And, following on the posts about Amanda Michalopoulou’s tour and the announcement of the Reading the World Conversation Series events, here are some details about a few upcoming Bulgarian literature events that might interest you.
Bulgarian Fiction Night at 192 Books
Tuesday, April 8th, 7pm
Albena Stambolova and Virginia Zaharieva will be in conversation with Open Letter editor Kaija Straumanis about their books and Bulgarian literature as a whole.
PLUS, as a bonus, Kaija will be able to announce the winner of this year’s Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest during the event.
Celebrating Bulgarian Writers with Elizabeth Kostova
Sunday, April 13th, 3pm
55 Haywood St
Asheville, NC 28801
Talented Women of Indie Presses
Thursday, April 17th, 7pm
5148 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60640
This event features Daniela Olszweska (Cloudfang::Cakedirt) along with Albena Stambolova and Virginia Zaharieva. Also, Hopleaf has awesome beer.
Celebrating Bulgarian Literature in Translation
Friday, April 18th, 6pm
Seminary Co-op Bookstore
5751 S. Woodlawn Avenue
Chicago, IL 60637
Getting caught up on a bunch of paperwork and spreadsheets today, but thought I’d first share a couple of interesting interviews that were published in the past couple months.
Here’s Steven’s description of the book:
Angel Igov’s first book to be translated into English, A Short Tale of Shame, is a compact road trip novel with an even more compact story line. Boril Krustev, former rock star in Bulgaria and current businessman, has lost his estranged wife to death and his estranged daughter, Elena, to America. Adrift and in mourning, he picks up three hitchhikers embroiled in a complex ménage à trois: the headstrong ringleader Sirma, her friend Maya, and their young male paramour Spartacus.
The four wander to a beach, camp, find a hotel. Not much ostensibly happens, but the novel finds its richness in multiple layers of history. We see the threesome’s past, considered both individually and through their connections to Elena—which are not always pleasant and sometimes painful. We see Krustev’s past, longer and more full of regrets for things undone. We see the pasts of the hitchhikers, not quite sure how they got from there to the present. And we also see the history of Bulgaria, both in its recent transformation from Communist rule and in its deeper sense as a small country that has always been overshadowed on the world stage by bigger, louder neighbors.
These strands of history tie together with an ending that arrives with great tenderness and momentum, breaking live a perfect wave. Among the novel’s strongest points is Igov’s control of language—aided and abetted by translator Angela Rodel—that announces, from its very beginning, a seriousness of intent and a deep awareness of craft.
Steven Wingate: There’s also an old Europe/new Europe vibe to A Short Tale of Shame that shows up in a consistent discussion of ancestry—the distinctions between Phrygian, Daican, Thracian, Slavic, Illyrian, Macedonian. This suggests a Balkanization that runs even deeper than what we see on the recently redrawn maps of the region. Why is this important to the unfolding of your story, as well as to Europe today?
Angel Igov: Balkanization is a trend that the West has always been afraid of and thus relegated to the periphery of the continent. What’s more Balkanized than today’s Belgium, for instance? The term also masks the huge role the Great Powers played for the fragmentation and ethnic trouble of Southeast Europe, from the mid-19th century to the Kossovo crisis. A Short Tale of Shame draws a map that ironically reflects Western stereotypes of the region. To this day, many well-educated westerners would be hard pressed to tell the difference between Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, for instance. Then why not call them Thrace, Dacia, Illyria, whatever? Would it matter anyway? The attitude would remain the same: far away countries of which we know little, as Neville Chamberlain nicely described Czechoslovakia after signing the Munich treaty. [. . .]
SW: You’ve translated into Bulgarian a number of great writers familiar to English-speaking readers—among them Ian McEwan and Paul Auster. I imagine that the creative influence of writers you’re translating goes beyond what you get from merely reading them. How does that translation experience show up in your work?
AI: I love translation: it’s a pure craft, transposing linguistic material from one language to another, molding words and sentences with your own “hands.” So, first of all, translation makes you good with language, or so I hope. Style, sound, texture—these things are important to me when I write.
