This prize-winning novel combines diverse moods, storylines and narrative genres: a German-Bulgarian funeral grotesque, a road novel, and a blackly humorous family drama centered around unfulfilled fatherly love.
A very different kind of family drama played out over a journey taken by two middle-aged sisters who are driven by the eponymous Rumen Apostotoloff to visit the much-hated land of their ancestors, this road-trip novel through Bulgaria is mostly full of verbal tirades, but is also quite funny.
The strange plot in this highly autobiographical novel interweaves three narrative threads.
The first is a macabre story in which the urns of 19 deceased Bulgarian exiles who fled to Germany after World War Two are returned to Sofia from Stuttgart.
With Apostoloff in the driver’s seat, the second subplot describes the two sisters' journey from Stuttgart through Bulgaria to attend the reburial of their father, Kristo.
The third thread recounts the family saga centered around the father who hanged himself at the age of 43. This occurs through the recollections of the younger daughter, the first-person narrator of the novel who cannot forgive her father.
All this is held together by a singular and unmistakable narrative voice. In the back seat of Rumen Apostoloff's car, the talkative younger sister sneers and slanders, scolds and condemns, damns and vilifies and defames. Yet her rants are always delivered with great humor and unerring wit. Nothing is safe from her sharp tongue.
Not the Stalinist atrocities of the defaced Black Sea coast; not the absurdities of the funeral procession; not the memories of the family disaster in stuffy Stuttgart. Lewitscharoff's narrator does not spare anyone or anything — not even herself.
Lewitscharoff signs a copy of Apostoloff after a reading in Bielefeld in 2009, the year the novel won the Leipzig Book Fair Prize
"We've had enough of Bulgaria before we even get to know it properly. Sad but true: we consider the Bulgarian language the most ghastly in the world," says the sister (whose name we never find out) before the trip has barely begun.
"Gone, finito, The End, I say. A father who puts an end to it all before he wears down the whole family deserves more praise than damnation," she adds later as she continues to process her father's death.
The virtuoso rhetoric comes increasingly to the fore as the story advances. But the witty aphoristic style and impish humor mask the pain of family events, and of an unacknowledged grief that is rising to the surface.
The fact that the author ironically disguised her satirical novel with a timbre of faith and assurances of salvation is an extra bonus that makes Apostoloff a very particular reading pleasure.
Sibylle Lewitscharoff: Apostoloff, Seagull, (German title: Apostoloff, 2009). English translation: Katy Derbyshire.
Sibylle Lewitscharoff was born in Stuttgart in 1954 to a Bulgarian father and a German mother. She studied Religious Studies in Berlin, where she now lives following long stays in Buenos Aires and Paris. In 1998, she received the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for the novel Pong, which was followed by the novels Der Höfliche Harald (1999), Montgomery (2003) and Consummatus (2006). Apostoloff was awarded the Leipzig Book Fair Prize in 2009. In 2013, she was awarded the Georg Büchner Prize, the most important German literary prize.