THE OBSESSIVELY BULGARIAN PETAR UVALIEV
Lately especially with the advent of Haine’s wondrous month of May many were reminded of Petar Uvaliev. Around and on May 24th even the electronic media would grant him air time to speak from his London studio (if he would not be in Bulgaria) about this most needed holiday and about his daily Cyrillic, and the printed media would publish the traditional essay on our native culture. The mass media quickly gets accustomed to using certain people on certain specific occasions. This however is a long way from the real discovery of these people which guarantees the attention of the listeners.
As member of the Bulgarian Section of the BBC almost from its setting up Petar Uvaliev soon starts his own radio programme known for decades as Five Minutes with Peter Uvaliev. These short weekly talks are a symbol of the tragic absurdities infesting the passing century including two totalitarian systems of incomparably diabolical nature, a cold war, let alone the hot ones! That is why they are dramatically fateful for both subjects participating in the event : the Speaker and the Listener.
On the one hand the emigrant branded as an escapee never to return stands before the steel dandelion of the microphone doomed to cosmic loneliness and with the wind addresses a listener whom he not only does not know but has no hope of ever meeting. He talks about everything short of politics and mostly about his theory of the “pegs”: man is a fragile sapling which in order to withstand the winds needs a peg to be supported by, and pegs are all those things which our confidence rests upon, that is which are worthy of being praised. Thus the multifaceted I of the Speaker becomes a Voice. A Voice that produces a Voice, speaks a Language and inevitably the Language itself starts a conversation with the Speaker of the language especially if they are adherents to the principles of structuralism and turns the mono-logue into a poly-logue. Such an ether roaming of Language cannot but remind us of the theological concept of ecclesia peregrina - the wondering church that has no eparchies and no income, which after years the Speaker can identify himself with.
And the Listener is simply bewitched : by their own audacity to listen to a banned and jammed radio station and by the powerful breathing of the universe whose tides carry to the parched coast both sacred words as a BRIDGE and unordinary thoughts vested in the shining armour of a close, familiar but enigmatic and bafflingly moving language.
In the beginning of the 1970s, however totally unexpectedly ( by divine providence and with the blessing of transitory rulers) Petar Uvaliev starts visiting the country now and then with guest-performances in hotel Sofia’s restaurant though being totally aware of the fact that the people he meets are afraid , in his own words, as devils of talking with him. And he does not feel in Bulgaria but in outer space..
This sequence of events remains a secret for the large circle of his loyal listeners and thank God, because he does remain loyal to them.
It is in 1992 that Petar Uvaliev is formally invited to visit Bulgaria where within the celebration of May 24th he becomes Doctor Honoris Causa of Sofia University for his long years of radio work (because of the almost total ignorance about the rest of his activity). His academic speech at the award ceremony as well as the lecture prepared for the occasion entitled The parallel Europe are events with such wide repercussions in the community that his month’s stay in the country has exclusive media coverage more befitting the guest visit of a Martian (in his own words infused with bitter irony.) The mass media discover him before everybody else - for themselves and for new generations of viewers, listeners and readers.
And finally this Bulgarian is on the way of being discovered by his compatriots. Some of the few elect that have had the opportunity to visit him in London and to communicate with him during his previous visits offer their services. With the confidence of connoisseurs they add to his well-known work as a broadcaster many other career paths: theatre director and critic, art specialist, film producer, semiotician, writer, university lecturer, journalist, a learned man speaking 7 - 8 languages with contributions to the philosophy of history and art, psychology and psychoanalysis, anthropology, linguistics though formally versed as a lawyer and philosopher.
Unfortunately it is somehow too easy to devise formulas about the functioning and framework of his creative self. And behind this ease there is a jealous superfluousness. One asks oneself whether one has not fallen victim to the famous Uvaliev irony which tempts one in thinking that personal characteristics like phenomenal memory and strong imagination combined with a learned mind that is based on a diversity of foreign languages are enough for him to accomplish this enormous scope of work for several decades of emigration. Because we are really talking about hard work beyond human comprehension - first, to fit into and then to be recognised in a foreign though not necessarily hostile context. What’s more: to fit in the recipient culture with your own contribution as is the case with Grammar of the Visual and the paper on Turner. But I do not think more than a dozen - at most! - people know what we are talking about and can exclaim: “Grammar! Another sacred word in Uvaliev’s dictionary!”. So it will not be worth it to quote extensively from Roman Jacobson’s eulogy ( a titan of linguistics and structuralism who has become a must in the curricula of all universities around the world ) of the paper on Turner. That is why we are going to quote the author of the aforementioned paper who on a different occasion exclaims: “ Does anybody at Gambrinus discuss semantics and semiotics, textual schism and intertextual unlayering?”
In May, the month that has just elapsed without Petar Uvaliev, he was conferred the newly established Oborishte award for considerable contributions in the strengthening of the national identity. But he remains as unknown as he was when he lay foot on Bulgarian soil in May 1992 except that his voice is no longer on the Sunday air: “ A Voice cannot be buried - it can be forgotten . Or at the most, it can turn into a memory ...”
As far as the Bulgarian national identity is concerned it is our, and not his, concern any more : for a long time he stubbornly persisted with the help of his pegs in being a Bulgarian DESPITE everything and everybody. And he succeeded. But will WE be lucky and fulfil his aim confessed with a wink and bitter - as it turns out! - irony:
My aim is to become a memory