Jul/Aug 2015 Nonfiction

DA! DA! DA! A Séance with a Sybil

by Jascha Kessler

Image courtesy of Jascha Kessler

In June of 1981, I boarded what I used to call The Flying Red Carpet and landed in Sofia the next day. In those years some Communist regimes used to invite writers, particularly writers of poems, offering travel, sightseeing, and translation projects of their poets. Notwithstanding decades of Soviet control, there were fine poets, both old and young in Eastern Europe. So for me it wasn't like having to sing for my supper; rather, the work requested was an interesting opportunity to engage poetry written in those unhappy worlds behind the Iron Curtain. After all, the sun still rose there and life went on; men and women lived as best they might. The challenge of translation was just as great as it would be for any language anywhere. All one knew starting from the first line was that the project was feasible; more so since unlike struggling through one's own poem the last line had been reached and fixed in print.

As I'd seen in Budapest under the auspices of the Hungarian PEN Club, the Writers Union was largely run by poets; even Bulgaria's vice president was numbered among them. They traced their writing to ancient Thracia before the Greeks arrived, complimenting themselves that their poetic soul was from the greatest of all singers, Orpheus, never mind any DNA legacy. In point of fact Bulgarian tribes arrived into what long before had been a Classical Greek region bordering the Black Sea, later a remote outpost during the reign of Augustus, to which Ovid, a contemporary of Horace and Virgil, had been banished. Slavs invading after the sixth century, they were only unified as the First Bulgarian Empire in 681. At any rate, their hospitality today was cordial, not a trace of Cold War diffidence or animus. I was assigned an interpreter, a woman in her 20s who spoke excellent English: Tsvetelina Nikolova, a graduate of Sofia University, and was on the Film Board that screened imported movies. I thought her open, lively and good-humored; if she was also a "minder," that hidden side of her didn't show. I guessed she had connections, because she remarked having been recently sent to India on a cargo plane loaded with munitions. (In those years, India was closer to the Soviets than to Washington.) She arranged for me trips to the places tourists visited, just to show me for a week some sites from the past, monasteries, parks, and the like. Bulgaria had had for a brief time an early Renaissance, as had Hungary, before its aristocracy was crushed by the Ottoman Turks, who reduced most of its people to serfdom, preparing as they were for the great invasion of the West that would bring them to the gates of Vienna. I recalled my father's comment that Bulgaria was the "garden" of southeastern Europe, and it came to mind on those side trips during which I heard more than once the complaint that the Turks prevented any middle class, and the one nascent around 1900 was lost to Nazi domination by the mid-20th century and suffocated after WW II by the Soviets.

I was introduced to some poets, among them remarkable women decades older than I was in 1981. Their work was impressive and their character strong: they had survived! About the second week, after a day of rambling in Sofia, at supper in the restaurant of the Writers Union, I was told by Lyubomir Levchev, the Union's president, that he had to fly to Moscow and wouldn't be able to talk about the impending Congress. To make up for it, a trip had been arranged. Tomorrow I was to be taken down to Petrich, 143km to the southwest, to meet a woman named Vanga. He thought I'd be interested because she was a clairvoyant, blind from childhood. Tsvetelina mentioned as we walked through the empty and silent streets to my hotel, that Vanga was a ward of the Bulgarian Institute of Parapsychology. I wasn't surprised, having read items in the States that reported the Soviets pursued "research" in that field; perhaps they thought there exists some extrasensory talent that could supply secret intelligence. In those years before DNA, police referred some baffling crimes to fortune-tellers as a last resort. In 1981, the notion of cyberspace was scarcely more than a novelty. Tsvetelina was excited by this rare opportunity and regretted we'd neglected to pick up some sugar at the restaurant; it was said that before being admitted to Vanga one had to sleep the night through with a sugar cube tucked under the pillow.

When a taxi came for me the next morning, it had in it one Valentin Krustev, a law student who'd got word of the trip and came along hoping to consult Vanga about a family problem, something to do with ill-health. He carried a paper sack holding a couple of kilos of cherries he'd picked from his back garden. Tsvetelina joined us, and we were off. Midday found us in an inn and lunching so as not to reach Petrich famished. Our driver had been told to stop first at the mayor's office as a courtesy. There my companions interpreted his greeting followed by the usual pitch lauding the town's ancient roots, its factories, workers' unions, trades and products, after which he sent along a couple of guards directed to see to our security (our local "minders"), I presumed.

