(Not) dreaming the Wise City: a wishful over-interpretation

Vladimir POLEGANOV is a Bulgarian writer, translator, and screenwriter. An author of a collection of stories, [The Deconstruction of Thomas S] (2013) and a novel, [The Other Dream] (2016), which won the 2017 Helikon Award for Best Fiction Book, he has translated Thomas Pynchon, George Saunders, Octavia E. Butler, and Peter Beagle into Bulgarian, and is a co-editor of the first anthology of critical writings on Bulgarian Diabolism.


Sofia has been under lockdown for close to a month now. Weather-wise, the last four or so weeks the city has been in a state between a very insistent winter and a very hesitant spring. So besides silent and empty streets we’ve also had days that start with snow and end with ice-melting sunshine. Nothing out of the truly ordinary, because Sofia is not a huge city and it has always held a somewhat subdued air, even on its busiest and hive-like days. But Sofia is known as the Wise City, the City Built Upon a City Upon a Town Upon a Village Upon an Early Settlement. I knew that the invisible threat (or “enemy” as our Prime Minister calls the virus) in the air, the unexpected lockdown, and the strange weather would do something to the layers and layers of history, culture, souls, and skeletons sleeping or simply lying beneath my feet.

Seven years ago, I wrote a short story about a guy who travels from country to country from city to town searching for the place where writers go after they die. He meets many people and visits many strange lands and finally comes — of course — to something like a library and realises that Borges was right: all dead writers really do turn into books.

The day the government announced the state of emergency and people stopped going out, I said to myself: Just imagine the dreams you’ll have at night and the stories you’ll write during the day. 28 days later I have not written a single line, have no memory of ever dreaming during those past days, and have not seen a single zombie on the streets. But I started noticing something: new lights and shapes and silhouettes on the face of the apartment building across the street. It’s an old one, probably raised shortly after the beginning of the Communist era, and I always thought it was one of the many almost-deserted apartment buildings in Sofia whose flats have either been sold to companies to use as offices or left by their owners (mostly people who have emigrated to Western Europe or the USA; in fact, “The Owner Has Left for America” is the title of a poem by the great Bulgarian modernist poet Atanas Dalchev) to the spiders.

Before reaching the library, traveling from one place to another, the guy from the story meets a woman who likes to think about the eternal whiteness of the sheet of paper after the text of a story has come to an end. ‘I’m not interested’ she tells him, ‘in your books or the words they hoard, forever seared on their pages. This is where our paths diverge. I want to know about death — the moment where nothing is permanent or even enduring, the moment you can edit. This is what I have been looking for.’

Watching with curiosity — and, like any writer, a bit creepily — the building opposite my window, I realised that this lockdown situation has started editing a page I thought was left blank a long time ago. The whiteness of the empty building was now full of lights and movement, and each window light was a new sentence in a new text. There are people still living there, I thought. Sofia is not that still and silent and dead. Maybe the whole city is being rewritten like this right now. By another virus, one that brings light, and old buildings back to life, and people back to their homes.

I know that the current novel coronavirus will pass and remain a warning for future generations and a lesson for ours.

But I do hope that the other virus, the one that edits and rewrites and reveals, will in some future continue its work on Sofia, the Wise City, the City that Never Ages.

Sofia, April 2020