Then, of course, it is difficult not to be in some way influenced in your own writing by what you translate. The anxiety of influence is a common malaise of authors. However, if you channel it and manage to create original work even when getting inspiration from other authors, this can be a very useful and joyous experience. After all, no writer is an island; you work in a huge, huge network of texts. At various times Paul Auster or Ian McEwan, or Martin Amis some years ago, have been important to me as models of sorts. However, I don’t think I’ve ever imitated anyone—I just don’t find this interesting. And I also try to make each book of mine different from the previous one.
SW: Fans of the American and European experimental traditions will recognize some of what you do stylistically—your long paragraphs, for instance, and your choice to not use quotation marks for dialog but to fold into your narration seamlessly. What are some of your models for that kind of dialog?
I could name two very different authors: John Banville and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. At one point I realized Jose Saramago was also doing a similar thing. Certainly the lessons of high modernism were also important for me here, Virginia Woolf, for instance. The funny thing is when I started writing this novel, the paragraphs and the dialogue weren’t in any way extravagant, but it just didn’t work: straightforward storytelling had to me a weird tongue-in-cheek quality. I decided to skip the dialogue markers and let the sentences flow—so they flowed on. I like the effect of smooth continuity: after all, when we speak, our utterances are not isolated in quotation-mark cages or comic-book balloons, they are all the time intermingled with our own thoughts that we keep to ourselves even while speaking, we get interrupted by others and so on. For me, this way of writing is not in any way literary: on the contrary, it is much closer to what we do in the real world. I am working now on my next novel (which is set at the end of World War II) and, after some consideration, I chose a similar approach.
Be sure and read the whole thing here.”:http://fictionwritersreview.com/interviews/all-times-are-awake-at-once-an-interview-with-angel-igov
Hopefully that headline got your attention. But seriously, check out this bit from the By the Book feature that appeared in the New York Times this weekend:
Are you a rereader? What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?
I don’t do much rereading anymore because I’ve been ill and feel that I’m running out of time. But recently I did reread all of Evelyn Waugh’s novels, and was pleased to find that he was almost as thoughtful as, say, Olivia Manning, although his snobbery sometimes grates. Also, I enjoyed “Lucky Jim,” by Kingsley Amis, all over again: the funniest novel I have ever read. Is there some Bulgarian equivalent, languishing untranslated? Probably not.
Really, Clive James? Really? That’s not just ignorant, it’s kind of insulting. (“In Bulgaria, funny book writes you!”)
And ignorant. Let’s stick with that one for a moment. Over the past two years, we’ve published Milen Ruskov’s Thrown into Nature, which is extremely funny in a picaresque, Quixotesque way, and 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev, which is a bit more slapstick and American in its humor, but is also quite funny.
I’m sure James didn’t mean to insult all Bulgarian writers ever, and I realize he’s trying to say that there’s no Bulgarian book that’s as funny as Lucky Jim, but jesus shit does his statement come off as being dismissive in a middlebrow American sort of way.
What’s especially heartening is that Izidora Angel wrote a letter to the editor calling him out:
As someone born in Bulgaria, raised in America and educated in England, I can assure James that Bulgarian is a grammatically rich and unique language. Like the people who speak it, the Bulgarian language survived 500 years of Ottoman rule, and it is colored by Turkish, French and, currently, American and English words and phrases. Its slang is funny, touching and bittersweet.
Although Bulgaria may have given the world the Cyrillic alphabet, few of its notable works have been translated into English, except for a couple of classics from the late 19th century, like Ivan Vazov’s novel “Under the Yoke” (1893) and Aleko Konstantinov’s travelogue “To Chicago and Back” (1894). Gaining support to translate important Bulgarian works and commentary into English is an uphill economic battle. The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation is an important part of the effort.
I hope that rather than mocking a language and people he does not know, James will pick up a translation of Konstantinov’s “Bai Ganyo” and enjoy some Balkan humor.
And just to drive home my point about the arrogance and ignorance of his statement, I’d like to point out that James hails from Australia, a place utterly lacking in refined cultural humor. There’s no Lucky Jim that’s been written by a Australian, that’s for sure. Shit, the only thing they really have going for themselves humor-wise is Fosters and all the potshots the rest of the world can take at them, since we all know that the New Zealanders are a million times funnier. And prettier.
