Angel Igov's "A Short Tale of Shame"
Following up on the announcement from a few weeks back of the co-winners for this year’s Contemporary Bulgarian Novel contest, below you’ll find a long excerpt from Angel Igov’s A Short Tale of Shame. I would try and summarize this, but the summary would be long and confusing and much broader than what I want to share. Although the plot is interesting, it was the style and writing that grabbed me and fellow judge Courtney Hodell. Just check it out:
(from Chapter 5)
Irina passed away in January. It had been four months now: just as long as she’d been in a coma, still alive, without knowing it. Krustev remembered his wife’s body, shrunken, thin, worn-out and misshapen, bound by unquestioning tubes to mysterious devices which allowed it to exist a bit longer on the threshold between life and death. He felt like tubes had been stuck into him, too, pouring first fear into his blood, then hope and finally a colorless, watery liquid, the very essence of futility. You do understand, don’t you, the head doctor had told him some time in October, when it was already clear that there wouldn’t be any quick recovery and that they could only hope for a miracle, but miracles like that do happen, don’t they, in these kinds of cases, yes, but you do understand, he told him, that if your wife recovers, it is very possible that she will not be the same person, right now it’s difficult to say how disabled she might be. Irina could come out of the coma drained of her identity, without memories, without thoughts even, without taking in anything around her, a vegetating presence in a wheelchair. Yet he nevertheless nursed hopes until the last, he had clung to his wife after all that creeping marital coldness, after they had lived almost separately for the past four years, her boyfriend, the theater director, also came to see her as often as Krustev did, but they had asked the hospital staff to stagger their visits, neither one wanted to see the other, Krustev now remembered that there had been a similar story in one of the books he had read in the early spring, only there the husband and the lover took care of their shared wife together, it wasn’t like that in his case, perhaps both of them blamed each other at least a bit for what had happened. Krustev was constantly wondering about guilt, not just whether he himself was guilty, but whether guilt even existed at all as something you could touch or feel or whether at the end of the day everything was a sea of dreams and wakings, which we all will drown in some day, a sea like that one down below, he lifted his head and saw the kids looking at him rather worriedly, so he suggested they get a beer and this time he wouldn’t take no for an answer, went over to the ferryboat’s concession stand and came back with four cold cans.
So why, Spartacus asked, abruptly jerking him into a completely other time, did Euphoria really break up? Good question, why had they broken up really, perhaps because the singer had started acting more and more like the head, heart and ass of the group, or because the keyboardist was against the more commercial sound of their final years, or maybe – and this seemed the likeliest answer to Krustev – because nobody felt like playing anymore. When he stopped to think about it, they had only been around thirty – thirty-something, pretty early for exhaustion, but the rock-band life had sucked them dry unexpectedly quickly, they needed to be reborn as new people, they still had the strength and opportunity to do it, and yes, well yes, they did just that. Krustev suddenly felt, or at least he thought that he felt as if not only his mind, but his very senses were beginning to run on memories, he felt the pain from the metal strings running through his fingertips, the pain that had been so persistent in his early teenage years when he was just starting to play, later, of course, his fingers had calloused over and didn’t hurt anymore. Man, you’re a serious rocker, he told the boy, and he really was impressed by his taste and knowledge, the boy shrugged his bony shoulders humbly. Only here, on the deck where the four of them were standing together, upright, only here could Krustev get a clearer idea of what his fellow travelers looked like: the boy, tall and skinny, taller than he was, with a constantly distracted expression; the blonde Maya, who had a rather ordinary face, but lively eyes and a compact, athletic figure; and finally the slightly mysterious and distant ringleader of the group, with curly black hair and blue eyes, Krustev guessed she had lots of admirers and then immediately wondered whether that word was even still used, the truth was that at times he felt like a old man in their company, even though he had gotten used to always being young, both in his life as a musician and in that as a businessman, he was always the youngster, they didn’t take him seriously at first, then suddenly they’d be shocked at how much he’d accomplished for his age, what are forty years, he could still live another forty, and he was sure that within a week he could get back into shape after those months spent in the empty house, that he could once again feel energetic and healthy, but hey, his body would never be as quick and flexible as the bodies of these people around him ever again. He could feel the beer filling his bladder insultingly quickly, impudently squeezing his prostate, he excused himself and found the grimy toilet down below by the cars, poorly lit by a yellow bulb, his stream gushed with gurgling relief, he zipped his fly and slowly started back up the stairs, climbed up on deck and stood by himself for a while before going back to the trio.
