Publisher : Ciela
Publication date : April 2008
Mikhail Veshim graduated from Sofia University in 1982 with a degree in journalism. Ever since, he has been working for the satirical weekly Bulgarian newspaper Sturshel and is now its editor-in-chief. Alongside his work as a journalist, Mikhail Veshim is the author of hundreds of short stories, a few books and autobiographical notes. Even though his works have been translated in many languages, he is mostly known in Eastern countries. Indeed, in the “Anthology of World Humour” published in Vietnam in 2002, his work appears alongside world masters such as Mark Twain and Woody Allen.
The English Neighbour is his latest book and a best-seller in Bulgaria. The idea for the book came to him four years ago, while he was vacationing in Kamchiya, Varna region. There, he met an Englishman who ended up being the inspiration for the main character. Initially a series, the story became a longer piece, then a radio play, then a television script (“I’m waiting for it to enter the production stage”), then, finally, a novel.
The village Plodorodno lies somewhere in Bulgaria. Its inhabitants are in great shape but have no will to work. They don’t want to make money by toiling the land but by playing the lottery. Thus, the tomatoes they eat are Turkish, the carrots Macedonian and the traditional schnapps Scottish. The Scottish schnapps in served in the local bar named London, where Nottingham Forest is a regular visitor.
One fine day, a true Englishman buys a house and settles in Plodorodno. He also buys a tractor to till the fallow land. While he works the land, his neighbours work on innovative ideas… How comes that, after a while, Her Majesty’s subject makes a paper hat out of the pages of The Guardian, curses the British Parliament and criticizes the monarchy?
“[…] I don’t like that Englishman… If he were Russian, you could trust him, he would be a bother… but that one… Mayor, isn’t he sent here by the MI6 to spy on us?
– What would he spy on here?
– The English have always had stakes on the Balkans! They are imperialists!
– Shturbanov, in theory you are right!, said the Mayor to calm him down. But the reality is quite different. We are now united, both countries are members of NATO, of the European Union… It is a united Europe, Shturbanov!
– We shouldn’t give up on our national interest for the sake of the European Union!”
“For fifteen years we have been living in a so called democracy! But is our life better today then before? Then, there were no beggars and junkies, everyone was entitled to free education and healthcare… The State provided work to all and there were no poor and sick people… And now, we have starving people everywhere and no one to give them a piece of bread! […] We have become the servants of foreign interests!, Shturbanov continued. Foreign agents spy on our country! The Americans are to open a military base! We sold our sovereignty and have become an American state!”
Plodorodno (meaning fertile, rich) is a small Bulgarian village whose inhabitants try their best to make their lives “Western”. One of them is a heavy metal skinhead who listens to Metallica and Iron Maiden and covers his body with tattoos so that he can compete for the Guinness World Record. Another, an earnest football fan, names his cattle after Premier League players, watches and bets on all games and goes as far as renaming himself Nottingham Forest. All the inhabitants gather in the local bar “London” managed by a young woman named Gloria. Her husband moved to London for work and ever since she lhas led a London life listening to Elton John, serving hamburgers, hot-dogs, bacon and eggs and whiskey and she wants to learn English.
The mayor of Plodorodno is very ambitious and wants to make his village the best representation of of a European village in order to attract investors. The inhabitants are very inventive : they produce the fake whiskey which is sold in the local bar; the school director (where there are no pupils) and a former army commander develop a satellite positioning program to monitor the cattle (quite inefficiently, it turns out); they start producing Viagra pills which cause casualties. Unfortunately noone, except for the old lady Grandma Mara, wants to till the fertile land of Plodorodno.
John Jones, a 61 year old Englishman, settles in the village. Originally from Manchester, he has travelled to Bulgaria a few times before on holidays and has decided to move there after retirement. He trades his small second floor apartment for an old house and its yard in Plodorodno. That Englishman happens to be more Bulgarian than the Bulgarians themselves. He starts tilling his own land and soon after his neighbour’s. He plants his own pesticide-free truck garden, whereas his neighbours buy fruit and vegetables from the local supermarket. On his own, after the hired help abandons him, he undertakes the restoration of his house. With the help of Grandma Mara, he learns how to make yogurt, cheese and ketchup.
John becomes the attraction of the village. He is named citizen of honour of Plodorodno and inherits the former distillery, inoperative since the end of the communist era. Through him, the mayor tries to establish relations with Manchester in order to attract investors. Still, to most inhabitants, John seems to be a bit unhinged. He was trapped in a divorce when he bought his house and he happens to be in the wrong place at all times. Therefore, he is an easy target for the locals. But John soon gets used to the Bulgarian ways: he starts drinking, stops working and generally lives up to the local stereotypes. But John attracts a new business to Plodorodno: a herbal laboratory replaces the distillery. People start working again and new foreigners settle down. Plodorodno thus becomes a “global village”.