I’ve chosen a story that definitely made a big impression on me when I was a child. It’s about a poor peasant boy who receives a helping hand and rises in society. At the same time, he is disgusted by his humble origins. Back then, everyone around me – myself included – wrongly assumed that one day I’d become a very successful person. I was horrified at the thought of becoming such an ungrateful parvenu.
The title “God Forbid the Blind Start Seeing” comes from a proverb which denounces shameless opportunism and the forgetting of your own roots. The story was written shortly after the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman yoke, when the country was going through profound socio-economic changes and a turbulent political period.
The author of the story is Aleko Konstantinov (also known as “The Lucky One”). He established the tourist movement in Bulgaria and traveled a lot, such as his visits to several World Exhibitions, the last of which inspired him to write the book “To Chicago and Back” (1894). He was quite a cosmopolitan person, and was most famous in Bulgaria for his comic character of a stereotypical Bulgarian brute. In 1987 he was assassinated by mistake while he was traveling together with a local politician.
Bachelor student of History, Vrije Universiteit
The son worked at one of the foreign agencies in Constantinople. The father, Grandpa Petko Belokravchanina, lived in a village in Northern Bulgaria. Although he was old, he had to plough the land of mother Bulgaria in order to support granny and his poor, pathetic existence.
His Highness Christopher Belokrovskiy was once a snotty, ragged, filthy kid who used to wallow in the trash at the village dump. The Consul traveled through their village on a day when the child was being washed, completely by chance; when a pig came out of an overgrown puddle, the child had rushed towards it, grabbed it with one hand by the ear, the other one by the back hairs, and had eagerly wanted to ride it. He couldn’t get on it, but the pig had managed to cover his hemp shirt with all the goodies it could carry from the rotten swamp. That’s when his mother realized that the child needed bathing, and, after beating his back, she threw him in the basin together with the shirt. The first bath-load of water turned into slush, the second into soup, and after a third and fourth, the fifth time the water stayed clear. From the tub emerged a clean, black-eyed, beautiful, white-ruddy child with lively, shrewd little eyes. The handsome young man sat au naturel by the fire, his mother seated beside him, drying his shirt. While she was drying it, she looked at her child from time to time, as if she was uncertain whether he really was her child. She put his shirt on him and took him out to bask in the sun and groomed his head. After this activity was over, she combed his hair. It was at this moment that bells started being heard; a carriage came from around the corner and stopped close to their house by the tavern. It was the Consul.
“Come on, my child, go to that man now,” said the mother to her child. “Go to him and say: ‘Give me five bucks, mister.’”
And the boy went to him. The Consul took some snacks out of his bag and regained his strength. The child appeared not too far away from the table and, after he bit his finger, he started sniveling and watched the traveler eat. The Consul noticed him and stared at him, surprised – it was the first time he had seen such a clean child around the villages, clean and beautiful. There were many beautiful ones, but their features were not discernible under the filth that covered their entire bodies.
“Give me five bucks, mister!” said the child, who immediately turned his head downwards and away in embarrassment, with a finger in his mouth.
The guard explained to the Consul that the kid wanted five bucks.
“Why do you want five bucks?” asked the guard at the request of the Consul.
But the child was only taught to ask for money; his mom had not explained why he needed the money, so instead of replying, he repeated: “Give me five bucks, mister! and got embarrassed again.
“What’s your name? What do they call you?” they asked the child.
“Ristu!” said the child.
The guard explained that the name of the child was Hristo.
It may have been because of private or family circumstances, or because of tribal sympathy (the Consul was a Slav), who knows, but he felt an attraction combined with pity, towards this beautiful, poor Bulgarian child. Within several minutes, a virtuous idea appeared in his mind; it appeared completely developed and matured: to take this child with him, and raise the boy.
The guard called his mother, the mother called his father and the negotiations began. They took a whole hour. The mayor came, and other peasants came as well; they too started to persuade the parents. Finally, with a feast and tears in their eyes, they were convinced to give their child to the Consul, to get him educated, to let him become a man, so that they could also enjoy their old age.
The Consul sat in the carriage, put the little peasant boy next to him and tucked him in with a scarf; the horses jumped, the bells rang, and the passengers disappeared in a cloud of dust…
The Consul didn’t send Hristo abroad immediately, because he didn’t want to take him away from his own soil, and so he left him in a Bulgarian school for five whole years. From time to time, he made him write to his parents and sent a present or two with the letters. After he graduated from the Bulgarian school, Hristo continued his studies abroad. He was put in a boarding house and registered at a high school. Hristo put on a beautiful uniform with golden buttons, took a photo of himself and sent it to his parents. The much-kissed photo was his parents’ pride and joy, they showed it to everyone who visited them.