The strangest part was that he had gradually gotten used to it all: the visits to the hospital, the silent Irina tangled up in plastic tubes, the white sheets, the nurses, the smell of bleach in the hallways, where men and women padded around in green pajamas. Krustev sat by his wife’s bed and talked to her in his mind, that way the words weren’t left hanging in the startling absence of an answer. He talked to her about Elena, about the dog, about the house, sometimes about business, a few times he tried to clear up how exactly, imperceptibly and secretly, like the rotting of a seemingly sound fruit, their relationship had gone cold. Her coma couldn’t turn back time, he still knew that he no longer loved Irina the way they had loved each other in their wild and sunny younger years, but now, when she inhabited the space between life and death, when she was so far from him that he couldn’t reach her with words or touch, he suddenly felt close to her again, or rather he felt close to her in a new way, almost as if she were a sister. Irina was now the only person who didn’t want anything from him. And even though he secretly hoped for a miracle up to the very end, sometimes he caught himself fearing that possible moment when Irina would flutter her eyelids, heavy from sleep, the long sleep of the sea, when he thought about the dead current that was sweeping her along, Krustev shuddered and suddenly imagined how, if he put his ear to his wife’s body, he would hear the sea roaring inside her, as inside a shell. She really was a shell, the form of a living creature, emptied of her soft, slimy and slithering substance, at once alluring and repellent. And he would talk to that shell, sensing how everything around him withdrew and he was left alone with her in the white silence of the hospital room, as if time had stopped. But before Christmas, Elena came back from the States again, pale, thin, with circles under her eyes, she burst into tears when she saw her mother and the thread was broken, the whole quiet harmony that Krustev had built up day after day fell apart. At that moment he felt hatred for his daughter, that intruder from out of nowhere, a part of both of them, who had cunningly leapt into the world and come between them. Then he told himself that he was probably going crazy, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that this young woman was a stranger to him, now much more than ever, and the shell in the hospital bed could not fill up the chasm between them, on the contrary, it opened it all the wider. And after that, shortly after New Year’s, which he and his daughter spent at home, staring at the television, almost without speaking, Irina died. As if during that whole time she had been hesitating and had finally made a decision. Sepsis, the head doctor said, poisoning of the blood, her liver couldn’t hold out, I was also hoping until the last, I’m sorry. And he really did seem sorry, perhaps he, too, had gotten used to the empty body and its plastic tubes, perhaps he had even clung to the possibility of her coming out of the coma so as to reaffirm his belief in the power of his work and his science, except that Irina died and Krustev suddenly felt his whole life withdrawing, his senses, his memories, as if he were once again in the silent white room, only now there was nothing inside it, nothing at all, so much so that he couldn’t even be sure whether he himself was there. Now, when he thought back on those days, he would tell himself that he had been on the edge. He didn’t remember the funeral. He remembered how he had shut himself up at home and had sunk into the TV, watching sports channels from morning until night, he had taken his blanket out to the sofa in the living room, where he had also spent the nights, lulled to sleep by the figures running back and forth across the screen, Elena hovered around him, they only spoke about everyday household things, she made clumsy attempts at cooking and Krustev gulped down her dishes without even noticing whether they were any good or not. And so several days passed, then she suddenly appeared at the start of some football game, sat down next to him and said Barcelona’s going to win, Krustev suddenly sprang out of his apathy and looked at her amazed, she had never been interested in football and he could’ve sworn she didn’t even know how many players were on a team, but now here she was talking about corner kicks, off-sides and poor performance in the Champions’ League, she was talking about things that sounded strange to him, as if coming from some world beyond, he perhaps wouldn’t have even noticed that volleyball had been replaced with football, she mentioned the players’ names, reacted more quickly than the commentator, kept track of who had gotten yellow cards, and when the game indeed ended with a win for Barcelona, Krustev said, yes, Barcelona won, moved his crackling joints, gingerly got up off the sofa, took a bottle of scotch from the bar, poured two glasses, set them abruptly on the table and said, so now tell me what’s going on with you.