In his part history of Bulgarian literature/part survey of the career of contemporary Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov, Dimiter Kenarov remarks that to appreciate Gospopdinov "one does not have to be Bulgarian, or to know the name of the Bulgarian president" and that his novel Natural Novel (Dalkey Archive) "has all the necessary visas to travel comfortably between countries and translations without losing the identity of its vision" (Boston Review). In his review of the novel, J. M. Tyree echoes this assertion of Gospodinov's transnational appeal by suggesting that Natural Novel "belongs more to the cosmopolitan postmodern aesthetic of Italo Calvino than its native locale" and that "the novel could have been set almost anywhere" (The Believer).
It was my experience of Natural Novel as well that a distinctively Bulgarian milieu seemed curiously absent, although Bulgarian readers would surely be more readily able to identify those elements of such a milieu that are depicted. And it was also my experience that the novel had something in common with the work of a writer like Calvino, or with the "postmodern aesthetic" in general. It may be the second impression that is partly responsible for the first, but in Natural Novel, postmodernism is applied so lightly that its "cosmopolitan" effect can't really fully account for the fact the novel "could have been set almost anywhere."
Natural Novel shares this characteristic with two other works of Eastern European fiction I have read in the past few years, Magdalena Tulli's Flaw and Dumitru Tsepeneag's Vain Art of the Fugue. Since my acquaintance with contemporary fiction from Eastern European countries is limited, I do not want to make generalizations about it--although Kenarov's essay does seem to suggest that it is precisely Gospodinov's "cosmopolitan" approach that makes him a significant figure among current Bulgarian writers--nor could I offer any especially keen insights that would explain the abstracted, "anywhere" quality of these three books, even if there is some cultural or literary factor that unites them. What immediately comes to mind as a possible explanation is a post-Communist rejection of "realism" as a whole, including but not restricted to the "socialist" variety, which entails a movement away from local details and cultural "texture" and, perhaps, an embrace of the Western decadence of postmodernism.
Although I enjoyed all three of these novels, most recently Natural Novel, their accessibility "between countries and translations" ultimately leaves me feeling ambivalent about them and about the "globalization" of fiction more generally. On the one hand, their metafictional strategies are appealing to me, as a reader sympathetic to this postmodern variant, but on the other hand I also find the thinness of detail and texture vaguely unsastisfying. One of the arguments often made on behalf of translated fiction is precisely that it provides us an avenue of increased acquaintance with "foreign" cultures, but a book like Natural Novel often seems to reflect our own culture back to American readers, both in literal references to American culture ("Remember how in Pulp Fiction Bruce Willis goes back to get his watch and decides to toast Pop Tarts, while Travolta is reading in the john?" one man asks another in a conversation about toilets) and in its fragmented and self-conscious narrative devices, most of which seem to me to derive primarily from American postmodernism--indeed, while writers like Calvino and Borges are among the original inspirations of literary postmodernism, that inspiration was initially and most fully expressed in postmodern American fiction of the 1960s and 1970s. Natural Novel finally reads to me most like a synthesis of the narrative manner and techniques of writers such as John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Gilbert Sorrentino.
This familiarity perhaps helps Gospodinov or Tulli more easily find English-language readers, but I wonder if these writers aren't being translated in the first place because their work is more likely to attract such an audience as exists for translations. A work like Natural Novel certainly offers itself to a critic who must read it in translation (namely me) in a more readily accessible way--if nothing else, I have a working knowledge of postmodern devices and the postmodern sensibility--but I can't think that a globalized fiction that makes it less necessary to attend to Bulgarian or Polish or Rumanian as literary languages with their own distinctive features, or that mitigates the effort to understand an "alien" culture, is altogether a good thing.