Book review: Dancing Bears: True Stories About Longing for the Old Days, by Witold Szabłowski
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Another version of this book, newly published in its first English translation, has the subtitle “True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny”. That sums up perfectly what it’s about – stories about how and seemingly why humans and trained bears can’t seem to break the bonds that held them under Communism and captivity, respectively.
Polish writer Witold Szabłowski writes a book reminiscent of the social travel narratives written by his countryman Ryszard Kapuściński. The first half tells the story of the famous dancing bears of Bulgaria, a long-standing cottage industry in some Eastern European countries. Romani have been “training” brown bears to “dance” for years, considering it a tradition of sorts, as well as the main moneymaker for some families. Until 2007, when the last ones were confiscated by an animal sanctuary, Belitsa Dancing Bear Park in Bulgaria.
I use “training” and “dance” lightly, because much as some captors strenuously deny it, most of their training techniques seem to stem from abuse and punishment. Not to mention the metal ring piercing their noses used to forcibly control them and create the illusion of dancing when chained to the keeper’s fiddle. They’re fed bread, candy, and alcohol, the latter two of which they’re often addicted to, and obviously none of which are part of a healthy or typical bear diet. The Dancing Bear Park, where they can live out the rest of their lives protected under careful observation, but still with more freedom and closer to the natural life they would’ve had if they hadn’t spent years “working”, is a paradise considering what they were subjected to.
And yet, like many of the people who survived Communism in the surrounding lands, the bears are often overwhelmed by so much freedom. They revert to their old ways, standing on their hind legs and swaying when they’re stressed, confused, or, sadly, overwhelmed by too much time on their hands, since they don’t have to forage for food as they would in the wild. Sometimes it’s just a Pavlovian response to the sight of humans.
When they see a human being, they stand up on their hind legs and start rocking from side to side. As if they were begging, as in the past, for bread, candy, a sip of beer, a caress, or to be free of pain. Pain that nobody has been inflicting on them for years.
It’s not all happily ever after for other reasons beyond the bears’ hard-to-break habits: the residents of the village of Belitsa aren’t exactly thrilled to have the wildlife refuge in their town, especially when they find out how much it costs to run and care for the animals. The amounts of money are astronomical to them (half of the park’s funding comes from Brigitte Bardot), and it is somewhat difficult to reconcile the expensive rehabilitation project in the midst of a country still slowly, painfully recovering from Communism. Despite their grumbling, the animal abuse had to end and the park brings tourism to the town, but that’s part of the lesson here – change doesn’t come easy to these lands after authoritarian control.
Regime-Change Land is the lava that began to pour from the volcano known as the “Soviet Union and its satellites” shortly before it erupted and ceased to exist. Our part of the world did of course have an earlier existence – the Poles, Serbs, Hungarians, and Czechs, for example, have long histories. But since World War II we had been living in the Soviet sphere of influence, put on ice by the agreements concluded at Yalta by Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill, which had left us on the dark side of the balance of power.
Szabłowski is adept at drawing parallels between the bears and the people of the former Communist and Iron Curtain countries. The book, despite the often heavy or grim subject matter, is a delight to read. The material is fascinating, the writing compelling and often surprisingly funny and witty, and the storytelling is excellent in translation. There’s almost something similar to Svetlana Alexievich about his style, particularly in the book’s second half, which addresses the human beings of multiple countries used to authoritarian rule, longing misty-eyed for the better days of the past. He allows them to speak in their own words, often extended monologues, where they vent their frustrations and compare life then and now. Unlike Alexievich, he writes much more about his travels and the history himself, and his curation of his interview subjects isn’t the majority of the book.
Cuba, Poland (also by way of London), Ukraine, Georgia, Albania, Estonia, Serbia and Greece are among the countries visited and residents profiled in the book’s second half. Greece seemed an odd inclusion, but the story is about the recent financial and economic troubles and subsequent relationship to Germany, and the Greek perception of capitalism. It was interesting, even though I felt it didn’t quite fit with the others. But then again, the same could be said for Cuba, but I found that chapter’s story and interview subjects more compelling.
One of the most fascinating chapters for me was his visit to the Caucasus, where Szabłowski introduces the “vestal virgins” or “Stalinettes” of the Gori Stalin Museum. They hero-worship the dictator and argue with tourists who confront them about having a museum that doesn’t recognize the crimes he inflicted on his own people and those of the Soviet satellites. They continue to vehemently explain away common complaints.
The author doesn’t often include his questions, structuring exchanges rather as monologues from his subjects, letting the impact of their own personal stories come through. But his influence can be seen, especially in this chapter at the Stalin Museum, where an employee’s monologue includes: “Murders? I’ve just about had enough of you. Here we have a sort of unwritten agreement that if a tourist really gets under our skin, we can go outside the museum to argue with him. But right now we are inside the museum, and I have to stick to the script.”
She goes on to berate the Polish people for their frequent attacks on Stalinist history when visiting the museum, saying she doesn’t know what to think of them considering this, but that they’ve come to her country’s aid in the past too, so it’s complicated for her. There are so many contradictory or stubborn viewpoints espoused in these stories, it’s a wonder Szabłowski had the patience to endure some of their assertions. But it provides a detailed picture, and it definitely makes for excellent reading.
An employee at the Belitsa Dancing Bear Park says about the bear’s reactions when they first arrive and are released into the protected park after their medical checkups: “When we finally let them out into the forest, they never knew what to do, and at first they’d be just about reeling with freedom…I don’t blame them. If someone’s only been out on a chain for the past twenty years, that’s a normal reaction.”
Szabłowski’s case for the dancing bear allegory is well earned, and this book manages to do so many things at once and do them well: tell a humane story of how a cruel practice of animal captivity was brought to its end as kindly and carefully as possible, while simultaneously humans struggle to deal with newfound autonomy just like freed animals do. Both revert to habit, memory, and a dangerous, flawed nostalgia.
Beautifully told stories of the complications of being handed freedom after living restricted, under control, with solid parallels between an inhumane entertainment custom and the people of many countries who found themselves asking the same question after authoritarianism crumbled and they were left faced with democracy and unprepared to assume the responsibility it demanded: What do we do now?
My rating: 4.5/5
Dancing Bears: True Stories About Longing for the Old Days
by Witold Szabłowski
translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
published March 6, 2018 by Text Publishing (UK) and Penguin (US)
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.