchieva’s trial?

It is a bitter irony that the internal othering that Mutafchieva identified in the West’s attitudes to the Balkans would come to haunt her, too. Indeed, the last century of history in the European East may be read as a continuous march toward social homogenization—the increasing delineation between Us and Them—as these states have sought to recast who does and does not belong. The tragedy is that even while Balkanist attitudes remain in the West, it is Europe’s East that has disowned its history of multiculturalism in exchange for homogeneity and hostility to its internal others. Cem’s story reminds us that it wasn’t fated to be so.

Eamon McGrath is a writer and critic currently based in Brooklyn. He writes about literature from Southeastern Europe on Instagram @balkanbooks. His work has appeared in Balkanist, The Upper New Review, and La Piccioletta Barca, among other places.

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