Party Headquarters takes place in the 80s and 90s in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster and communist Bulgaria’s transition to democracy. We join up with the narrator in Hamburg as he visits his dying father-in-law, an exiled former communist boss identified only as K-Shev. Our protagonist, who, like most of the characters in the book, remains unnamed throughout, is tasked with collecting a briefcase full of money for the cancer-stricken K-Shev—getaway money stashed by the former leader as Bulgaria’s communist party crumbled. What follows is the story of a man in anguish, whose tortured memories seem to leap out of the pages and engulf the reader in a hallucinatory, radioactive whirlpool where thoughts, images, and characters burst in and out of time and space in disorienting explosions of near-chaos.
The book is divided into three short sections, each piecing together in muddled bits a narrative that is at once haunting love story, aching reflection, and vengeful thriller. We experience our narrator as a man who seems to simultaneously exist in the past and present, living through each instance in his memory and each moment of the present with dispassionate commentary that quickly erupts into outbursts of anguish as he struggles to comprehend the unanswered questions, disillusionment, and anger leftover from years gone by.
He returns to the days following the Chernobyl disaster, when communist leaders, in what he considers a spectacular display of incompetence and finger-pointing, failed to tell the people of the dangers they faced as the radioactive fallout seeped into the soil, air, and drinking water. He remembers, with a certain bitterness, how his wife, K-Shev’s daughter, was taken and tested for radiation poisoning while the masses were left uninformed and suffering. We learn of his participation in a communist youth Pioneer camp, the time he spent as a soldier in the army, his attempts to become a pilot, cosmonaut, and medical student, his presence at the burning of the Bulgarian Communist Party Headquarters, and his struggle to discover his identity while the world crumbled around him.
K-Shev is omnipresent throughout, a supernatural force who hovers menacingly on the shadowy edges of the narrator’s every memory, an inescapable tormenter. The protagonist never seems to be quite sure if K-Shev is in fact a man or some monstrous construct of all the communist party’s failings, and though he gains some small satisfaction from the cancer slowly killing his father-in-law, the man of many crimes whose actions (or lack thereof) caused thousands upon thousands of people to die painful, slow deaths, he is tortured by the finality of the man’s eventual demise. He knows that in the moment of K-Shev’s death, the protagonist cannot escape the terrifying possibility that K-Shev will take his final, immortal place as the ghost in the protagonist’s dreams:
“To tell you the truth, I know that in the end his death will rob me of everything. It will leave me only the monuments, from which you can’t demand accountability, not for anything.”
Party Headquarters, winner of the Vick Foundation Novel of the Year Award and artfully translated by Angela Rodel, is a poetically gritty, vivid examination of the aftermath of the fall of communism in Bulgaria, and particularly the lasting effects of the Chernobyl disaster on the people who lived through it. Tenev delivers a grotesquely humorous, deeply heartbreaking, and absurdly beautiful story, and his haunting, hallucinogenic writing remains with the reader long after the last page is read.