The Difficult Topos In-Between: The East Central European Cultural Context as a Post-Coloniality
"Why should one go to Germany when one can simply imagine it?" Crazy asked. " A better Germany at that. Without Germans...." Crazy, who became an expert at falsifying prescriptions and breaking into drugstores for a bit of stuff; with whom we used to sit at the same desk and founded a party against Maxim Gorky.
Viktor Paskov, Germany: a Dire Tale
The post-colonial perspective in literary scholarship has become a popular discipline in academic research. The post-colonial paradigm serves as an organizing principle of a socio-political inquiry of power relations between center and periphery, and their reflection in literature and other arts. Scholarly journals such as World Literature Today (Vol. 65/2, 1992), PMLA (Vol. 110/1, 1995), and Canadian Review of Comparative Literature/Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée (Vol. 22/3-4, 1995) dedicated special issues to the theory and practice of post-colonial studies. The methodology of this approach aims at closer integration of literary studies with culture and politics.
The post-colonial studies are still largely restricted to African and Asian cultures. The application of post-colonial methodology is still controversial when directed to East Central Europe, formerly classed under the falsely homogeneous label of 'the Eastern bloc.' Yet the socio-political dynamics of the region indicates that it should be approached as a contemporary post-coloniality. The time frame of such studies can be delimited by such events as the disintegration of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires and the fall of the Soviet empire.
The ongoing debate about the appropriateness of such an approach has to do with the legitimacy of treating East Central Europe as a post-coloniality, given its geographical location and the status of formal independence despite the ideological and economic supremacy of the former Soviet Union. Also, at issue are the well-defined national and cultural identities of the
countries belonging to what Virgil Nemoianu has called the Central European ethos, constructed over the centuries. One also has to deal with the refusal of the East Central European intellectual circles to acknowledge their position of subordination. The result is a coexistence of a new wave of nationalistic attitudes, 'cosmopolitanism' as a symbol of 'Europeanness' (but not 'internationalism' compromised after years of totalitarian exploitation of the term), and prejudice towards and scapegoating of the Other.
My intent is to show that the historical and cultural binaries Bulgaria/the East and Bulgaria/the West can be decoded as a center/periphery paradigm....which need not be viewed as an either/or in present conditions.
An equally relevant reason is the methodological inadequacy of post-colonial theory when directly applied to the region of East Central Europe. Significantly, most post-colonial anthologies (e.g., the immensely popular Postcolonial Reader edited by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffith, and Helen Tiffin, Routledge 1995) entirely disregard the region. But in their post-colonialist issues, World Literature Today and Canadian Review of Comparative Literature/Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée dedicated sections to the literatures of East Central Europe. The articles are primarily descriptive of the post-communist transformations and new trends in society and culture, with theory playing a minor role. Whenever theory is discussed, it is directed towards the question of postmodernism. In fact, postmodernism in East Central Europe (as opposed to post-colonialism)has become a central theoretical topos, a key to belonging if not within the economic structures, then at least within the cultural structures of Europe. Here, however, one should again emphasize the heterogeneity of the region and differences in the degree of what Steven Tötösy calls self-reference and self-awareness. For instance, Bulgarian intellectuals have manifested an inferiority complex, i.e., they take their peripheral position for granted, while at the same time they show the desire to belong and somehow to penetrate the center.
On the other hand, the attention of Slavists in North America has remained generally constrained to textual analysis of the Russian canon. The 'theory revolution' which occurred in the English and Comparative Literature departments has had little impact on the field of Slavic and East European Studies. Slavic journals continue to focus almost exclusively on Russian culture, with a small percentage of articles devoted to Polish and Ukrainian developments. Credit must be given to women Slavists who have undertaken some exciting projects in reevaluating and rediscovering the culture and literature of that largely non-Russian region. For instance, Professor Helena Goscilo and her collaborators have produced a series of studies on gender and body politics and on marginalized writings in Russia and East Central Europe in the communist and post-communist era.
