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To Chicago and Back: Aleko Konstantinov, Rose Oil, and the Smell of Modernity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 January 2017


In 1893 Aleko Konstantinov undertook a momentous journey to the Chicago World's Fair. Mary Neuburger explores the broader implications of this journey and its consequences for the Bulgarian encounter with the west and modernity, drawing special attention to the issue of smell. As chronicled in To Chicago and Back, written after his return, Konstantinov discovers both the New World and the quintessence of his own nation on the famous Midway Plaisance, where he meets the prototype for Bulgaria's greatest literary anti-hero—the indomitable Baĭ Gano. In Baĭ Gano—a fictional travelogue about a Bulgarian in Europe—as in To Chicago and Back, Konstantinov explores the theme of Bulgarian backwardness vis-à-vis a more developed (albeit imperfect) Europe and United States. As Baĭ Gano, a bumbling and stinky rose oil merchant, travels throughout “civilized“ Europe, olfactory contrasts and ironies emerge, highlighting the role of smell in evolving Bulgarian (and European) notions of modernity and “otherness.“

Copyright © Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. 2006

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1. Konstantinov, Aleko, “Moiata izpoved,” in Katskova, Lilia, ed., Aleko Konstantinov: Sŭchineniia (Sofia, 1970), 2:379.Google Scholar

2. For an excellent recent translation of this work into English by Robert Sturm, see Konstantinov, Aleko, To Chicago and Back (Sofia, 2004).Google Scholar

3. The most notable recent work on both the western travelogue and the Balkans, which also includes a discussion of Konstantinov's Baǐ Gano, is Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (Oxford, 1997)

4. Elevterov, Stefan, Poetikata na Aleko Konstantinov i nasheto literaturno razvitie: Izsledvane (Sofia, 1978), 68.Google Scholar

5. Konstantinov, Aleko, “Do Chikago i nazad,” in Tikhov, Tikhomir, ed., Aleko Konstantinov: Sŭbrani sŭchineniia (Sofia, 1980), 1:81.Google Scholar

6. I am well aware of the arbitrariness of the terms “East” and “West,” which reflect cultural constructs more than actual places. I use them here with some irony, but also with the recognition that many east Europeans (another term that has fallen out of favor, but I still find useful) did and still do see the “West” as somehow “other.“

7. According to the seminal work of Traian Stoianovich, the beneficiaries of both pax Ottomanica and Ottoman decline were the “conquering Orthodox merchants” who were middlemen in the golden era of Levantine trade and, in particular, in the period of European economic penetration. Stoianovich, Traian, “The Conquering Balkan Orthodox Merchant,“ Journal of Economic History 20, no. 2 (June 1960): 234313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

8. Konstantinov, Georgi, Aleko Konstantinov: Biografiia (Sofia, 1946), 5.Google Scholar

9. Georgiev, Liuben, Literaturnata klasika (Sofia, 1993), 3:6.Google Scholar

10. Konstantinov, “Moiata izpoved,” 379.

11. For a succinct discussion of Slavophiles versus Westernizers and the significance of ressentiment for Russian identity, see Greenfeld, Liah, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (Cambridge, Mass., 1992), 189274.Google Scholar On Slavophiles and Westernizers, see also the recent book, Rabow-Edling, Susanna, Slavophile Thought and the Politics of Cultural Nationalism (Albany, 2006).Google Scholar

12. Konstantinov, Aleko Konstantinov, 43.

13. Moser, Charles, A History of Bulgarian Literature: 865-1944 (The Hague, 1972), 111.Google Scholar

14. On the Stambolov era, see Perry, Duncan, Stefan Stambolov and the Emergence of Modern Bulgaria, 1870-1895 (Durham, 1993).Google Scholar

15. Nichev, Aleksandŭr, Aleko Konstantinov: 1863-1897 (Sofia, 1964), 107.Google Scholar

16. Georgiev, Literaturnata klasika, 3:22.

17. Blagoev, Dimitŭr, “Baǐ Gano—Predvestnik na oformenite dnes kheroi na kapitalisma,” in Tikhov, Tikhomir, ed., Bŭlgarskata kritika za Aleko Konstantinov: Sbornik statii, 1897-1969 (Sofia, 1970), 25.Google Scholar

18. “Baǐ” is simply a tide of respect. In addition to Baǐ Gano jokes and sayings, Bulgarians often call each other Gano or “Baǐganovtsi” (Baǐ Gano-type person) as a lighthearted insult. Georgiev, Literaturnata klasika, 3:45.