You have three days left to enter our GoodReads Giveaway for Angel Igov’s A Short Tale of Shame. Click below to enter!
Over at GoodReads, we’re giving away 20 copies of Angel Igov’s A Short Tale of Shame, co-winner of the 2012 Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest.
After deciding to take a semester off their studies to think about future plans, long-time friends Maya, Sirma, and Spartacus decide to hitchhike to the sea. Boril Krustev, former rock star and middle-aged widower who is driving aimlessly to outrun his grief, picks them up and accompanies them on their journey. It doesn’t take them long to figure out they’re connected to each other by more than their need to travel—specifically through Boril’s daughter, whose actions damaged each of the characters in this novel.
Co-winner of the Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest, A Short Tale of Shame marks the arrival of a new talent in Bulgarian literature with a novel about the need to come to terms with the shame and guilt we all harbor.
Click below to enter the contest!
Tom and I will record our “official” 2013 preview podcast tomorrow, so you can look forward to that, but as a way of upping the number of books we can talk about on the blog, I’d like to start a weekly “preview” column. Something that may not always be that serious, yet will at least give some space to recently released or forthcoming titles. I’m sure that this will evolve over the next X number of weeks, so please cut me some slack on these first few . . .
Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan. Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. University of Oklahoma/Chinese Literature Today. $24.95
Jonathan Stalling of Chinese Literature Today — which really probably definitely shouldn’t be abbreviated as “CLT” . . and yes, I am 12 — spent a good 10-15 minutes of MLA explaining to me why this book was so awesome. I forget all the plot details, but I do remember the bit about an executioner taking someone apart over a series of pages . . . So, to go along with the almost nauseating amounts of meat mastication in Pow!, readers coming to Mo Yan post-Nobel Prize also have the option to read about the “gruesome ‘sandalwood punishment,’ whose purpose, as in crucifixions, is to keep the condemned individual alive in mind-numbing pain as long as possible.”
I have to say, the more I read about Mo Yan’s books, the more I dig him . . . And I’m really looking forward to reading this before teaching Pow! in my Translation & World Literature class this spring.
Generally, I’m not a huge fan of book trailers, but I have to admit, the one that CLT did for this is really pretty elegant and cool in an anime sort of way.
I have more to post about Chinese Literature Today, but I’ll save that for later. For anyone interested in checking this out, here’s a link to a sample of the novel.
The Eleven by Pierre Michon. Translated from the French by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays. Archipelago Books. $18.
The only thing I know about Pierre Michon is that one of his earlier novels, Small Lives, which is also published by Archipelago, is loved by basically everyone.
For a while I was creating a playlist on Spotify of songs with numbers in them. Things like “Water” by Poster Children, or “Slow Show” by The National, or “Airplane Rider” by Air Miami (a personal favorite), or “Universal Speech” by The Go! Team, or whatever. I’m not sure why, but there’s something about people yelling out numbers (or referencing a particular age, as in The National song) that does it for me. It’s one of my “secret cues” that cause me to almost always love a song. (That and hand clapping. And sing-along choruses.)
I don’t think that same thing works for me with book titles. But Fifty Shades of Gray? Maybe this is some sort of subconscious tic . . . (Like A Thousand Morons! Or A Thousand Peaceful Cities.)
18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev. Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel. Open Letter Books. $15.95
A few months back, Zack called Nate and I to talk a bit about plans for his book and marketing and all that. In the course of the conversation, he told us about his elderly friend who was anxious to get a copy of his book.
“She called me the other day and said she’s seen it on the table at the bookstore and was really excited for me. I told her that it couldn’t possibly be my book. That my book hadn’t been printed. But she was convinced. ‘No, no, it was your book, Zack. And it’s pretty dirty!’ Only then I realized she was talking about Fifty Shades . . . “
All books containing a number and the color “gray” are the same! If only we could somehow use this to our advantage . . . Should’ve included that choker necktie on the cover.
That said, Zack’s book does have a spot of banging in it. It’s more of a nostalgic, romantic book than an erotic one, but there is something sexy about a good number of the scenes. Especially the conversations between the protagonist and his now-missing wife that take place while he’s photographing her . . .