To reiterate: the East Central European milieu has a specific identity which calls for an investigation from the standpoint of post-colonial theory. Tötösy de Zepentek has provided a description defining the region's geographico-historical and politico-cultural specificity. While he acknowledges a state of colonialism under the communist regime enforced and maintained by the Soviet Union, he rejects the traditional colonialist categories and speaks of a 'filtered' type of colonialism which is manifested as a 'secondary' colonization 'through ideological, political, social, cultural, and other means.' This distinction is necessary if we are to account for such countries as Romania, which on the surface maintained a relative distance from, even hostility towards, the Soviet power structures, yet appropriated some of the quintessential totalitarian policies. The concept of a 'filtered' colonialism may also be appropriate in dealing with some former members of the Eastern bloc since there was a difference in the degree of actual and hidden pressure exerted by the center of power among the different countries (cf. Deltcheva 1995). Tötösy's analysis obviously takes into account the arguments of East Central European intellectuals strongly objecting to the suggestion of cultural colonialism being perpetrated by the former USSR.
While some intellectuals' rejection of a Soviet center of cultural colonization is adamant, Tötösy suggests that there is no such objection with regards to the existence of a Western center of power. In fact, there is a conscious attempt to emphasize and identify the Western influence in East Central Europe. France and Germany are the primary forces of such intellectual colonization. There is also the relatively new colonialism of American popular culture which not only enters into a belated yet powerful competition with the high culture of France and Germany, but also creates tensions within the context of the Panslav debate in which some scholars have engaged (cf. Tötösy, Longinovic).
Finally, it should be pointed out that the situation described above did not arise exclusively during the years of totalitarian rule after World War II. In fact, the political, economic, and cultural influence exerted on the lands of East Central Europe from the East and from the West is an invariable which has left a strong impact on the histories of these lands. For a Balkan culture like Bulgaria, being on the crossroads between Europe and Asia, the Islamic world and Christendom, it has been a major component in the course of its national self-identification during a long and turbulent history.
Tomislav Longinovic's monograph, Borderline Culture: The Politics of Identity in Four Twentieth-Century Slavic Novels (Arkansas 1993), focuses on the subversiveness of the 'borderline' as a parameter in the East Central European psyche and presents a broad panorama of the 'Slavic' mediating identity through the discourse of four major Slavic novelists whose works were produced, either in exile or semi-legally, during the high point of communist power: the Russian Mikhail Bulgakov, the Pole Witold Gombrowicz, the Serb Danilo Kis, and the Czech Milan Kundera. Longinovic ends with a chapter on "The Rise of the Nation" subtitled 'From the Margin to the Center.'
Tötösy acknowledges that while one can treat the current cultural situation in East Central Europe as post-colonial, certain aspects set it apart from post-colonialism in other regions. Due to its geographical location and historical developments, East Central Europe should be viewed as a periphery on two sides: the Western cultural side which has exerted a strong influence there, and the Eastern side, i.e., Soviet Russia and its multifaceted power. This second 'center-periphery field,' however, is problematic, claims Tötösy, and should not be understood as a straightforward relation of subordination. The cultural leverage of Soviet Russia was not primary but secondary, he says, 'via political, social, economic, etc. leverage and power.' This places East Central European cultures in a mediating position on the periphery, which is expressed in their focus on self-referentiality and sovereignty. 'This same peripheral position of [East] Central European culture also possesses the locus of mediation of cultural knowledge from within via assimilation and creative alteration of cultural knowledge...from other centers such as the German or French cultures.' The situation is further complicated by the fact that the cultural influence of the West is not a post-Cold War development but has been ongoing for centuries. Moreover, the conscious attempt on the part of East Central Europe to emulate the West is not viewed by the inhabitants as colonialism but as a process of integration. This ambiguous situation leads Tötösy to say 'it is possible to speak, in and from North America, of a unified "Eurocentrism," when in Europe itself and from the locus of East Central Europe there is a marked center/periphery situation within politics and economics as well as in culture and literature."'According to Tötösy, prior to 1989 East Central Europe could be described as a mediating peripherality, doubly marginalized, with respect to two competing centers of ideological domination politico-economic (the Soviet Union) and cultural (the West). Tötösy calls this peculiar geopolitical and cultural disposition 'in-between peripherality,' 'a specific and mediating altérité.'
