Writer Milen Ruskov:
Words have no colour, flesh or scent
If one has a literary gift, he has a peculiar taste for abstractions, and is ready to put up with them
1 December, 2017
Close-up: Milen Ruskov was born on 23 June 1966 in Burgas. In 1995, he graduated in Bulgarian Philology from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, after which he was a graduate student in linguistics at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. He has published 4 novels, each of them winning prestigious literary awards - Pocket Encyclopaedia of Mysteries (2004), Thrown into Nature (2008), Summit (2011), and Chamkoria (2017). In 2014, his novel Summit won the European Union Prize for Literature, and Viktor Bozhinov’s screen adaptation of the same book was released in theatres across Bulgaria a few weeks ago.
- Mr Ruskov, the screen adaptation of your novel Summit became this year’s most watched Bulgarian film, garnering more than 72,000 viewers in just a fortnight. Are you happy with Viktor Bozhinov’s movie?
- Yes, I am very happy. I think the film turned out very well, and managed to convey the spirit, the mood, and the message of the novel.
- In what basic way do the book and the film differ from one another?
- The most important difference, as I see it, is that the novel contains a great deal more humour, which is almost impossible to render on the screen simply because the sense of humour in the book stems not from the plot or any particular actions, but from the protagonist’s comments on those actions. In my mind, this is impossible to capture on film. Even if you convene in one place the world’s greatest film directors and give them the task, they won’t be able to find a way to do that, because the humour in the book is all about thoughts and comments on things that run parallel to the protagonist’s actions.
- Does the film match your own idea of what the screen adaptation of your novel should look like?
- It does, to a great extent. I don’t have a definite and clear idea how things in my books should look like. On the contrary, I have a very abstract, general kind of idea. As a matter of fact, this is a very typical trait of fiction, or any work that involves verbal expression. If one works with words, one is prone to deal with abstractions a lot, since words are a very abstract means of expression. Words have no flesh, scent, colour, or shape. That is why, if one has a literary gift, one has a peculiar taste for abstractions, and is ready and willing to put up with them. When I write something, I don’t need to picture it very clearly in my mind’s eye. Therefore, I can easily accept someone else’s vision of it. But what interests me in the process is that their picture remains true to the spirit of my novel. I am not interested in the technicalities they will use to convey that spirit, i.e. whether their characters will have blond or dark hair, what kind of clothes they will wear, etc., as long as they are plausible. I am interested that the person in question delivers the true spirit of my book.
- What is your own personal Summit?
- My own personal Summit is the writing of the book itself. That was my first time I wrote a very complicated book, and I was very happy that I managed to write a novel with such complex design and characters. It was this book’s greatest challenge, and in a way it gave me the artistic confidence as a writer. It also taught me how to use artistic means in a way that will allow me to deliver the extraordinary complexity of the world we live in. That was my summit as a writer, and I mean the whole story, and not just the ending, because an ending does not mean anything in itself. An ending becomes enriched with knowledge only when it is the ending of that particular story, right?
- Treason is very vividly pictured in the novel, and in the film too. Why did you choose that subplot?
- Treason is a very important element of that story. If you follow it closely, you will see that it has been laid at the very onset, i.e. in the moment when Gicho catches Asencho stealing various objects. Asencho is someone who likes stealing, and given the chance to steal a lot of money and use it to have an easy life, he considers the opportunity seriously, because he has an emotional incentive to do so, those other people having killed his horse. But this is not about the horse at all. The thing is, those people have taken away from him something he loves dearly. And because he is hurt, but also because the miser and the scoundrel live inside him, he decides on the big treachery that will cost those people their lives.
- Including his own.
- He doesn’t think so. And that is why he betrays them. He believes he will survive, and he will take those people’s money and will live it up. But things turn out differently.
- There’s a letter in your story, written by Dimitar Obshti and addressed to Vasil Levski, who will go down in Bulgarian history as the Apostle of Freedom. But the reader never finds out what the letter says. What does it read, in fact?
- I don’t know. It is not by chance that I have let this question unanswered in the book. Some questions are better left unanswered. Stories that give answers to all questions are never good. A good story should contain a lot of questions which have no answers, or no one clear answer, at least. The only thing you ought to know is what and how had happened, but never why. It is good to make guesses. Any action can be interpreted one way or another. And this is what makes a story truly interesting.
- Chamkoria, your latest novel, has been winning awards, and is already walking successfully in the steps of Summit. Would you consent to it being adapted to the screen as well?
- I would do that gladly. I think Chamkoria is a very ‘theatrical’ novel and can make a great film. It is a bit more complex than Summit. The extreme complexity of its characters can be rendered very well on the screen. Ivan Doykov, the producer of the film based on Summit, said that filming Chamkoria would be a very expensive undertaking. If they manage to raise the money and do it, I shall be very happy.
- Would you ever make a film yourself?
- No, I wouldn’t. You should never say never, but in this case I am definitely certain that I shall never agree to direct anything, theatre or cinema-wise. This kind of work is totally strange to me. However, I could consider writing a screenplay, perhaps, but only if it is based on one of my books. Otherwise, writing original screenplays is out of the question for me. I am interested in writing novels.
- How did you come up with the idea for Chamkoria?
- It all started with a photograph. I was prepared because I already knew a lot about the 1920s in Bulgaria, because they represent a very interesting period in our history. While writing Summit, I came across facts about the attempted assassination of the Bulgarian monarch in Arabakonak on 14 April 1925. I was simply researching Arabakonak’s past, and found out that a lot had happened there. It is a very criminal place. So, when I discovered the facts about this attempted assassination, I told myself that I would go back to them, once I finished writing Summit, and see if they could be good enough to become the protagonists of a future book. Later, I realised that there was a great and wonderful story about these attackers, and I sat down and put it to paper.
- Have you come up with a new story to put in words?
- I shall make this decision in a year’s time. For the time being, I am going to relax and free my mind off my latest novel, so that I can start writing afresh. Otherwise, situations, characters, lines and bits of dialogue inevitably keep recurring. One does that unconsciously. Unless you cleanse your mind completely from your previous book, it continues to reproduce itself in everything you do.