19. Although most sources agree that Baǐ Gano is an unsympathetic character at his core, others see Baǐ Gano as having positive national meaning—that is, of remaining true to his distinctive Bulgarian nature rather than adopting a homogenized European one. For a discussion of this interpretive trajectory, see Daskalov, Rumen, Mezhdu iztoka izapada: Bŭlgarski kulturni dilemi (Sofia, 1998), 124.Google Scholar

20. For useful analyses from each period, see Tikhov, ed., Bŭlgarskata kritika za Aleko Konstantinov, and Anchev, Panko, Stranitsi za Aleko Konstantinov: Tvorchestvoto na pisatelia v bŭlgarskata literaturna kritika (Varna, 1991).Google Scholar For the best overall synthesis and analysis of “Baǐganovedeniie” (the study of Baǐ Gano), see Daskalov, Mezhdu iztoka i zapada, 116-73.

21. Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, 39-42.

22. Daskalov, Roumen, “Modern Bulgarian Society and Culture through the Mirror of Baǐ Ganio,” Slavic Review 60, no. 3 (Fall 2001): 530-49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

23. The most obvious and best-known work on these issues is Todorova, Imagining the Balkans. I do not wish to rehash here my arguments in full on these issues, but in contrast to Maria Todorova, I believe in the relevance of the concept of “orientalism” for the Balkans. See Neuburger, Mary, The Orient Within: Muslim Minorities and the Negotiation of Nationhood in Modern Bulgaria (Ithaca, 2004), 35.Google Scholar Others who have written on orientalism and travel literature in the Balkans include, Milica Bakić-Hayden and Robert M. Hayden, “Orientalist Variations on the Theme ‘Balkans': Symbolic Geography in Recent Yugoslav Cultural Politics,” Slavic Review 51, no. 1 (Spring 1992): 1-15; Bakić-Hayden, Milica, “Nesting Orientalisms: The Case of Former Yugoslavia,” Slavic Review, 54, no. 4 (Winter 1995): 917-31CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Allcock, John and Young, Antonia, eds., Black Lambs and Grey Falcons: Women Travellers in the Balkans (Bradford, Eng., 1991), 170-91Google Scholar; and Jezernik, Božidar, WildEurope: The Balkans in the Gaze of Western Travellers (London, 2004).Google Scholar On eastern Europe as a whole (with a focus on the north), see Wolff, Larry, Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (Stanford, 1994).Google Scholar

24. Todorova does explore some works of Balkan self-criticism and self-designation but not necessarily the encounter through travel. Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, 38-61.

25. The most notable work to begin to fully analyze this process was Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York, 1978). Of course, a whole literature has emerged that both challenges and refines Said.

26. A great deal of work outside eastern Europe addresses such issues. For one close to home, see Herzfeld, Michael, Ours Once More: Folklore, Ideology, and the Making of Modern Greece (Austin, 1982).Google Scholar

27. Konstantinov, “Moiata izpoved,” 379.

28. As Purbrick argues in the case of the Great Exhibition in 1851, fair audiences were far from passive consumers of capitalist or imperialist messages. Rather they became active participants who “inhabited the modern political subjectivities associated with consenting and consuming.” Purbrick, Louise, “Introduction,” in Purbrick, Louise, ed., The Great Exhibition of 1851: New Interdisciplinary Essays (Manchester, Eng., 2001), 15.Google Scholar

29. Konstantinov, “Do Chikago i nazad,” 73.

30. Ibid., 74.

31. Bennett, Tony, “The Exhibitionary Complex,” in Dirks, Nicholas B., Eley, Geoff, and Ortner, Sherry B., eds., Culture/Power/History: A Reader in Contemporary Social Theory (Princeton, 1994), 123.Google Scholar

32. The most prominent scholar in this so-called cultural hegemony school is Robert Rydell. See Rydell, Robert, All the World's a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916 (Chicago, 1987)Google Scholar; Rydell, Robert, Findling, John, and Pelle, Kimberly, eds., Fair America: World's Fairs in the United States (Washington, D.C., 2000)Google Scholar; and Rydell, Robert and Gwinn, Nancy, eds., Fair Representations: World's Fairs and the Modern World (Amsterdam, 1994).Google Scholar

33. Rydell, All the World's a Fair, 2-7. Notably, though most seem to agree on the apparent racism operative in the world's fairs, many disagree that the physical layout of the fair encoded such relationships spatially. See, for example, Çelik, Zeynep, Displaying the Orient: Architecture of Islam at Nineteenth-Century World's Fairs (Berkeley, 1992), 164 Google Scholar; and Muccigrosso, Robert, Celebrating the New World: Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893 (Chicago, 1993), 151.Google Scholar

34. As noted by Rydell, Denton Snider, a well-known American literary critic at the time of the Chicago fair, dubbed the arrangement of ethnic villages along the Midway the “sliding scale of humanity.” Rydell, All the World's a Fair, 65.