In his discussion of the cultural situation in East Central Europe Tötösy draws attention to another parameter defining the literary production in the region already in the 1980s: 'the narrative of change,' a concept incorporating 'the function of culture in literary texts which contain incisive discursive change(s).' The term 'incisive' designates 'thematic, linguistic, etc. features in the literatures of the region which are new in form and content.' In Tötösy's analysis, 'the narrative of change' is best represented in the choice of a postmodernist urban setting, an apolitical/ahistorical narrative technique, a surprisingly high degree of sexuality, and a new level of subjectivism which has been labelled as 'the new sensibility' in current East Central European literary criticism.
Taking as a point of departure Tötösy's understanding of East Central Europe as a mediating periphery which is also focused towards self-referentiality and sovereignty as a means of its legitimation (i.e., Europeization) and Longinovic's psychopolitical treatment of earlier subversive Slavic narrative, I would like to discuss how this pervasive 'in-betweenness' is reflected in the literary works of a contemporary Bulgarian writer Viktor Paskov. This choice is appropriate in that Paskov himself is an 'in-between' case. While labelled from the very beginning as an innovator by the Bulgarian critics (in itself a negative evaluation for anyone familiar with literary discourse under communism), he nevertheless had an opportunity to be published and to gain popularity among the readers, and even was the recipient of literary awards. Moreover, his first novel, A Ballad about Georg Henih (Balada za Georg Henih, 1987) was adapted for a Bulgarian-Czechoslovakian film titled You, Who Are Up There (Ti, koito si na nebeto, 1989, directed by Docho Bogdanov). The film received favorable reviews throughout Europe. At the same time, all of Paskov's narratives are anything but illustrations of the method of socialist realism. On the one hand, they possess a parable-like, fairy tale quality; on the other, they abound in Biblical references and are replete with barely disguised social criticism. The critics praised the humanist tone in the artist's treatment of universal issues such as love, good and evil, and the transcendence of art, but were unanimously critical of a certain extremism in his subjective and fragmented presentation which constituted a violation of the principles of socialist realism.
I see Paskov's prose as a border narrative rather than merely as littérature engagée or a denouncement of the totalitarian regime. Paskov belongs to the generation of intellectuals who, while superficially brainwashed by the communist ideological center, were eyeing the West as a cultural alternative. He was a graduate of the German language high school and later finished his post-secondary education in Leipzig. As an artist, he is acutely sensitive to the two powerful spheres of influence, West and East, and his stylistic devices and techniques reflect his struggle to construct an East Central European intellectual identity.
Before proceeding with an investigation of Paskov's prose a brief aside is in order. I will limit my observations to Bulgaria although I believe that many of them apply to the entire cultural area of East Central Europe.
By virtue of its geographical position, Bulgaria has existed between the hammer and the anvil of East and West. In the nineteenth century, during the struggle for national and religious independence, the cultural influence of Russia and the Western European states was welcomed as an effective means of opposing the Ottoman rule. Young people were sent to study at Russian or German universities where they encountered diverse philosophical and social ideas. After the liberation in 1878, the political life of the new Bulgarian state was defined by a series of alternative cabinets of Russophiles followed by Russophobes (i.e., those who favored Western influence), each gaining temporary authority. A similar battle for power raged on the cultural scene. The 'old guard,' led by the patriarch of Bulgarian literature, Ivan Vazov, defended the artistic principles of realism and naturalism whose great representatives were to be found, among others, in Russia. The proponents of the 'realist school' were under the influence of Russian culture.
I propose to look at Paskov's prose as a border narrative rather than merely as littérature engagée or a denouncement of the totalitarian regime.