At first, Hristo signed his letters with ‘Your humble son – Hristo’ and described his life at the boarding house in detail. After a while, he started to write shorter and drier letters, signed with ‘Your son – Christopher.’ In time, fewer and fewer letters arrived. Finally, when he entered the Institute of Eastern Languages, he contacted them with a short letter of few lines, signed with ‘Yours – C. Belokrovskiy.’ After that, they never heard from him again…
And here was what happened: Hristo had dived head-first into the noisy, welcoming society, and when the waves threw him on a coast, he found himself separated from his past by an entire sea. He believed himself that he was an aristocrat.
‘God forbid the blind start seeing,’ says the Bulgarian proverb, and rightly so. The Bulgarians are not disgusted by the physically blind who have gained vision, but by the type of blind lout, the ones raised from nothing, from the mud, and then had, thanks to random circumstances, reached a height that they defile with their presence by any means possible.
Mister Belokrovskiy graduated from the Institute. The now aged Consul continued to support him until the last day of his studies and then, after having provided him with the necessary means, recommended him to go back to his country. Belokrovskiy didn’t listen to this advice and asked his benefactor for money several times more. When the latter declared that he was ready to help him only under the condition that he returned to his homeland, the diplomat wrote him a rude letter, in which he announced that he was ending his relations with him. The Council wasn’t disheartened by this; he had served for many years in the East and was familiar with the rudeness and lack of manners of the Easterners. In order to fulfill his duty until the end, he used his influence to obtain a place for Belokrovskiy at one of the agencies in Constantinople.
Some Bulgarian merchants regularly went to Constantinople to sell rams. When they met people there, they gradually learned that there was a Bulgarian named Belokrovskiy, who worked together with the Consul at one of the consulates. The merchants went back to Bulgaria, where they went around the villages, bought rams, and soon spread the word that a Bulgarian was working at a consulate in Constantinople. It also reached the village of Grandpa Petko.
“Who’s this Belokrovskiy? Peasants, isn’t this Petko Belokravchanina’s child?”
They asked Grandpa Petko. “Oh, I don’t know, my child, I don’t know. He wrote to me for a while and then stopped. He was studying to become a consul, but is he alive? Is he dead? That I don’t know,” he said.
“He’s alive, Grandpa Petko, he’s alive. He’s working at this consulate together with the Consul.”
“Is this true, peasants?”
“It’s true, Grandpa Petko!”
Grandpa Petko sold some land, filled a bag with bread, put it on, took his stick and said “Goodbye, wife! So long, peasants!” “Goodbye, husband!” “Farewell, Grandpa Petko!” – and he left for Constantinople. Burdened by work and hardships, burdened by old age, Grandpa Petko walked towards Constantinople! He reached Gabrovo, passed by it, went through the Balkan mountains… Oh child, oh dear child! He went through St. Nicholas, he passed by Shipka, Kazanlak, Zagora. He stopped, he rested, took a bite, slept, and then he went on again.
“Is Constantinople far away, mister?” Grandpa Petko asked the hardworking peasants.
“It is, grandpa, it is! But why do you want to go all the way to Constantinople, grandpa?”
“I have a son, my child, a son, he’s working with the Consul there, at the consulate!”
Grandpa Petko reached Adrianople. Big city, a whole moving world – it could make your head spin! The old man saw a water fountain, he stopped, got his hardened shoes wet, sprinkled cold water on his head, sat on the porch around the water fountain and started walking again. He asked Christians and Turks where the road towards Constantinople was, hastened to get out of the city, and there, on the field, he recharged his aging strength with sleep. Dawn or not, Grandpa Petko got up, tensed up, stretched his old joints, took the bag and started dragging his hardened feet again.
“Is Constantinople far away, aga?”
“It’s close, Grandpa, it’s close. Half a day’s travel away.”
“God give you health, aga, for the good word!” replied Grandpa Petko. Freshened by nearing the end of his journey, he began to walk with a spring in his step and reached the city itself by dusk.
