It is down to Bulgarian burial rites that I saw a dead body for the first time. Its departed owner was one of my pupils, Petya Dubarova.
The story of Petya Dubarova is known to all Bulgarians who have any interest in literature. It was alleged that during the compulsory weekly work practice class based in the local state brewery Petya had stopped the production line by obstructing the gears of the conveyor belt. Her teacher reported that this cost the state company thousands of leva in lost income. At the weekly teachers' meeting, Petya's behaviour mark was reduced. Some teachers pleaded for leniency but were steamrollered by a majority intent on making an example.
Until 1990, it was an extraordinary aspect of the Bulgarian education system that individual teacher's marks for academic ability and collective marks for behaviour remained the most influential factor in determining a student's progress into higher education. The marking system was still open to abuse and not easily challenged. How the news of Petya's reduced behaviour mark must have been received in the Dubarova household – particularly as Petya's mother was a teacher.
The English Language School, where I taught Petya, was one of a few specialist "gymnasia." Entry to these elite institutions was by competitive examination, oddly enough in maths, Bulgarian literature and "political culture," held across the whole region as far as Sliven and Yambol, and only children of the Communist elite could expect a relatively trouble-free acceptance.
In one of her satirical poems, Petya wrote ironically about the "advantages" of being an envied pupil of the school and describes its obtrusive atmosphere of fear. The school's director and deputy director lived with the stress of close political scrutiny – managing a school that taught a capitalist language and which was filled with highly intelligent, often privileged and sometimes arrogant pupils. They had mainly been chosen mainly on the basis of their Communist Party antecedents and certainly not for their knowledge of the English language or culture.
The outcome of the teachers' meeting following the factory incident was entirely predictable. Similar meetings would routinely reduce pupils' behaviour marks for such crimes as unexcused absences, smoking in public and close-cropped heads – a protest against the ban on long hair. Without a great deal of discussion Petya's behaviour mark was reduced.
Interestingly, it was later alleged that Petya's boyfriend, Vlado, had managed to repair the assembly line with a matchstick and that the beer factory had never been officially informed of the incident, so the losses cited by the teacher might have been imaginary.
On 3 December Petya broke with her usual rhyming stanzas to write the following inscrutable lines:
Behind the walls of the big house
By 4 December she had taken an overdose and so joined the extraordinary number of Bulgarian poets who had committed suicide. Her death was immediately linked to the zealous disciplinary action taken against her by her school.
There was an anxious discussion in the teachers' room whether any of us should attend the wake. The news of Petya's suicide had so stunned my colleagues that even the Communist Party zealots were reduced to helpless humans, and in the lack of direction, in the vacuum, younger voices were listened to. As the Englishman who had not attended that fatal teachers' meeting, I was asked if I would accompany her form teacher to ensure the school's presence at the wake. Separately three other teachers also took flowers.
A dead body in Bulgaria must be buried within a few days. The evening and night before the coffin is taken to the cemetery, the body lies in an open casket in the front room of the family home. Having received an emergency lesson in etiquette from my wife, I led the way through a hostile group of neighbours gathered round the Dubarova gate, up the steps of the typical two-storey house and straight into the tiny front room. The smell of flowers and candle wax was overpowering, as was the sound of continuous suppressed weeping from Petya's immediate family, jammed onto chairs around the coffin, allowing only the narrowest passageway for mourners to pay their respects.
Only Petya's face was visible. Her body was covered in flowers that threatened to overflow onto the floor. I placed my bunch carefully and approached her face. It was as I imagined it would be. The cheeky liveliness had gone to be replaced by a horrible white calm. I muttered prepared words to her mother and stumbled out down the staircase to await my colleague.
And, of course, Bulgaria did its duty by us, the survivors, according to the folk wisdom – "Someone dies, someone must be blamed."
The day after the funeral, I learnt a new Bulgarian expression: Mamka vi!. It was painted in tall letters across the front of the school and on the back wall of the teachers' room. The school's management set their faces and pretended it hadn't happened, though traces of the message survived a brigade of scrubbing aunties. It meant: "Motherfuckers!"
The poet, Veselin Andreev, felt impelled to lead the lament for Petya. Perhaps sensing the atmosphere of relatively permissible debate in the late 1970s, the former partizanin, or Communist guerrilla fighter, launched into a maudlin bout of breast beating which fell just short of questioning Communism itself. In a repetitive and often contradictory book, punctuated by poetic howls of grief, he took the whole of society to task for not protecting Petya's talent.
According to Comrade Andreev, none of the teachers had had the courage to attend the wake. Conveniently ignoring our presence, he reported instead Petya's mother's cry: "They killed my child." It is important to note at this stage Petya had exhibited no signs of dissidence. With published poems and a cameo appearance in film under her belt, she was on the doorstep of the intellectual establishment. Established Burgas poets spoke glowingly of her poetry. She represented precisely what the forward-looking members of the Communist Party were seeking in the late 1970s – a new personal voice. To this end, the English Language School was proud of Petya and probably saw her act of vandalism as an aberration. In time her good behaviour marks would have been restored.
What is captivating about her poetry is its simple expression of the teenage condition with all its occasional joys, doubts and fears. She is particularly sensitive to weather and conveys the prevailing seasons of Burgas, on the Black Sea coast, linking her own moods to changing cloud formations. Throughout, there is a tension between the ideal good daughter/pupil/citizen and the wild soul that yearns to overthrow conventions. Hers is a voice, like Anne Frank's, that demanded to be listened to and has spoken to generations since. Her poetry is all the more striking because she was unable at her age to resolve her natural rebelliousness with the external requirements of hardline Communism and traditional morality.
However, at the time when I stared at her dead face, I had not read many of her poems. All I could feel was the absence of the girl with whom I and all the other pupils shared a classroom. From the centre of the classroom, she was a ruling influence. Sitting next to her friend Maya, she appraised me in my first lesson with the knowing superiority that some girls possess. This flexing of feminine muscles was not repeated but it indicated a fierce spirit. In succeeding lessons, Petya proved highly intelligent with a cool reserve. She gained her high marks with ease, but I sensed her heart was in literature. She enjoyed singing and she mentioned my guitar in a previously unpublished poetical fragment that I saw as late as 2007.
Teachers at the English Language School in Burgas when Petya Dubarova was a pupil there. Christopher Buxton is the tall bearded Englishman in the middle
She had understood her own value all too well. Rather as if Sylvia Plath had succeeded in her first attempt at suicide, she left sufficient promise of what might have come from an increasingly alienated view of the world. Her final message leaves us with the necessary mystery national heroes drop in their wake. What was the secret of the big house?
The Students' Icon
Petya Dubarova is a phenomenon – the kind of hero Bulgarians will be anxious to tell you about. To her generation, the people you are probably doing business with at the moment, she became an icon of resistance to the perceived oppression of the school system across the entire Communist world. In hundreds of schools, pupils formed societies in her honour. The Petya Dubarova House Museum, to be found in a quiet quarter of Burgas, displays their messages still.
There is some sad irony in the location of the Petya Dubarova house. Up until the 1990s, it used to be at 63 Ernst Thaelmann Street. Ernst Thaelmann was the first East German Communist chief. After the collapse of Communism, the street assumed its original name – William Gladstone, the 19th century British prime minister.
Petya's room at her home
Petya Dubarova's adopted sister is in charge of the house museum at 63 Gladstone Street in Burgas
Petya's grave at Burgas cemetery