The 'young lions', on the other hand, had gone West, to Germany and France. Having been exposed to the tremendous fin de siòcle intellectual activity in philosophy, science, and literature, these poets, artists, and critics desired a modernization of Bulgarian culture. They transplanted with fanatic fervor the avant-garde trends which had swept Germany and France (see Ulrich Weisstein's book). From the point of view of traditional Bulgarian literary historiography, this phenomenon was a dynamic process resulting in the creation of a specific cultural identity of a'new Bulgaria.' Nikita Nankov suggests that the so-called 'Bulgarian modernism' is an artificial transplant of foreign models and paradigms with epigonic consequences. Indeed, an argument can be made that the Bulgarian intellectuals who eyed the West were battling inferiority complexes as a consequence of their status as Other. Their eventual immersion in the culture of the West, rather than integrating them to the center, reinforced their state of in-betweenness. Most became exiles for life, neither part of the Western firmly established identity, nor belonging to the unstable Bulgarian identity which they consciously sought to redefine. Ironically, in the postmodernist era this condition was diagnosed by another Bulgarian in-between, Julia Kristeva, who gave it the famous definition 'Etrangers à nous mêmes.'
Having said this, it is not my intention here to dismiss many Bulgarian works which have become part of the canon of Bulgarian literature. My intent is to show that the historical and cultural binaries Bulgaria/the East (Turkey, Russia) and Bulgaria/the West (Germany, France; to a lesser degree England) can be decoded as a center/periphery paradigm. Due to the socio-political conditions in the communist and, earlier, Ottoman period, however, these binaries were seen as an either/or. In other words, there was no doubt as to Bulgaria's status as a margin; the issue was only of the choice of a single center towards which to gravitate.
I submit that at present, the Kierkegaardian either/or hypothesis is no longer applicable. In the new scheme the one invariable, Bulgaria's status as a periphery, must be accounted for in relation to the two centers of powerful colonizing forces. Here is how these tensions make their appearance in the mitigating mechanisms of Viktor Paskov's prose.
From his very first short stories in the late 1970s and especially in his more mature novelistic prose of the 1980s, Paskov's works are charged with an awareness of his ambivalent position as a writer of the margin. His artistic position orients him toward polydirectional goals, thus rendering a polyphonic quality to his prose. On one level, his aim is to fragment irreparably the narrative of communist reality by subverting it. On another level, he admits that the task is impossible and he enters into a dialogue with the socialist realist discourse by appropriating its empty bureaucratic-epic style and juxtaposing it to his subjective and unreliable autobiographical narrative. His narration is also mediated by the postmodernist aesthetics of spatio-temporal violation, generic bricolage, and an incessant intertextual dialogue with the cultural artefacts of Western civilization. At the same time, there is in Paskov an awareness that the centrifugal forces from both sides are strong and ambiguous. These forces are physically personified by the numerous authoritative figures: incompetent bureaucrats, threatening policemen, indifferent social workers who interfere in the life of Paskov's protagonists. They construct the realistic layer of an oppressive society, subordinated to the ideological Soviet center which can only be evaded by means of the author's flight of the imagination and the power of his art. However, unlike the authors of the anti-communist littérature engagée produced in the past ten or fifteen years, Paskov remains a pained mediator. He offers a re-experiencing of the totalitarian past and a life-affirming albeit surreal triumph of music and art, and he does it through an intertextual dialogue with Mikhail Bulgakov, clinging to hope expressed in Bulgakov's 'Manuscripts don't burn!'
In his 1987 novella, "Juvenile Killings" ["Nevrûstni ubijstva"], Paskov creates a shocking representation of an imaginary world permeated by pure evil in which the history of literary movements and genres is conflated to evoke a chronotope of sheer horror. From the fairy tale to the Gothic novel, using irony, parody, grotesque, and allusion, the writer-murderer-protagonist Alexander constructs a surrealist setting in which the absurd reigns supreme. In the course of the narrative the boundary between narration and the narrated is gradually blurred until the narrative itself is swallowed in the abyss of evil symbolized by the parodied folkloric image of the vampire, speaking in a grotesque Creole form of Bulgarian and Romanian. On a meta level, the text itself acquires a degree of autonomy through its positioning against other artistic texts: the insect in the basement where the little Alexander is confined evokes Kafka, the tyrant-patriarch in all his repulsive naturalism beckons to García-Márquez, the perverted dwarf by the lake seems to be taken directly out of Dürrenmatt, and the linguistic virtuosity is reminiscent of Thomas Mann. The influence of Bulgakov's grotesque portrayal of the bureaucratic mechanism in the Soviet state has already been mentioned. The text of the Bible resonates not only throughout this novella but it is the primary source for Paskov's postmodernist reworking of his story of the fate of Job in "Martina" .
