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Radichkov, Yordan

Yordan Radichkov
Renowned Bulgarian writer full of subversive insight

Adelina Angusheva and Galin Tihanov
Saturday January 31, 2004
The Guardian

Yordan Radichkov, who has died aged 74, was arguably the most significant voice of Bulgarian literature in the last third of the 20th century. Written predominantly before the collapse of communism in 1989, his works dramatically deviated from the rigid canon of socialist realism that dominated the period.

Strange and grotesque, often on the verge of the nonsensical and yet full of subversive insight, his prose led critics abroad to describe him as the Bulgarian Gogol or Kafka.

He is best known for his short stories, novellas, parables and children's books, which have been translated into more than 30 languages. He also left an indelible mark on modern Bulgarian drama and wrote the scripts of several classic Bulgarian films.

Radichkov was born into a poor family in the village of Kalimanitsa, in northwest Bulgaria. After an early bout of tuberculosis, he started out as a local news reporter in 1951, then worked as an editor for Narodna Mladezh [People's Youth], the official Young Communist newspaper (1952-55), and as a journalist on Vecherni Novini [Evening News] in Sofia (1955-59). He also contributed to several other newspapers, and Bulgarian Cinematography magazine.

Although his earliest works, Surtseto bie za khorata (The Heart Beats For the People, 1959), Prosti rutse (Simple Hands, 1961) and Oburnato nebe (A Sky Turned Upside Down, 1962), were written in the socialist-realist tradition, Radichkov soon adopted a new parabolic style. This was initially met with official animosity, and he was accused of escapism, primitivism, dark agnosticism and intellectual emptiness. But he persisted, and it was eventually accepted that the allegedly distorted picture of reality in his books was a sophisticated metaphor of disillusionment, and a form of restrained dissent that worked against the banality and bureaucratic routine of life under socialism.

Despite being a member of the Communist party, in his prose Radichkovdrew a subtle parody of the communist regime. The politics of his writing, however, was perhaps less significant than its warmth and casual wisdom, with its fear of dehumanisation and the shattered intimacy between man and nature, where one could no longer "recognise the voices of the birds".

A mixture of the fantastic and the real, Radichkov's works combined images of industrial civilisation with those of a remote mythical past, and were sometimes defined as a Balkan magic realism. His novel Baruten bukvar (Gunpowder Primer, 1969) was the first in Bulgaria to talk about the socialist revolution, not in the spirit of simplistic idealisation, but through the powerful blend of profanity, fantasy and folkloric wisdom.

His script for the socialist-realist film Goreshto pladne (Hot Noon, 1966), a simple story about a community's efforts to save a boy from a fast running train, was a success. The award-winning Posledno liato (The Last Summer, 1974) is possibly his most psychologically dramatic work - a parable of a man trying desperately to stay faithful to his own identity in a dynamically changing world.

His children's books, sometimes illustrated with his own abstract drawings, attracted readers all over the world. Malki zhabeshki istorii (Little Frogs' Stories) won the 1996 Hans Christian Andersen award for children's literature.

In addition to the highest Bulgarian awards for literature, theatre, and film, Radichkov also received the prestigious Italian prize Grinzane Cavour (1984) and the prize of the International Academy of the Arts in Paris (1993). A founding member, and first president (1984-91) of the Bulgarian-Swedish Association for Friendship, in 1988 he received the Swedish national Polar star award. In 2001, he was nominated for the Nobel prize for literature.

In the early 1970s, Radichkov became a government adviser in the council for cultural values. Early in 1989, President Mitterrand of France invited him, along with other Bulgarian intellectuals, to breakfast at the French embassy in Sofia, in a gesture seen as a signal of support for the dissident movement in the country.

The following year, in the first freely elected Bulgarian parliament, Radichkov became an MP for the Socialist (formerly Communist) party, but soon afterwards resigned in silent disagreement. In his last years, he was increasingly withdrawn from politics. His wife, and their son and a daughter, survive him.

Yordan Radichkov, writer, born October 24 1929; died January 21 2004