Latest Review: "Zift" by Vladislav Todorov

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Stiliana Milkova on Vladislav Todorov’s Zift, which was translated from the Bulgarian by Joseph Benatov and published last year by Paul Dry Books.

Zift1 is Todorov’s debut novel, which was actually made into a movie that was praised by Variety as “an instant midnight fest fave.” It was also the only Bulgarian book published in America last year. (Just saying.) Zift won the 2007 Vick Prize as Bulgarian Novel of the Year and was a nominee for the Elias Canetti National Literary Prize. Todorov is actually living in American now, teaching comp lit at the University of Pennsylvania.

Stiliana Milkova wrote this piece for the (forthcoming) Bulgarian Studies Association Newsletter. She’s Bulgarian herself, holds a Ph.D. from Berkeley, and currently teaches at the University of Michigan.

Here’s the opening of her review:

Published in Bulgarian in 2006, Vladislav Todorov’s debut novel Zift has been recently translated into English by Joseph Benatov and published by Paul Dry Books. The very title of Todorov’s novel Zift: Socialist Noir announces the text’s generic ambiguity. Most notably, the novel interweaves the key tropes of Soviet socialist realism and American hard-boiled detective fiction to produce a richly intertextual portrayal of a nightmarish—yet comical—Bulgarian communist society in late 1963. Zift conjoins the narratives of communist construction and ideological coming of age with dark images, plots, and characters à la Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain. The mix is further aided by nods to the Bulgarian, Russian, English and French literary and intellectual traditions.

Zift evokes the hard-boiled characters and settings of American detective fiction of the 1930s and film noir of the 1940s. The novel follows the nocturnal adventures of Moth, the first-person narrator, just released from the Central Sofia Prison after doing time for twenty years for a heist gone wrong. Once out of jail, Moth goes after the mysterious carbonado diamond which he and his two accomplices were about to steal twenty years earlier when Moth was caught red-handed. The novel traces Moth’s quest for the diamond through Sofia’s streets, boiler rooms, bars, and backyards and his bizarre encounters along the way. The chiaroscuro of the winter city, cold and shadowy, looms large as the backdrop of a film noir. Accordingly, the novel’s slippery femme fatale and Moth’s former lover, the night club singer Ada, straddles several literary and film characters (Hammett’s Brigid, Cain’s Cora or Phyllis, Charles Vidor’s Gilda) as easily as she steps in and out of her gowns, while the elusive black diamond drives the plot just as “the black bird” motivates all action in The Maltese Falcon. But Moth is no Sam Spade—he is poisoned early in the novel and walks through the city a doomed man.

Click here to read the full review.

1 In case you’re wondering, here’s the definition of zift given at the beginning of the book:

zift n. 1. black mineral pitch, bitumen, asphalt; used as bonding material for road surfacing and, in the past, as streetwise chewing gum. 2. Slang. shit. [Turkish, from Arabic]

And no, Words With Friends doesn’t accept this as legitimate

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