In his later and more mature novels, Ballad about Georg Henih [Balada za Georg Henih, 1987] and Germany, a Dire Tale [Germanija, mrûsna prikazka, 1993], Paskov employs the genre of the quasi-autobiography to re(de)construct a reality not so long gone. His Ballad is a parable-like instance of apolitical subjectivizing of one's personal history at a time of radical political changes. The author masterfully employs a double narratorial point of view that of the naive child and the wise adult to present the urban setting of post-World War II, post-revolutionary Bulgaria. In this Bulgarian setting, however, nothing is unequivocal. The pervasive Soviet colonizing authority is ingeniously deafened by the disillusioned drunken stupor of a former communist guerrilla fighter, the constant illegal crackling of Radio London, and the incessant dreams of a family to emigrate to America. The narrative is strikingly fragmented and doubly mediated. The political dimension is subdued in favor of a universalizing statement about the relation between the mutable and the immutable. Implicitly, we are drawn into a fictional world which visualizes the struggle of the artist, personified in the Christ-like image of the 'master' Georg Henih who transcends earthly concerns and rises towards the state of blessedness through music.
The idea of the artist's mediating position is continued with unparallelled force in Paskov's second novel, Germany, a Dire Tale. Dedicated 'To my dead friends,' it is Paskov's most ambivalent and personal work. Not surprisingly, it was initially published in France and only afterwards, having received recognition there, found its legitimation in Bulgaria. The book was awarded the Hermòs literary prize for 1993. The once young and idealistic 'tsar Viktor' of the Ballad is no longer a naive and pure child; much of the illusion and magic is gone. The picaresque travelogue form which Paskov employs dramatizes his protagonist's attempts to overcome the margin and penetrate the center. This involves a double ordeal: on the one hand, he needs to detach himself from the center of the Soviet ideological domination (his dream to go to Germany); on the other, to accommodate himself to the center of Western civilization (hence his almost obsessive ambition in studying German). While on the level of the plot the voyage is directed towards East Germany, ideologically the journey is oriented to the symbolic topos of Germany as symbolic of the West: hence all the cultural and literary citations refer to Goethe, Schiller, Rilke, Spengler, Nietzsche, Böll. The bathetic resolution of his goals on German soil ( his ambition to become a writer receives a blow) is all the more painful. The tragic consequences of lost illusions could result in a melodrama, but the writer's merciless self-irony prevents that.
In the seventeen pages of the opening chapter, Paskov provides a kaleidoscopic vision of the tragic dead-end situation of an entire generation. The year is 1968, immediately following the Prague Spring and the failed attempt of another country 'in-between' to overcome the domination of the Soviet center. The place is Sofia at its most vulnerable state: hosting the International Youth Festival and symbolically for a week gaining the status of a center of communist bonding. The protagonists are Paskov's dead friends, their entire histories momentarily conflated in a chaotically fragmented literary montage and filtered through the unreliable faculty of human memory. The disharmonic outpour of flashbacks is held together by the main protagonist's much-repeated phrase: 'Good-bye, my friend. You didn't deserve to die.'
In these first pages of the novel, the entire cultural atmosphere of Bulgaria in the late 1960s is evoked: the raids of the communist police, the infatuation with the Beatles, the liberating effects of the sexual revolution, the shame of the forced intervention in Czechoslovakia, obsession with the West, fascination with Nietzsche, contempt for the politically correct communist morality, the allure of alcohol and drug intoxication. This minimodel of cosmopolitanism finds its natural closure in three capitalized words: 'LOVE, LOVE, LOVE!' with the clarification: 'In spite of life everything is love!' These phrases convey the idea that the tragedy of every protagonist, male and female, is ultimately anchored in their border identity, their efforts to belong to a center of power and the doomed outcomes of these efforts. The realization that this is so is rendered by an orthographic trick. The final words of chapter one are the novel's final words, too. With one crucial difference: instead of the original English spelling, they appear now through the mediating Cyrillic transliteration and a humorously distorted Bulgarianized pronunciation.