We drove a little way past the outskirts of Petrich, and down in-to a wooded vale, where we parked off the road in front of a country cottage behind which could be seen a fair vegetable patch and flower garden. Someone came out to inform our party that Vanga was not ready to receive us. So we hung around at the roadside, chatting, smoking, enjoying the tranquil afternoon and its birdsong. Then I spotted a well-dressed woman flitting through the back garden; the two guards jumped the low hedge to head her off before she could reach a door. They returned gripping her elbows and marched her away to where she must have left her car. We were told people pulled all kinds of tricks, anything to get at Vanga; it was not surprising she should struggle and weep desperately when they led her off.

Ten more minutes elapsed before another man came out to take us to a large room where a long table stood at its center with a half-dozen chairs set around it. At the near end sat Vanga, her back to us. Greetings were exchanged. I was introduced by Tsvetelina as the Amerikanska poeta, and was placed at her right hand, while she and Valentin took their places at the far end. Vanga was that year 70; her thinning gray hair was held flat against her head by the sort of net worn by Italian matrons in Sicily. Her blind eyes were closed. After we were seated, she folded and set aside her knitting, remarking to my interpreters she'd kept us waiting so as to compose herself by doing a few lines.

Then, seeming to look nowhere before her, as the blind do, she called peremptorily for my sugar cube. When Tsveti said they'd been unable to find one in time, she asked whether the Amerikanska had a watch. I took mine off to place it in her palm, where she took it firmly, put thumb against the crystal, pressed index finger to its back, and said the watch would do.

We waited silently. Her chin she tilted up, and she gazed fixedly up into the dark corner of the ceiling. Then it began. What follows is the dialogue in Bulgarian and my responses after Tsveti and Valentin relayed her words.

Vanga: [forcefully, sounding vexed]. Why did you say he is an American poet?

Tsvetelina: But that is what he is. He's come as a guest of the Writ-ers Union.

Vanga: Né Ne!! He's a Jew!

I said: Da! Which I supposed means Yes.

Vanga nodded "Understood!" Which startled my helpers, whose expression showed they were taken by surprise when she called out, Jew! They murmured, Is that true? We had no idea! I waved dismissively, indicating it was of no concern to me.

Vanga: You eat cold bread!

Da! I said. They both were puzzled.

Vanga: You write in a little house behind your home!

Da! I said.

Vanga: Your house is near the sea!

Da! I said.

Vanga nodded approval.

Vanga: You drive a lot.

Da! I said. Of course I do—I'm from California.

Vanga: It's all right. Drive! Drive! You will drive many years safe! Drive!

Da! Da! I agreed, grateful for that.

Vanga: You will write a long time. You will never be rich.


She let that question pass. People must always ask her about money, I assumed.

Vanga: Is there something you came here to see me about? What do you want to know?

I have no questions, I said.

She nodded. It must not have been the sort of thing from her usual visitors. I thought of that woman out back who'd tried to force herself in. Then Vanga cocked her head to one side as though she heard something calling from up there in the dark corner. What came next brought a surprise.

Vanga: Someone has come here for you. Hungarian. She is upset. She says she is worrying, worrying, worrying. Do you know her? She comes for you. Who is it?

That confused me. I supposed wrongly, since I'd at various times traveled in Hungary as a guest of the Hungarian PEN Club, she intended one of their deceased poets, so I asked, Is she from Budapest? That annoyed Vanga.

Vanga: Né, né, né! Nothing Budapest. Someone Hungarian from east.

I knew right then she "heard" my mother-in-law, who over the years called us from New York when she found herself beset with "worrying." That was the first word from her lips. She would say she was losing sleep for worrying. She had reason to worry. Something in our family life three thousand miles away from New York gave her ample cause! I told Vanga it was my mother-in-law Hermina, dead these past eight years! Vanga nodded. To her it seemed obvious. She went on to say that she was not worried for my wife or children, which relieved me. Who, then?

Vanga: She is worried for her second daughter.