35. Most of the literature on world's fairs tends to focus on the hegemonic intent and results of display. A smaller but growing body of work includes the far messier and complex realm of the participant/observer side of the fairs. See, for example, Purbrick, Great Exhibition of 1851; Walden, Keith, Becoming Modern in Toronto: The Industrial Exhibition and the Shaping of a Late Victorian Culture (Toronto, 1997)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Tenorio-Trillo, Mauricio, Mexico at the World'sFairs: Crafting a Modern Nation (Berkeley, 1996)Google Scholar; Hoffenberg, Peter, An Empire on Display: English, Indian, and Australian Exhibitions from the Crystal Palace to the Great War (Berkeley, 2001)Google Scholar; and Findley, Carter Vaughn, “An Ottoman Occidentalist in Europe: Ahmed Midhat Meets Madame Giilnar, 1889,” American Historical Review 103, no. 1 (February 1998): 1549.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

36. Bennett, “The Exhibitionary Complex,” 148.

37. Hoffenberg, An Empire on Display, xiv.

38. Findley, “An Ottoman Occidentalist,” 17; and Walden, Becoming Modern in Toronto, 334-35.

39. Celik, Displaying the Orient, 18.

40. Mitchell, Timothy, Colonizing Egypt (Berkeley, 1988), 1.Google Scholar

41. Findley, “An Ottoman Occidentalism” 38-39.

42. Findley describes occidentalism as a “counter-discourse” that developed in response to orientalism and “became an important component of anti-colonial nationalism.” Ibid., 17. On the concept of occidentalism, see also Carrier, James, ed., Occidentalism: Images of the West (Oxford, 1995).Google Scholar

43. Lewis, Arnold, An Early Encounter with Tomorrow: Europeans, Chicago's Loop, and the World's Columbian Exposition (Urbana, 1997), 17.Google Scholar

44. Here Lewis cites Paul de Rousiers, a French economist from this period. Ibid., 16.

45. Konstantinov, “Do Chikago i nazad,” 46.

46. Ibid., 95.

47. Ibid., 79.

48. Rydell, All the World's a Fair, 5. Not all historians agree on this point. Muccigrosso, for example, while concurring that racism was prevalent in the fair's organization and in the displays, also argued that the organization of national exhibits was rather haphazard and that European pavilions were not given privileged positions in relation to nonwestern exhibits. Muccigrosso, Celebrating the New World, 164.

49. Rydell, All the World's a Fair, 57.

50. Ibid., 57-65.

51. Çelik, Displaying the Orient, 51.

52. Incidentally, Aleko makes it clear that he hates American food. Konstantinov, “Do Chikago i nazad,” 39.

53. Ibid., 65.

54. Ibid., 58.

55. Bancroft, Hubert Howe, Book of the Fair: An Historical and Descriptive Presentation of the World's Science, Art, and Industry, as Viewed through the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893 (New York, 1893), 1:218-19.Google Scholar

56. Konstantinov, “Do Chikago i nazad,” 59.

57. World's Columbia Exposition, Souvenir: Bulgaria, World's Columbia Exposition 1893 (Chicago, 1893), 3-4.

58. Konstantinov, “Do Chikago i nazad,” 65.

59. Ibid., 75.

60. Ibid., 77.

61. Ibid.

62. Gano Somov is dressed in a fashion that, even at that time, was rapidly dying out in Bulgaria in favor of more modern European pants and hats. See Neuburger, The Orient Within, 90.

63. In the 1890s the practice of falsifying rose oil, usually by either mixing it or replacing it with geranium oil, was widespread. This was harmful to the rose oil industry; since quality could not always be guaranteed, buyers became increasingly wary. See Irinchev, Ivan, Ognenski, Georgi, and Delev, Petur, Rozoproizvodstvoto v Kazanlŭshkata (Tundzhanskata) dolina (Sofia, 1994), 75.Google Scholar

64. See Konstantinov's description of this scene in Konstantinov, “Do Chikago i nazad,” 61-62.

65. Note that Konstantinov has changed his last name from “Somov” to “Balkanski,” the adjectival form of Balkan, which seems indicative of his status as a Balkan—as opposed to just a Bulgarian — prototype.

