Natural Novel
Mária Chilf
An extract from Natural Novel (Dalkey Archive Press, 2005) by Georgi Gospodinov

Translated from the Bulgarian by Zornitsa Hristova

Read a review of the English translation of Natural Novel in this issue's 'Found In Translation'.


'The greatest thing about the '90s is still that dive down the dirtiest Scottish toilet in Trainspotting.'

'What about Fassbinder's films, or Antonioni's - always an important toilet scene. Or Kusturica, with that ridiculous suicide attempt in the toilet. I think it was When Father Was Away on Business. The guy hung himself on the tank above the toilet but flushed instead of dying.'

'I don't like Kusturica. Boring slob. A moody Balkan sentimentalist.'

'Okay, then forget about Kusturica. See how Nadya Auerman poses before Helmut Newton on the toilet bowl, while Naomi Campbell gulps down another beer, squatting there with her panties warming her ankles. On the cover of her album. Makes you want to be reincarnated as a toilet bowl.'

'A year ago there was a symposium of owners of Asian public toilets and field experts in Hong Kong. I read about it in a newspaper. You know what kind of papers were presented? Something like "Practical Measures for Eliminating Bad Odors" or "Historical Developments of Public Toilets in the Guangzhou Province." But the best one was "An Analysis of Civil Satisfaction in the Public Toilets in the Republic of Korea." I must have put up that newspaper clip somewhere.'

'A friend of mine went to Beijing and told us about the airport toilets. A big hall divided into cells with four-foot partitions (you know how short the Chinese are) and no ceilings. You squat in your cell, completely exposed above the waist, with two polite Chinese guys nodding and smiling on either side. Right below is a gutter which, if you look closely, features the excrement of everybody on your left.'

'We had the same toilets in the army. Just thinking about them makes my eyes hurt. We had to pour chloric acid in them for disinfecting. Makes you blind in no time. The latrines were the old soldiers' responsibility and when they wanted to harass us, they made one of us clean them. One guy decided to pay them back by stealing a pound of yeast from the kitchen and dumping it down the hole. You should have seen that pus swell and spill!'

'I saw something funny on a toilet wall in Berlin. "Eat shit. Millions of flies can't be wrong." In German, of course.'

'More sauce, anyone?'

'Toilet graffiti will have its own chapter in The History ... Why does the toilet induce the urge to write? Most of those writers hardly have the urge any other time. I'm sure they never wrote a single line on paper. The toilet wall, however, is a special kind of medium. Publishing there brings different pleasures. What if being on your own triggers secret mechanisms, the primal instinct of writing, of leaving a sign? I wouldn't be surprised if all those cave drawings were scraped while primitive man was squatting over his warm turds.'

'But that's difficult to prove because excrement is perishable, with a short period of decomposition.'

'Still it would be nice to look closer at the area around the cave drawings. But let's get back to toilet graffiti. The most isolated and lonely place on earth is actually quite public. Once you could read anti-government slogans there. The courage of society was displayed on the toilet wall.'

'Intimate toilet revolutions. Some courage, some society. Look at them, shitting out of fear and then scribbling "Fuck Todor Zhivkov" and "Screw the communists" on the walls. Forget that crap. All our bed-wetting dissidents are like that. The only public place these people protested in were the public toilets.'

'Loud standing ovations.'

'I've seen a wall that read: Don't try so hard, we don't have any standards here.'

'Ok, what did I say? The toilets are the only surveillance free space. A real utopia where power is absent, everybody is equal and everybody can do what he wants under the pretext of doing what he came for. A feeling of absolute impunity. You can't get it anywhere else, just the grave and the toilet. The interesting thing about it is that both are about equally large. On the other hand, all that calls ...'

'The calls of nature as calls for freedom. Here's a thesis title.'

'Hold it ... all those slogans on the toilet walls could be completely apolitical. Maybe it's only language rioting. It's not just your body with its lower depths entering the toilet, it's language as well. Language also feels the urge to unbutton its trousers, to let go, to blurt everything pent-up that fucking day, the whole shitty life. All those stupid fairy-tales, stupid newspapers, stupid people you meet, so when you are finally alone in the toilet you feel a rightful urge to write "Fuck" on the wall. This is language's urination and intestinal relief.'

'So when we're talking about toilets, we're talking about language.'

'The food is getting cold and I have to go home. And when my wife asks me what the hell we talked about, I'll tell her - we talked shit.'

'You said it! Mr. Queasy! Guys, a toast to him. I think this is a revelation.'


Nobody has seen it, but still it exists . . .