In addition to supporting the publication of one Bulgarian book a year through the “Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest,” the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation also supports an annual fellowship opportunity, allowing one Bulgarian-to-English translator to spend a few weeks in Rochester, NY, learning about the American publishing scene, participating in both of my classes, and having their project workshopped at Plüb (our weekly translation-bar experience).
This year’s winner is Bistra Andreeva, a freelance translator who has spent the past few years working at One Magazine, a quarterly publication for arts in culture, with expert Bulgarian translator Angela Rodel. In addition, Bistra: translated over ten film screenplays (frequently collaborating with Angela Rodel), translated pieces by Sam McPheeters and Tao Lin into Bulgarian, translated Selected Works and Events by One Magazine and Napalm Graffix into English, and participated in the “Literary Translation Workshop on Translating” put together by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and the Union of Bulgarian Writers.
Here’s an excerpt from Irina Papancheva’s Annabel, the project that Bistra applied with:
A brief biographical note
Annabel S., 32, was born in a small European town. She acquired her secondary education at an art school and then completed an M.A. in Public Administration in the capital. At the age of 25, she started working for the state authorities. Currently, she is Director of the International Relations directorate at the Ministry of State Administration. She is single and lives with her partner Nikola. The beginning of the narrative coincides with the end of her one-week stay in the Netherlands on account of a project that she is coordinating.
As soon as she got off the plane and stepped into the Amsterdam airport, she felt a few butterflies in her stomach. For a second there, she had the sense of déjá vu. Thirteen years later, she was back. She took a breath, pulled together all of her will power and got down to business. Upon exiting the airport, she hailed a taxi to her hotel. It was a narrow five story building, squeezed between other narrow buildings, meaning a typical Amsterdam hotel. She handed her ID to the habitually polite reception woman, waited until she was checked-in and headed towards the elevator. She passed by an aging man and their eyes met for a moment. She noticed his were an intense gray.
A typical hotel suite, small, but nice – that was going to be her home for the following week. Yet another hotel home in the succession of trips and projects.
She pulled the curtains to let the day into the square living-room. After the whitish, rainish morning, the sky was clear, and the sun light was pouring unimpeded over the freshly wet city.
She had two hours and a half until her first project meeting. The hot shower stream was soothing. She put on her jeans and a shirt, and she left.
The hotel was in close proximity to the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum. She hesitated for a second and started in the opposite direction, slowly and aimlessly. During the week, Amsterdam was, for the most part, like any other city. The tourist crowds were gone and the daily routine was in the air.
She found it revamped, but unaffected at its core, it was like she had left yesterday. She had expected to feel excited, but instead she was unruffled. Maybe it was the circumstances surrounding her departure that had blunted her sensitivity. Or, maybe it was the circumstances in her life over the years that had detached her from her past in Amsterdam and before that, so much so that it was now difficult to reconnect emotionally. Impassively and indifferently she walked against the backdrop of her early youth.
She saw cafe tables by the canal and sat down at one of them. She ordered cappuccino. On the table next to hers, a boy and a girl were whispered to each other and laughed. To their side, an old lady was dreamily staring at the water.
Annabel took out her cell phone and switched it on. She had forgotten to do that right after she landed, which was unusual for her. She had a connection with her phone and her laptop that was stronger than the one she had with most of her colleagues. Six missed calls. Of them, two were from Nikola, one from Erika. The rest were from unknown numbers. She finished her cappuccino and headed back to her hotel.
The winners were going to be invited to Amsterdam. Maybe that was what drew me to participate in the essay competition on the topic of “The New Cosmopolitan.” I could swing by Amsterdam any time I wished, and I had done it more than once, but somehow I saw more than a mere coincidence in the chance to participate in this discussion in that very city. Maybe it had to do with the fact that I was cooking up my new novel and I envisaged the plot unwind in Amsterdam. Maybe my taking part in the competition was going to flush me with a new wave of inspiration.