Paskov demonstrates that the colonizing jurisdiction of both the East and the West can be equally ruthless. Thus, Katia commits suicide cursing her prospectless existence in a country without freedom and Gofi is killed by a colonel for inadvertently blocking his way, while Iki becomes a direct victim of the Soviet ideological mechanism and dies somewhere in Georgia, and Bubi is found in the gutter in 1986, after years of professional repression and personal abuse for being gay. Three other friends become victims of the Western center: Zina dies during an abortion after a one-night stand with an anonymous Finn, while Crazy overdoses on heroin during a party where 'fifty people were dancing and fucking to the sounds of psychedelic music while you were dying on the sofa like a pathetic Petronius.' The struggle for supremacy between the two centers finds a tragico-ironic resolution in the freak death of Liupi, 'who was recruited [by the cops] already in school and who was supposed to protect us from the other cops! Who believed in the disgusting gibberish of some Bulgarian Dzerdzhinsky about the clean hands, fiery heart, and cool judgement!' Liupi is found dead in Vienna 'on a side street close to the railway station with a poker stuck in his left eye.' These initial short episodes set up the pattern for the protagonist's subsequent journey in search for his identity: 'I was the only one who wanted to be a writer. The others wanted to be Jimmy Hendrix.'
In his discussion of 'the narrative of change,' Tötösy devotes particular attention to the explicit sexuality which in his opinion dominates it. In fact, Paskov is one of the examples he cites in support of his thesis. Germany is indeed shocking in the way it depicts sexuality. A review of the book by the Academie de sciences de France speaks of the 'dirty sexual extrications' in which the novel abounds. The novel indeed displays a lack of a female perspective on the hegemony of the 'male gaze.' A feminist reading of Paskov's text is likely to expose his misogynist perspective reflected in two recurrent gestures of the protagonist vis-a-vis his female characters: he rapes them and leaves them. Moreover, throughout his oeuvre, most of Paskov's women either whine or entirely lack a voice.
Within the framework of in-between peripherality, however, sex can also have another interpretation. In Germany, Paskov uses sex as a metaphor for his rebellious struggle to overcome the periphery. It is his personal gesture of identity affirmation. Notably, in the initial chapter the only friend who does not die is the Komsomol leader Nastasia (with her un-Bulgarian, Russian-sounding name). Nastasia is Viktor's final sexual conquest before his epic journey begins. The scene is brief and utterly disgusting. Nastasia is abused both physically and verbally. At the same time, in mid-sentence Paskov manages to achieve a subtle transition from the literal sexual act to a kind of a metaphorical reconceptualization. Nastasia and Viktor disappear and what is foregrounded is the tragic hopelessness of the status quo and the quasicomic struggle of the marginal for a voice: 'and when my dark future (which I carried in my even more enraptured head) met with your bright future (deep in your womb, reaching as far as your neck) when I entirely sank in the insatiable abyss there was a thunder, an explosion, an eruption, as if ten katiushas went off at once and my entire nineteen-year-old hot desperation poured inside you.' Viktor's momentary triumph is as short-lived and as futile as the episode itself. His subsequent sexual exploits in Germany are equally brutal, mechanical, and devoid of any inner satisfaction. Initially, he tries to gain some self-respect by highlighting his status as an artist, but he soon realizes that the only relevant factor is financial prosperity which leads to a status of power. The novel ends on a note of resignation. Unlike most narratives constructed as a long flashback, Paskov refuses to provide closure. The only hint given to the reader is the protagonist's ultimate realization that he is doomed to the unstable stability of the in-betweenness.
The political and economic changes which are now shaping the post-colonial East Central Europe will inevitably affect the cultural identity of the region. An even greater differentiation among the countries will probably occur. There is a clear indication that Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are moving closer and closer towards the powerful Western center of influence. At the same time, Russia's own economic and political transmutations cannot be disregarded, despite the loss of its status of superpower. While political and economic trends are powerful shapers of identity, the construction and redefinition of the cultural identity of East Central Europe and especially of the Balkans is a long and complex process. There are still many questions which need to be addressed and reconceptualized. The post-colonial perspective provides insights not only in matters of 'in-between peripherality' and 'the narrative of change,' but also in issues having to do with nationalism and ethnic tolerance, gender construction and body politics.
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