One of the most terrible legacies of our century is the concentration camp. Countless men and women have passed through camps in Nazi Germany, Communist China, and the Soviet bloc countries. In his book Tzvetan Todorov singles out the experience of one country where the concentration camps were particularly brutal and emblematic of the horrors of totalitarianism—communist Bulgaria. The voices we hear in this book are mostly from Lovech, a rock quarry in Bulgaria that became the final destination for several thousand men and women during its years of operation from 1959 to 1962. The inmates, though drawn from various social, professional, and economic backgrounds, shared a common fate: they were torn from their homes by secret police, brutally beaten, charged with fictitious crimes, and shipped to Lovech. Once there, they were forced to endure backbreaking labor, inadequate clothing, shelter, and food, systematic beatings, and institutionalized torture.
We also hear from guards, commandants, and bureaucrats whose lives were bound together with the inmates in an absurd drama. Regardless of their grade and duties, all agree that those responsible for these "excesses" were above or below them, yet never they themselves. Accountability is thereby diffused through the many strata of the state apparatus, providing legal defenses and ""clear"" consciences. Yet, as the concluding section of interviews—with the children and wives of the victims—reminds us, accountability is a moral and historical imperative.
The testimonies... were written specifically for this volume or have been published in the Bulgarian press or on Bulgarian television. Todorov compiled them for this book and has written an introductory essay—a lucid and troubling analysis of totalitarianism and the role that terror and the concentration camp play in such a world. He reflects upon his own experience living in Bulgaria during the years when Lovech was in operation. It is through that experience that Todorov has sought to understand the totalitarian horrors of our century.
Although Lovech and the other camps of Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe have been closed down, concentration camps still exist in the countries whose communist regimes remain in power—Vietnam, China, North Korea, and Cuba. The voices in this book remind us that we are never completely safe from the threat of totalitarianism, a threat that we all must face.
Tzvetan Todorov (Bulgarian: Цветан Тодоров) (born March 1, 1939) is a Franco-Bulgarian historian and essayist, to use his own definition of himself. He has lived in France since 1963 and now lives there with his wife, Nancy Huston, and their two children, writing books and essays about literary theory, thought history and culture theory.
Todorov has published a total of 21 books, including The Poetics of Prose (1971), Introduction to Poetics (1981), The Conquest of America (1982), Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle (1984), Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps (1991), On Human Diversity (1993), Hope and Memory (2000), and Imperfect Garden: The Legacy of Humanism (2002). Todorov's historical interests have focused on such crucial issues as the conquest of The Americas and the Nazi and Stalinist concentration camps.
Todorov has been a visiting professor at several universities, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia and the University of California, Berkeley.
Todorov's honors include the Bronze Medal of the CNRS, the Charles Lévêque Prize of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques and the first Maugean Prize of the Académie française and the Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences; he also is an Officer of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
odorov's greatest contribution to literary theory was his defining of the Fantastic, the fantastic uncanny, and the fantastic marvelous. Todorov defines the fantastic as being any event that happens in our world that seems to be supernatural. Upon the occurrence of the event, we must decide if the event was an illusion or whether it is real and has actually taken place. Todorov uses Alvaro from Jacques Cazotte's Le Diable amoureux as an example of a fantastic event. Alvaro must decide whether the woman he is in love with is truly a woman or if she is the devil.
Upon choosing whether the event was real or imaginary, Todorov says that we enter into the genres of uncanny and marvelous. In the fantastic uncanny, the event that occurs is actually an illusion of some sort. The "laws of reality" remain intact and also provide a rational explanation for the fantastic event. Todorov gives examples of dreams, drugs, illusions of the senses, madness, etc. as things that could explain a fantastic/supernatural event. In the fantastic marvelous, the supernatural event that occurs has actually taken place and therefore the "laws of reality" have to be changed to explain the event. Only if the implied reader cannot opt for one or the other possibility is the text purely fantastic.
Aside from his work in literary theory, Todorov also dabbled in philosophy. He wrote Frail Happiness about the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He focuses on Rousseau's ideas of attaining human happiness and how we can live in 'modern' times.
In one of his major works, Facing the Extreme, Todorov asks whether it is true the Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet gulags revealed that in extreme situations "all traces of moral life evaporate as men become beasts locked in a merciless struggle for survival" (31–46). That opinion is commonplace of popularized accounts of the camps, and also appears in accounts of survivors themselves. Primo Levi, quoted in Todorov, writes that camp life is a "continuous war of everyone against everyone." To survive, all dignity and conscience had to be sacrificed and everyone is alone. Reports from gulag survivors are similar. However, in his reading of actual survivor testimonies, Todorov says the picture is not that bleak, that there are many examples of inmates helping each other and showing compassion in human relationships despite the inhumane conditions and terror. Survivors point out that survival always depended on the help of others. He concludes that life in the camps and gulag did not follow the law of the jungle and that the counter-examples are numerous, even in Levi's work.