After the wedding we lived at Emma's place for a few years. Her parents' place, actually. Emma was on rather strained terms with her parents and my arrival only made things worse. The apartment was too small for two families. We lived in a small bedroom with a balcony, so the only places we would bump into her parents were the kitchen and the bathroom. My wife would seize the chance, while her parents were watching TV, to cook a quick supper, which she then brought to our room. The other hot spot was the bathroom. I got the knack of sensing when someone was getting ready to take a shower or use the toilet. I suppose Emma's father also made an effort to avoid me, because we managed to spend a couple of months without seeing each other. We were more likely to meet in town (where we just nodded formally) than in those 70 square meters we inhabited. I don't remember having any arguments with him-small wonder, since we never talked. But I still can't say how the tension piled up the way it did. Mutual antipathy, just like its opposite, has no need for excuses. In fact excuses would only ease the tension, but we carefully avoided them.

Four years later, when my wife and I were finally living on our own, the tension stayed with us. That's the most amazing thing about it. Her parents were gone to a new apartment at the other end of town and we controlled the recently forbidden realms of the kitchen and the living room. I could go to the toilet at will and stay as long as I pleased. And still the tension haunted the place. I had the feeling it had oozed into the furniture, the wallpaper and the carpeting. Emma and I started fighting incessantly. It just happened, I can't remember any particular reason. As if everything pent up in that small room had now found release. Emma's relationship with her father was strangely mirrored in her relationship with me. I felt I was going insane. We changed the wallpaper, threw away the two old armchairs and rearranged the rooms beyond recognition. I didn't tell
Emma what drove my enthusiasm, but I think she sensed it. Nothing helped. There was a flawless, indestructible mechanism that never failed to spoil everything.

The short stories I wrote back then (I had found a second rate magazine with a first-rate budget and published under a penname for a handsome fee) got increasingly paranoid. One of them, called 'The Mechanism,' was about an old press that used to print a not-very-popular daily newspaper dedicated to criminal stories and paranormal phenomena. The newspaper
went bankrupt and the machine was put away in a storehouse. A month later the newspaper surprisingly came out on the market again. Nobody knew who was publishing it. The former editors didn't have a clue. The strangest thing about it was that the news was covered one day in advance, so you could read what would happen tomorrow. All forthcoming murders, rapes and accidents were described in minute detail. It finally turned out that behind all that was the same press. It had printed the newspaper for so long and lived on its ink and blood that even though the people were gone, it kept working with terrifying momentum.

What was the mechanism that spoiled my marriage with Emma? I'll never forgive myself for staying in that place, though I doubt that moving out of the apartment would've solved the problem. Things had gone too far. We slept in separate rooms. Each morning we took care not to run into each other on our way to the bathroom. The same old story. I knew it was getting to Emma, too, but neither of us could do anything about it. The mechanism was working.


Only the banal stirs my interest. Nothing else amuses me so.

The more irrationally isolated I became about my marriage - that is, talking about it - the more I drifted towards the bathroom. Only in that place, in that room, and in that language of toilets could I relax.

I buried myself in all kinds of research to find with some wicked satisfaction how shyly - or shall I say queasily - the toilet was always excluded. Language avoided the subject. No science explored it, no discipline claimed it. I decided to look it up as a partition of space, as an architectural element, as a building. I read everything about civil engineering. All I found was a meagre couple of lines somewhere at the end of the otherwise circumstantial chapters on country and urban housing, on downtown and uptown areas, on public services and water-supply systems. And that was it. I started reading everything with the toilet in mind and annexing all sorts of tidbits to my topic, even if their ostensible meaning was elsewhere. As Garfinkle was surveying The Routine Grounds of Everyday Activities or when sociology was discussing the banal in our daily life, I secretly rejoiced because that was my subject precisely. I loved reading Schutz who claimed to study the world of immediate social experience (die Sociale Umwelt) where 'we share with our closest people not just the periods of time but a sector of our spatial world that is commonly accessible. Thus the other person's body is within my range, and vice versa.' Wasn't Schutz talking about that very place? Wasn't the toilet part of the primeval ground (Urgrund) of the unquestionably given that must now be questioned and subjected to interrogation? Schutz was appointed grand master of the new science whose primary subject would be the toilet. Another invitation was issued to Lyotard, who was searching for the 'oikeion,' that shadowy space of privacy and solitude that counterbalances the politikon. Well, I knew the answer to his prayers.

In the 1930s Ortega-y-Gasset complained that the walls had soaked up the anonymous noise of the plaza and the boulevard. I could offer him the quietest and most secluded place in the house. The last haven of civilization. I saw myself as a new Virgil waiting to lead those people to the circles of domestic paradise.


Reprinted here by kind permission of the publisher Dalkey Archive Press

Translation (c) Zornitsa Hristova, 2005.

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