I knew my sister-in-law had suffered for decades and undergone a dozen lung surgeries. [It was Leiomyoma, a muscle-tissue tumor often originating in the uterus. I knew she'd had a hysterectomy about 25 years earlier and that following its removal, her Leiomyo sarcoma returned again and again from cells that escaped to her lungs where they grew encysted.]

Vanga: I see two pictures. All black. It is her X-rays. There is great danger for her.

More surgery?

Vanga nodded.

Vanga: Her husband is an important man. In a few months he goes and speaks at the United Nations.

Yes, I said. A political scientist. Famous.

Vanga: But not you! You are no good for politics. Let him speak; he can speak. You are of no use to speak politics.

Da! Da! I agreed with that. Upon which she continued:

Vanga: As for politics, I say to you now—as for Israel...Upon which she broke off—not for me to say about Israel. I am just peasant woman in Bulgaria. Although...And stopped, only to resume urgently.

Vanga: When you return to Sofia, you will say to Georgy Dzhagarov he should come now to Petrich. I must speak with him! Tell him Vanga calls.

I promised to deliver her message. She paused, her blank gaze fixed to that corner. Abruptly she asked, What is your religion!

I have no religion, I said.

Vanga: So! But I tell you this—God is on good terms with you! Do you understand? God is on good terms with you!

I accepted her word in silence. Then came a surprising turn.

Vanga: Do you know the White Brothers? Soon, you will soon meet them. Do not be frightened. They are good. They will watch for you.

I said nothing to that, so she repeated her question, adding severely, Do you understand what I say!

I have heard of them, yes. Vanga pursed her lips and nodded, satisfied to have conveyed an important message—if message it was.

Again she paused, only to resume ruminatively: After I am dead I should have a monument placed for me. And you must know that she is already born who comes after me to speak in my place. She is yet young. She is not blind. Her time will come.

Da! I said.

Vanga thrust my watch out towards me, firmly ending our encounter. She signed to Tsvetelina to remain, and it was agreed she'd answer to Valentin as well.

When they came out to the taxi where I waited for them, Valentin asked me, "Who are your White Brothers?" I shrugged. On our return drive to Sofia I told them I'd been startled by Vanga's opening remarks; it was as though she seemed to be locating me on a "radar-screen" she could see in her mind, perhaps intending to ward off any skepticism I might harbor. As for her first cryptic announcement, I explained that back home we bought ½ price day-old bread and rolls at the Pioneer Bakery in Venice, and stashed them in the freezer. As for the second, I did write in my studio across our back garden. And for her third, in Santa Monica we lived a short sixteen blocks from the Pacific.

That evening, I was at my dessert in the Writers Union cafè when in came Vice President Georgy Dzhagarov himself who looked around, waved to me, and joined our table, while some writers gathered about to listen in. He wanted to know how my time with "Baba" Vanga had gone in Petrich. I told him, Tsvetelina interpreting, that it had been interesting, and mentioned that Vanga needed protection: a hysterical woman had had to be stopped and led away. That amused him. He said that Vanga had a wide notoriety. Then I advised him of her insistence that he come to her instantly. Poor man; he shrugged, confessing that much as he could wish to hear Vanga in action, it was impossible—he was after all vice president of Bulgaria!

I was one of some dozens of writers invited to Sofia for one of those "International Literary Conferences" held beyond the Iron Curtain in the three decades before the notorious Berlin Wall came down and the Kremlin's puppet neighbors were released from its grip in 1989. Comrade Leonid Brezhnev had another year to live, though it was doubtful he was in command that year: there was his visit to Sofia, and parade of cars I stopped one afternoon to watch. What I saw was himself erect in an open limo, though Tsvetelina took my elbow and turned me sharply away, perhaps not to be staring at him or not to be recorded gawking. It was said he was stood up to look alive by massive injections, but was little more alive than Edgar Bergen's mannequin Charlie McCarthy. The man I saw driven past a motley crowd that seemed to have been drafted to line the boulevard certainly looked to be made of wood. At any rate, after my visit to Petrich a couple of plane loads of poets were flown down to Varna on the Black Sea coast, a fairly empty riviera city with new, empty hotels and a casino for East Bloc tourists. There was a Writers Union hostel there. We were to enjoy ourselves left to our own entertainments in that lovely city, to visit galleries and local artists' clubs, and the like. Certainly moseying around Varna all in bloom explained its famous export, Attar of Roses.

