BARELY BEARABLE

Geist - - Endnotes - —Thad Mcil­roy

Who knew that a book about bears in Bul­garia would be a laugh-out-loud de­light? Wi­told Sz­abłowski’s Danc­ing Bears: True Sto­ries of Peo­ple Nostal­gic for Life Un­der Tyranny (Pen­guin), trans­lated by An­to­nia Lloyd-jones tells the story of Bul­gar­ian gyp­sies and the move to democ­racy in Eastern Europe (and else­where). For gen­er­a­tions the gyp­sies have been rais­ing bears and teach­ing them to dance and per­form tricks. By most ac­counts the train­ing was far more stick than car­rot: a hot-metal ring was in­serted in the young bear’s nose, and the bear was then of­ten beaten, and its teeth re­moved as a pre­cau­tion. The bears were fed mostly bread and can­dies and enough beer and hard liquor that some be­came al­co­holics. Af­ter the “lib­er­a­tion” of Eastern Europe, the char­ity Four Paws (with sup­port from Brigitte Bar­dot) be­gan to move for an end to pri­vate cit­i­zens keep­ing bears, and by 2007 the last of the bears were con­fis­cated from their own­ers. Four Paws es­tab­lished a park in the small Bul­gar­ian town of Belitsa to house the bears. By all ac­counts the bears’ treat­ment in Belitsa is cushy, far eas­ier than in na­ture, and cer­tainly a great im­prove­ment over their lives be­fore. The tragi­com­edy be­gins as we learn what it takes to wres­tle a bear from its keeper; part of Sz­abłowski’s achieve­ment with this book is that we sym­pa­thize with the gyp­sies along­side the bears. Sz­abłowski does a mas­ter­ful job of con­trast­ing the new free­doms in for­mer Com­mu­nist coun­tries with the new free­doms of the Belitsa bears. How do we get them to stop danc­ing, fear­ing a pun­ish­ment that’s no longer ad­min­is­tered? Or per­haps, just per­haps, do they long to re­turn to the old days, when at least they knew where they stood?

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