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A Captivating Mind | The Nation

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A Captivating Mind

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Luben Markov lives in a house of memory. The coffee table in the upstairs living room is strewn with letters, newspaper clippings, typewritten manuscripts and court decisions; video and audio recordings are stashed in the cabinets of an antique sideboard; bulky ring binders, organized by year, line one of the walls in the room next door; along a staircase, several wall-mounted shelves buckle under the weight of books on communism, totalitarianism and Soviet-era intelligence services.

A tall, 70-year-old retiree with grizzled hair and large spectacles, Luben lives alone with a shaggy shepherd dog on the old family property in Knyazhevo, a rural suburb of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. It was here, at the foot of Vitosha Mountain, that his cousin, the writer Georgi Markov, grew up—and where, in 1969, Georgi came to bid goodbye to his relatives before driving across the border to Yugoslavia. “He took out some money from his pocket and said, ‘Luben, go have a drink with your friends. Drink to my health. I’m going abroad for a while.’ And that was it. He got into his car and drove off.”

Nine years later, Georgi was dead. A dissident writer and radio journalist living in London whose weekly broadcast, In Absentia: Reports About Bulgaria, had gained a dedicated following in his native land, Markov was assassinated in broad daylight, shot in the thigh with a miniature poisonous pellet by an agent of the Bulgarian State Security Service (SSS). At the time, it was assumed that the murder weapon had been a modified umbrella gun, and the case became known worldwide as “the Bulgarian Umbrella.” It was one of the most lurid and mysterious assassinations of the Cold War era.

In the last photograph taken of Markov, an enlarged copy of which hangs in the hallway of Luben’s house, the writer looks directly into the camera from behind horn-rimmed glasses. Even though his legs are casually crossed, his eyes seem worried, fearful, almost pleading. Absent are the smile and sparkle that grace other photographs of him. He holds a pocket notebook and is nervously thumbing through it.

Since 1989, when the communist regime in Bulgaria collapsed in a palace coup, Luben has made it his sole objective to assist the investigation of his cousin’s murder, as well as to promote his literary legacy. He has facilitated the publication, and reprinting, of Markov’s essays, novels and plays; organized annual memorial events and readings; compiled a collection of Markov’s personal letters and documents; and put investigators in touch with key witnesses. So crammed is his mind with Markovia that occasionally he has difficulty processing it, stumbling from one topic to the next. In a sense, Luben has become his cousin’s double. “I’ve adopted many of Georgi’s thoughts and attitudes as my own laws,” he says. “I want the truth. That’s what I want. As Georgi writes in one essay, it’s the issue of our time, of all times—truth!”

But truth has been hard to come by. Markov’s name—once expunged from all public records—has been restored to Bulgaria’s official history. Yet last year, thirty-five years after his assassination, with no suspect arrested and no admission of guilt or expression of remorse from the Bulgarian state, the statute of limitations expired and the Bulgarian prosecutor ordered the investigation closed.

Sitting on an old sofa across from me, Luben Markov begins reading aloud from a manuscript of one of his cousin’s essays. The text has the ring of biblical prophecy: “After five, ten, fifty, a hundred years an invisible computer will come into existence, which will sift through the whole past and will bring all to light: a consolation to some and a threat to others.”

* * *

When Georgi Markov left Bulgaria in 1969, at the age of 40, he was one of the country’s most lionized writers, the darling of readers and, until that point, party officials. By all accounts, his success was astounding. He was a chemical engineer by education and worked in various factories in his youth, writing only in his spare time; yet his second novel, Men, was named novel of the year by the Bulgarian Writers’ Union in 1962. Markov was immediately granted full membership in the organization, an unprecedented honor at that time.

The award flung open all of the important doors. Men was quickly adapted into a movie, a play and a radio drama, and translations of the novel appeared throughout the Eastern bloc. Markov’s subsequent books were also praised by critics and his plays staged in major theaters in Sofia and across the country. He was appointed to a cushy editorial position at Narodna Mladezh, one of the most prestigious Bulgarian publishing houses. And that, in turn, brought him more rewards and privileges.

Something of a bon vivant, Markov—or Gerry, as his friends called him—wore sporty polo-neck sweaters and drove a BMW at a time when even Soviet-made cars were a rarity in Sofia. He frequented the city’s most fashionable cafes with his friends and enjoyed listening to Louis Armstrong and Charles Aznavour on his reel-to-reel tape deck, a precious commodity. He attended glamorous parties with the Bulgarian nomenklatura and knew a number of ministers and SSS officers. Eventually, he met Todor Zhivkov, first secretary of the Communist Party and the country’s dictator, who invited him on nature hikes and to extravagant dinners. Ever since Bulgaria’s liberation from Ottoman rule in the late nineteenth century, literature had been intimately entangled with Bulgarian politics and the forging of a national consciousness, and the communist regime simply reinforced the trend. Writers were not just artists but, as Stalin had put it, “engineers of the human soul.” If Bulgaria had a celebrity writer-engineer in the 1960s, his name was Georgi Markov.

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