Returned to Sofia, that conference was still to be endured. It was my first such affair, and somewhat more organized, rather structured from the top down, than that sort of gathering in the States, such as our annual Modern Language Association. Towards 10:30 on the morning of the first day (and there was not to come a second), we were queued into a great hall and greeted by a huge tapestry at one end blazoning its slogan: World Peace. The tables were set the length of the hall in a rectangle and under the banner were seated the eminent guests, principally Kremlin people. Two rows of tables ran parallel from it, and at the other end the tables were occupied by the Bulgarian Writers' chiefs. I took a place in the corner at that end, facing the lectern at which stood their most senior poet, Bozhidar Bozhilov, calling upon the foreign guests to rise to take a bow one by one. Opposite twenty-five or so feet from me sat another American, Roland Flint, who edited a poetry journal out of Georgetown University. I'd seen him laughing and happily shouting his burly way around Varna, blonde-bearded and playing at being another Hemingway, three pretty graduate students hanging on his every word; somehow, though, writers from Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the DDR and the Baltic vassals were in Varna not much in view, kept perhaps on different leashes, or taken on special tours. At last, the Soviet delegate rose to give the main speech, which my new interpreter, a recent Ph.D. in History, who sat at my left to murmur sotto voce his stream of invectives against the West, especially the wrecker of world peace, the United States. His rant was all commonplaces, my having heard them during our anti-Vietnam protests, and also delivered by Nikita Krushchev in his UN tirade about the missiles for Cuba Kennedy had stopped. Never mind whether that summer of 1981 saw the Soviets' warring a second year in Afghanistan—they were defending against international opinion with their agitprop. It was trying to listen to that stuff; Flint must have seen exasperation in my face, as I had in his. Many long minutes of bravos and whistles from the corralled world-writers when the Russian finally finished. Bozhilov looked first at me on his right and Flint at his left, suggesting with his gavel that one of us ought to speak—after all we were Americans, not French or Italian Party flaks and flakes... I gestured to Roland to get up; he motioned the same to me. Bozhidar again urged either one of us or both to stand and deliver. I saw Roland shake his head with a firm No, which annoyed me because he was a professor at Georgetown, hence well-used to the lecture platform at home and an audience, albeit students. Had he nothing to offer?

So I gave in. Reluctantly, I went round to the mike on the podium. Polite applause fluttered around the hall. I cannot recall what I said, but said vehemently after proffering thanks to our Bulgarian hosts, whose theme was being celebrated today as we walked arm in arm on the Road to International Peace... Humbug stuff like that; illustrating Karl Krause's famous quip, my recitation was laden with clichés that may have seemed "important but were not serious," in contrast to what ought to have been said differently as "serious, if not important." I went ahead though to remonstrate, indignant, and simply let fly at the Soviets. I may have said things like, How dare they, at a poets' conference of this sort and scale, spout Cold War propaganda! Unacceptable! and marching divisions into Afghanistan, and so forth. Perhaps I ought to have remembered that Lyubomir Levchev had flown to Moscow two weeks ago, but not for cakes and tea at their Writers Union HQ (whose members held the civilian rank of "Colonel," with stipends and ration cards, apartments, cars, dachas, and other perks... Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita had described them all in 1967).

Applause came, scattered, timid, and brief. The Soviet capo, or politely, their delegation's leader, visibly angry, stood up with a jerk and gaveling the conference down, declared it closed, afternoon meetings and dinners included, and turned away to lead his entourage out a side door. Their plane was leaving early, he announced. Their departure did not however cancel the afternoon's receptions for drinks and dinner. I recall that as we gathered in the bar of our Sofia Hotel Balkan a sort of shy fellow from East Germany sidled over to ask me, How in the world had I the courage to speak out like that? Was it not a little... dangerous? My reply? "Courage? Not at all. I'm a tenured professor at a great American university—and we have no KGB goons." Later, at the buffet and gift books table (dictionaries and tourist history handouts, and the like), my young interpreter was happy to have from me two volumes of Bulgarian/English dictionaries, whispering she'd been barely able to translate and speak out my statements in Bulgarian—it had been awfully hard to keep a calm head and show a straight face because Bozhilov had slipped his hand up under her skirt and was fondling her buttock.