Grandpa Petko was tired, but could he fall asleep? He dozed off, and there was his child, Hristo, shining before his eyes as he knew him from the picture, with yellow buttons, and he sprang to hug him and… Grandpa suddenly woke up. He dozed off again and there was his child Hristo, only with the little hemp shirt on, dirty and with yellow buttons on it… and these buttons were lighting up, shining… They’re laughing, all the buttons were laughing… No, they’re not laughing, but rather they’re ringing, ringing like bells… Many, many bells… Clouds of dust… And bells in the dust… And grandpa was chasing after the bells, the peasants were also running after him, shouting “Hey!”… Grandpa ran and almost got to the bells. He tripped into a pile of yellow buttons, the buttons dispersed and started ringing and laughing…
Again, Grandpa Petko suddenly woke up. Dawn had barely arrived, and on the field surrounding him a whole herd of rams were ringing their bells and bleating. The old man got up, put on his bag, crossed himself and soon sank into the still-sleeping streets of the huge city. He saw a café that was open; the servant in slippers was sprinkling the floor with water from a pitcher, sweeping in front of the door and around the porch where some old, Turkish early risers had already sat down. Grandpa Petko came by:
“Sabah hayır olsun!”
“Allah razı olsun!” the old men replied and made space for the traveler.
They struck up a conversation, asking him where he was coming from and why he came. Grandpa Petko told them that he’d come to see his son, who was working with the Consul at this consulate. The Turks congratulated him on raising such a child and ordered coffee for him. Grandpa drank the coffee and smoked a pipe of tobacco. The Turks told a boy to lead grandpa all the way to the consulate.
Grandpa Petko entered this consulate. The guard looked at him with contempt, but softened up when the old man told him that he was Belokrovskiy’s father.
“He’s still sleeping, grandpa, you’ll have to wait for an hour,” said the guard, who was Bulgarian, and led him into the doorman’s room, where he was treated to some tea.
“But why is he still sleeping, the sun rose a long time ago? Is he ill?” asked the old man worriedly.
“He’s not ill, grandpa, he’s fine. That’s how important people sleep,” replied the guard.
“But is he an important man?” Grandpa Petko asked, his heart fluttering with joy; tea spilled over the cup and burnt his hand, but he didn’t notice.
“He’s an important man, grandpa, he really is. I envy you for having such a son.”
“An important man? He-he-he!” Grandpa Petko’s heart was about to explode. “But he hasn’t told you anything about me… has he?”
“He hasn’t, grandpa, he doesn’t talk with us a lot. He’s always working with the consuls.”
“Really? With the consuls? He-he-he! But does he talk with the pasha?” the old man asked, already enjoying the coming answer.
“Who cares about the pashas, he talks with the vezir.”
“With the vezir? Now you’re going to say that he talks with the sultan too,” the old man suggested cautiously.
“Of course, he talks with the sultan too.”
“And with the sult–” The tears choked up the old man. He couldn’t take so much happiness and let those tears burst out in an unstoppable stream of joy and bliss.
The bell announced the important man’s awakening. After half an hour, when the servant had brought him tea, the guard, followed by Grandpa Petko, started descending the stairs. The guard made a plan in his head for how to set up the meeting, in order to produce a more effective surprise. And so he decided to knock on the door and bring the father in without the preliminary protocol. He really knocked on the door, opened it and pushed Grandpa Petko into the room…
“Your father, Your Highness!” shouted the guard cheerfully. The Doctor was stunned; he dropped his cup of tea… His indecisiveness lasted only for a second. He jumped up from his chair and, after staring at his father with the greatest contempt possible, roared: “How?! How dare you bring such…”
“Hristo! … My child!” Grandpa Petko managed to say.
“Take him out!” the Doctor shouted with a trembling voice. After grabbing a handful of coins from his table, he rudely gave them to his guard and growled with clenched teeth: “Here, give him this money, so that he can get out of here, do you hear me?”
“I hear you, Your Highness!”
And His Highness Christopher Petrovich Belokrovskiy slammed the door angrily.
God forbid the blind start seeing!
translation by Peter Slavov
The original Bulgarian story was published in 1849.
Aleko Konstantinov (Bulgaria, 1863-1897) was the first Bulgarian writer to write about his travels to Western Europe and America. His writings about Chicago (To Chicago and Back, 1894) evoked a lasting interest; Chicago still has the largest Bulgarian community in the United States. Konstantinov’s debut, a novel-in-stories titled Bay Ganyo, established the well-known comical anti-hero Uncle Ganyo, who also appeared in some of Konstantinov’s other works. In 1897 the writer was assassinated, probably by mistake – the target being the local politician he was travelling with – though some claim his critical essays on the ruling classes were the reason. Since 2003, Konstantinov is portrayed on the Bulgarian 100 levs banknote.