We've been making it our assignment to catch up on Bulgaria. Nobody used to have to catch up on Bulgaria. Bulgaria was just there, year after year - the least noticed of the Balkan countries, only a little bigger than Tennessee, cherished mostly for the name of its capital that generations of schoolchildren loved to pronounce, ever so musically: Sofia.
If a nation ever had a modern non-history, this is it. No sooner did Bulgaria come out from under the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the century than it fell in with Germany in World War I, and again in World War II, before placing itself in the Soviet orbit and earning the dubious distinction of being the most obedient of Moscow's satellites.
So little has there been to say about Bulgaria that President Todor Zhivkov made it his little joke, when meeting Western reporters, to note that even a little criticism would be welcome. Anything to break the silence.
Then, as everybody knows, Bulgaria won all the headlines that a president could ask for. At first it was presented as an isolated case - those three Bulgarians accused of complicity in the shooting of Pope John Paul II on May 13, 1981. But soon the phrase ''the Bulgarian connection'' took on a broader and broader meaning.
Sofia, the city with the musical name, was reported to serve as a crossroads for drug traffickers pushing heroin west from the poppy fields of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. They were joined around the swimming pool and gambling casino of the swank Hotel Vitosha-New Otani, it was said, by arms merchants peddling guns to Turkey and the Middle East.
Just as we were catching up on this sinister and cynical Bulgaria - a plot by Eric Ambler, starring Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet - a colleague passed along a letter from the Bulgarian House of Humor and Satire, self-described as an Institute for the Popularizaton of the Humor of Nations. The organization was inviting newspapers and magazines from around the world to participate in an exhibition ''aiming at representing the variety and richness of humor and satire in all countries.''
Which Bulgaria is a quick-study tourist of history to believe in? The gray Soviet puppet? The black-marketeer of Balkan intrigue? Or the clown prince of Europe?
What a terrible and comic business it is to try to understand whole countries by the sudden flashes in the night of headlines!
One fumbles for reality and comes up with a fistful of cliches.
We Americans are always bumping into places on the map we've barely heard of before. Places that bump back and change our lives. Places with names like Vietnam and Iran, and maybe El Salvador, and probably not Bulgaria. But the problem is here too.
Will all the headlines - will all the histories of folklore and all the CIA reports - ever enable us to understand these societies we so confidently simplify in the beginning?
In the end, we may wind up with little more than a novelist's trust in the daily universals. Somewhere beyond all the bureaucrats and all the generals and all the power brokers of dirty deals and all the semiofficial Houses of Humor that try to keep everybody else from crying over split history, there are ordinary, decent people, we must assume, leading ordinary, decent lives the best they can, with some hope and some desperation.
We came closest to reconciling all the paradoxes of Bulgaria in particular, and the world in general, when we ran across the words of the late Bulgarian satirist Georgi Stamatov, who defended the bite in his short stories by writing: ''I search for man - and I love even you. Therefore I rail.''
For wanderers lost between the politburo, the Hotel Vitosha-New Otani, and the House of Humor, history becomes a Stamatov case of confusion and anger, and love and faith.