In the morning as I dawdled over coffee, waiting for the taxi to take me to the airport, Roland Flint burst into the dining room, shouting to friends at another table, "I found it! It wasn't lost! She must have stuck it under the bed!" I called out to him, and he came over. I asked him what he'd lost? "My journal," he said. I followed with, You were keeping notes for some article? You wrote names and addresses and telephone numbers? "Naturally! What else?" I went on: You realize your notebook wasn't mislaid? It was lifted... and xeroxed. Some folks around town may pay dearly for your vacation. Are you going to title your junket, "Roving with Roland: A Poet in Poetic Bulgaria"? Flint registered dismay. "How would you do it?" I told him I never write down anything: no names, no numbers, let alone conversation. In these countries, friends call you when they want you and tell you where to be whenever. Poor Flint. Crestfallen, he shuffled back to the others to eat a contrite breakfast. Forty-seven years old, a professor of literature, the typical American naïf. Where'd he been all his life? No wonder those gaga graduate-student girls had clung to him for a week... They had their reports to hand in.

When my ride came, in the back of the taxi were Tsvetelina and a handsome guy named Maxim, interpreter for the French. They wanted to see me off. On the way they remarked I'd saved everyone hours of boring Soviet blather about promoting Peace in the World, and a day or two of boring meetings, while Russian planes bombed away in Afghanistan, dropping plastic butterflies for kids that blew off their hands and their legs, and a dozen divisions tanked around the country. So much for international literary congresses east of the Danube.


POSTSCRIPT: Three months later in late September, my brother-in-law was elected president of the International Political Science Association and gave the keynote speech at their convention—which as it happened took place in a hotel at the United Nations plaza. Vanga had placed him at the UN. Close enough! It remained a puzzle to me how blind from the age of 12 she'd "seen" his wife's latest awful X-rays, let alone even knew what those black plates were—she, an old Bulgarian peasant woman, as she put it. Six years later in 1987, my sister-in-law was dead, lungs choked by Leiomyoma sarcoma tumors. Vanga had "heard" the distress of her mother, though who knows whether it was conveyed in Hungarian or English? In any case neither language was hers. As for me, her point had been demonstrated in short order: I was not fit to engage the world with the diplomatic parlance that suits matters political. So much for peace conventions! And finally, Tsvetelina wrote in January 1982 to let me know Vanga had told her she would soon meet the man who was to become her husband. And of course, as a recent divorcée, Tsveti pooh-poohed the prophetess and suppressed her opinion that it was just fortune-teller nonsense. Notwithstanding, on the way back from the airport, that young Maxim who'd come along for the ride suggested taking her to a movie that night. She'd laughed in his face, letting him know she just happened to be a censor on the Bulgarian Film Board who vetted every movie playing around Sofia. It turned out the flick he had in mind was one that somehow had not been brought to her attention. How odd! And she closed by informing me they were engaged to be married.

As for that last exchange: A few months later, in September, I was scheduled to deliver a paper at the International PEN Congress in Lyons. Checking in at the hotel, I was accosted at the front desk by a man who said he had neither checks nor a credit card with him, had not yet changed currency. With a peculiar grin he asked me outright for $50. Without a second thought I handed him the bills. Even as I reached for my wallet my prompt, unhesitant response puzzled me. As he shook my hand—and I was further bemused by his unusual grip—his middle finger was folded in against his palm. We encountered each other over the next few days at different sessions, and even dined at the 5-Star Leon de Lyons; by the time our PEN colleagues boarded the TGV train on its maiden run to Paris we had become more or less acquainted. We strolled about Paris during the next days. Finally, since that afternoon in Petrich was very much still on my mind, I told him about Mme. Vanga. He was startled by my mention of the White Brotherhood, and remarked that yes, he knew something of them. When I pressed him, he revealed he was a Mason, 33rd degree, very much a "made" member; as to Masonry itself, he was unimpressed by the mummery of the American Lodge; nor was the Washington, D.C. lodge, dating back to Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, et al, important. The London center, he told me, was the essential lodge; notwithstanding, even to a man of his rank access to Masonic vaults and secrets is not to be had. Finally, he admitted that the White Brotherhood was one of their esoteric terms.


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