29.04.2013 § Leave a comment
A short story by Bulgarian author Aleko Konstantinov, translated by V. Pandeliev.
That I am a lucky man*(1), that all of Bulgaria knows. But one thing no one knows is that today I didn’t have 45 stotinki*(2) to buy myself tobacco. This circumstance did not deter me however from preserving my regal demeanour. I continued to look upon the world and the people in it as if I could fit a million Rothschilds and Vanderbilts*(3) into my vest pocket, while our own wealthy men were worth no more to me than the ashes of last night’s final cigarette. That is all well and good, but there’s still no tobacco, the devil take it all! Silly craving!
I wander the streets and my gaze absently drifts from person to person and every one cements my belief that I am a lucky man. Look at that entrepreneur – who could have any respect for him? What gods has he not bowed to and pleaded with just so his shady merchandise would not be confiscated? And what use is his damned money if he lives like a common ox? There’s that high-ranking official – what dastardly deeds has he not committed to attain the position that everyone knows him undeserving of? And there’s a minister over there – for him, if nothing else, it is known that he was the title character in a vile little drama, and that he is rumoured to have threatened certain crows with martial law. About me the world not only knows of no such vilenesses, but in myself they aren’t even present, and haven’t been, and, I am certain, never will be. This is the state of mind that leads me to regard with esteem only those in the circle of penury, convinced that any abundance and wealth are marked if not with infamy, then at least with some underhandedness. And so I look upon wealth almost with contempt. This isn’t envy, not at all. For how can one envy that which repulses one, since one knows it not to be the fruit of honest labour or happy coincidence, but reward for degradation and sycophancy? There, that fellow – he appears to have all the qualities of an upright and respected person, but knowing what the motives were for his interest in that capital venture, I cannot respect him anymore. There’s the Knyaz*(4) too – even him I greet with such a contemptuous expression, as if to say “What are you worth next to me!”
You may ask why? It is quite natural. I can ask someone, for instance, “Tell me, good fellow, where were you and what were you doing on 5 August 1894 between 11 am and noon, eh?” Whereas no one can ask me that question, and there is no need…
This is the reason that nothing can disturb my inner calm – I realise my superiority to those around me and believe myself a king among men, damnit! Great, but there’s still no tobacco, the devil take it all! And I want to smoke, I really want to smoke. Silly craving! Then I begin to philosophise – at this very moment, as I sit quill in hand in my dark little cell, how many children hold out their hands to their mothers pleading for a morsel of bread, how many slyly deceived maidens are thrown to the mercy of circumstance and have to choose between starving to death and accepting disgrace, how many drown in floods, how many are devoured by beasts, how many do fires envelop, and comparing these wretched souls to my station, I continue to reinforce my conviction that I am a lucky man, and I am relieved. At peace, I dip the quill in my inkpot with the intention to begin writing. But a breath of wind blows in through the open window and brings from the ashtray to my nose the aroma of last night’s extinguished and crushed cigarette…I cannot, I cannot write! Funny habit! I grab my hat and dash outside. The city offices are already spewing throngs of workers and clerks. High noon. We exchange greetings. Now and then I hear behind me whispers “There goes The Lucky One!” “Really?” “That’s the one!” “Why didn’t you tell me sooner, so I could have a good look at him?” I grin under my nose and spin my cane in a carefree trance. Great, but right now The Lucky One hasn’t enough money for one cigarette’s worth of tobacco. Fortunately, the eating-house has been given a timely advance, so at least my sustenance is assured. I dine, showered in favour and courtesy. Wonderful, but what about tobacco? And all afternoon? Two friends join me, but they, as rotten luck would have it, do not smoke. Lucky souls! They leave, and I order coffee. Now what? How will I take the first sip of coffee without filling my mouth with fragrant smoke?
Thank God, a bit of good fortune – one of my two recently departed friends returns, grinning broadly and dreamily whispers, “Quick, quick, if you want to see something amazing, come out into the street now!”
I grab my hat, abandoning my coffee, and I rush out. My heart leaps with curiosity about this “amazing thing”. Indeed! On the corner of “Slavianska Beseda”*(5) stands she…Botero*(6)!…Wonderful, my friend, but if only I had a cigarette too! That I say to myself and not aloud.
“Hey, I think I owe you five leva. Here’s two now, I’ll get you the rest tonight.” That was said by another friend who was coming down the street and had to squeeze my arm to get my attention, because I’d been staring at…can you guess who?
I took those two leva, and, had someone seen me in that moment, he would have thought me the master of two million. I bought tobacco, went back to my cell, cut into a new paper, lit up…My Creator, I thank you! Is there a happier man than I?…Thank God I am not a teacher in a Sofia elementary school – they don’t even get money for salt!…
Sofia, 25 October 1895
1. Konstantinov was known as Shtastliveca, which translates to “the happy one” or “the lucky one”.
2. A stotinka (pl. stotinki) is the Bulgarian cent, 1/100 of a Lev.
3. Fabulously wealthy and well-known banking families in the 1800’s
4. Knyaz: prince, the title of Bulgaria’s monarch prior to 1908
5. Slavianska beseda: an exclusive club for writers and poets in Sofia
6. Botero: a well-known lady of high society at the time, revered for her beauty and her sense of fashion
P.S. Since this story was written, smoking has been found to cause serious harm to smokers and those around them. Blazing Bulgaria in no way condones or advertises smoking as a viable pastime.