66. Aleko, who died too young to make considerable money off the book, never obliged. Daskalov, Mezhdu iztoka i zapada, 143-44.

67. Konstantinov, “Do Chikago i nazad,” 96.

68. Ibid., 43.

69. Konstantinov, Aleko, “Baǐ Gano: Neveroiatni razkazi za edin suvremenen biilgarin,” in Tikhov, , ed., Aleko Konstantinov, 1:109.Google Scholar

70. Totev, Petko P., Aleko Konstantinov: Tvorcheski portreti (Sofia, 1977), 39.Google Scholar

71. Konstantinov, “Baǐ Gano,” 145.

72. The Valley of the Roses on the south side of the Balkan Mountain range has the perfect climate to support the highly fragrant Rosa damascena—the primary variety of roses produced in Bulgaria.

73. Khristo Vakarelski, Etnografiia na Bŭlgariia (Sofia, 1974), 391. The rose—or in Turkish (derived from Arabic) gül—has historically been a prized flower in the Middle East, where fragrance was woven into life, death, prayer, hospitality, and cleanliness in a way it never was in premodern Europe. Ibid., 124.

74. Irinchev, Ognenski, and Delev, Rozoproizvodstvoto v Kazanlŭshkata, 68-75.

75. Zarev, Kosio, Istoriia na rozoproizvodstvo v Bulgariia (Plovdiv, 1996), 18.Google Scholar For the most thorough discussion of the revival and its historiography, see Daskalov, Rumen, The Making of a Nation in the Balkans: Historiography of the Bulgarian Revival (Budapest, 2004).Google Scholar

76. Irinchev, Ognenski, and Delev, Rozoproizvodstvoto v kazanlushkata, 75.

77. Konstantinov, “Baǐ Gano,” 112.

78. Ibid., 144.

79. The Europeans themselves were relative latecomers to the use of soap and regular bathing. The eastern Mediterranean and much of the Muslim world used olive oilbased soaps for centuries prior to the nineteenth. Their history of public baths and ritual bathing predated (and were distinct from) the modern concepts of European “hygiene” that Konstantinov alludes to. On the soap industry, see, for example, Doumani, Beshara, Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700-1900 (Berkeley, 1995), chap. 5.Google Scholar

80. McClintock, Anne, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York, 1995), 208.Google Scholar

81. Soap was displayed as early as 1851 at the Crystal Palace exhibition in London and in all subsequent nineteenth-century exhibits as a material symbol of British prosperity, well-being, and cleanliness. See Hoffenberg, An Empire on Display, 101.

82. Guérer, Annick Le, Scent: The Essential and Mysterious Powers of Smell (New York, 1994), 33.Google Scholar

83. Ibid., 30-31.

84. Vakarelski, Etnografiia na Bŭlgariia, 441.

85. Burgess, Richard, Greece and the Levant, or Diary of a Summer's Excursion, 1834 (London, 1835), 7.Google Scholar

86. Stanislas Graham Bower St. Clair and Charles Brophy, A Residence in Bulgaria, or Notes on the Resources and Administration of Turkey (London, 1869), 283.

87. Although the use of synthetic scents and stabilizers was ultimately detrimental to the market value of Bulgarian rose oil, natural essences would always find their place in the modern day alchemy of perfume making.

88. Konstantinov, “Baǐ Gano,” 161.

89. Zarev, Istoriia na rozoproizvodstvo, 204.

90. T. Kunchev, Mostrenite panairi (Sofia, 1928), 6.

91. Bulgaria at the Universal Exposition: Saint Louis 1904: Official Catalogue (n.p., n.d.), 1-20.

92. Konstantinov, “Baǐ Gano,” 41.

93. Mikhail Nedelchev, “Dvumodelnostta na ‘Baǐ Gano,'” in Anchev, Stranitsi za Aleko Konstantinov, 168.

94. Konstantinov, Aleko, “Skromna lepta na obshta zhertveniia,” in Katskova, , ed., Aleko Konstantinov: Sŭchineniia, 2:177.Google Scholar

95. Ibid.

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