interview by Ani Ivanova, VAGABOND monthly magazine
His fans have acclaimed his fiction – a sex manual replete with lewd and titillating examples – as a hilarious “up yours” to political correctness. His critics claim his writing is coarse, vulgar, offensive and shallow. One British reader said she was reminded of her country in the 1970s when some “misguided mediocrities” championed Carry On movies and Adventures of a Taxi Driver as the best Britain had to offer.
Ivo Siromahov is remarkably unconcerned by censure, believing that anyone with a vestige of humour will appreciate his work. For some, his characterisation of his critics as priggish prudes merely adds to the offence.
He graduated from the prestigious National School for Ancient Languages and Cultures and studied theatre direction at the National Academy of Theatre and Film Arts, hence the half dozen plays in his CV. Siromahov has now turned writing, once his hobby, into a fulltime occupation.
Siromahov wrote political satire and headed the cultural section at the 24 Hours daily for two years. Then he became a scriptwriter for Bulgaria’s most popular TV programme, Slavi’s Show. He writes for magazines like Playboy, Hustler, Egoist and MAX. His first book, A Night in the Cemetery, appeared in 1999. The second, An Optimistic Theory of Bulgarian Sex, has just been published to criticism from some conservatives who find joking about children’s sexual education, for example, a bit too provocative.
The author never argues with those offended by his humorous advice on how best to undress your partner, what to say in bed or how to write a pornographic story. Besides being a parody of ubiquitous how-to manuals, An Optimistic Theory of Bulgarian Sex is also an ironic exercise in folk psychology, sociology and ethnography (the title alludes to a 1938 essay by Bulgaria’s first sociologist). But it can be understood by everyone, regardless of nationality, he says. Read the extracts in this issue of VAGABOND and see if you agree. And remember: this is really hot stuff in Bulgaria right now.
What impelled you to write this type of text?
Stupidity, cliches and complexes. We are a small population in a small country, hence our desire to show ourselves as different and unique, as something better. Let’s take the cliche of Bulgarian hospitality, for example. Aren’t other people around the world hospitable? Or the boast that Bulgarian women are the most beautiful in the world – there are attractive women everywhere. There’s bragging about sex too: Bulgarians are the world champions of sex. That’s not something that anybody could prove.
Can you explain your theory of Bulgarian sex? How is it meant to be interpreted?
It’s ironic, a parody of the type of advice given in the most popular genre these days, the how-to guide. All sorts of people are giving advice today, from “How to mend your washing machine” to “How to satisfy a woman”. I suppose that if you were to follow all such advice, you’d get into serious trouble.
The book is about Bulgarians. Do you believe that your humour can travel acrossborders?
I don’t divide people into Bulgarians and foreigners. Nor do I think that some things are true of Bulgarians alone. In most respects, people are the same, regardless of their nationality, faith or politics: they all care about love, friendship, sex and death. The book is not typically Bulgarian and I don’t think you need to be Bulgarian to understand it. I’ve been around the world and I know that people laugh at the same things. Some say that there is English humour, German humour, and so on. I don’t think this is true.
Are you saying that there is no such thing as English humour?
The humour of Mark Twain and today’s humour on British television are completely different. It’s dangerous to generalise. People around the world laugh at the same things, usually issues related to their daily lives. Most jokesin any nation are about sex.
What’s the funniest TV series you’ve seen?
For me, ‘Allo ‘Allo! is tops: a perfect demonstration of how people can smile at one of the darkest periods in history, the Second World War.
Do you think that foreigners can understand the Bulgarian sense of humour?
If we can understand writers like P.G. Wodehouse and Mark Twain, why shouldn’t foreigners be able to understand the things that make us laugh?
What impression will foreign readers have of Bulgarians if they take the book literally?
The book was not written to be taken literally. It offers an ironic, amusing point of view on the so-called serious things in life. I’d imagine that anybody with a sense of humour will enjoy reading it.
You seem to have a remarkably thick skin. How do you respond to your critics?
I don’t. I avoid such arguments – they are pointless and futile.
Are humour and vulgarity in some way linked? Is there a line between the two in Bulgaria and, if so, where does it lie?
The two have nothing in common. The way some people drive in the street is vulgar and there’s not a grain of humour in it. Relationships between people can also be vulgar. There is no vulgarity in humour because it adopts a joyful attitude to the world. People capable of such an attitude are rarely vulgar.
Do you really believe that the British have the same sense of humour as Bulgarians? Maybe UK readers would find your work a bit coarse?
I was in London in April and I left with very good impressions of the British. They are not so different from us.