It was approximately at that time that my boss at the Information and Communications European Commission Directorate General assigned me to work on a European citizenship report. So I started to think about Europe, citizenship, the national, the cosmopolitan and the connection between all of them. And the connection between all of them and Amsterdam.
Once, during a lunch break, that connection took on the image of a woman. Beautiful, composed, with a nationality that was hard to pinpoint, distant, magnetic, unflappable. She was having lunch on her own, and although she was surrounded by many socializing people, she remained reclusive and she didn’t seem to notice them. Her eyes glazed over me with a disinterestedness, which was in no way offensive or personal. There she was – my heroine. Annabel.
That same day, in the early evening, I created my first blog.
Congratulations, and I’m looking forward to working with Bistra and sharing some of her experiences and work with all of you.
Following on the “earlier announcement”: about Albena Stambolova’s This Being How winning this year’s Bulgarian Writers Contest, here’s an excerpt from Olga Nikolova’s translation.
8. Fathers and Their Professions
Philip met Maria at a friend’s house. Although he never liked to admit it, he failed to notice her at first. She had been sitting in some part of the room, watching him. He had felt her gaze, although without being able to identify where it came from.
For a long time afterwards, he wondered why this creature stood there draped in black cloth, as if an extra in a busy film scene.
Philip was a pathologist and that caused him both annoyance and relief. He was the only one among his friends who could say in a word what he did for a living. For a twenty-seven-year-old man it made things easier. But when people curious about the nature of his work started asking questions, he was not good at explaining.
The voice in the receiver moved him so suddenly and profoundly that he nearly hung up. He couldn’t remember what they said to each other, just as later he couldn’t recall anything specific from conversations with Maria. He could remember situations in which her presence or her voice obliterated everything else.
No one could say no to this voice, which was now calling to him from the receiver. Why him and not someone else, he never understood. Here I am, Lord.
He proposed to her almost immediately, not knowing what he was doing. The one thing he did know was that he could not have done otherwise. She nodded, as if she had foreseen long ago that this was bound to happen.
Time seemed to be out of joint. The days were shamelessly short, the nights blended into one. Something was ripening in Philip; he could feel it in nervous spasms, but he ignored the signs. He was spinning with Maria in some kind of a whirlwind. He turned into a boomerang, always meekly landing at her feet, no matter what he thought, no matter what he did, and no matter who he went out with.
Before meeting Maria, he had been simply Philip, a doctor, a pathologist. He had been able to describe himself in a word.
After meeting Maria, his center of gravity was transposed out of his body and in the beginning this gave him strength. Strength that Maria absorbed.
9. The Hero’s Prize
There was no wedding. They only signed a marriage certificate. She never allowed him to see her passport. The civil servant could see it, but not her husband. He had no idea when she was born, or who her parents were or whether she had any siblings. Whenever he asked her about these things, she laughed, as if his questions were the most inappropriate thing in the world. He was surprised at how easily he could lie to his friends and his family when they asked the same questions. And he lied to himself, thinking that one day he would surely find out, as soon as Maria stopped playing this funny game. Then he forgot about it and remembered it again only when it was too late.
She did not simply give herself to him – she laid herself out like a gift, like an offering. He sank into her with the feeling that he had never experienced anything like this before. All thoughts and questions vanished. Maria became a world he inhabited. He knew he must have done things, at least he must have eaten food and drunk water. Later when the doctor asked him, he could not remember anything else, only that he had felt tireless and strong.
She stayed at home knitting sweaters. There was always something cooked to eat. Maria always had money and the food was always tasty. So tasty that after dinner, his only wish was to take her in his arms and bury his face in her long hair.
She became pregnant almost by magic. Philip was certain it had happened the very first time. If happiness meant being able to stop thinking, Philip was happy. Things just happened and he was part of the process.
The twins were born. A boy, Valentin, and a girl, Margarita. Philip could not remember ever having discussed what names to choose. It seemed like they were born with their names.
10. After the Fairy Tale’s End
Then Maria started to frighten him.
One night, he woke up and looked at his sleeping wife. He watched her for a long time. He was certain that she was not asleep. She lay perfectly still, as if absent from her body.
For the first time he wondered whether a human being had a beginning and an end. He could see her. Maria was sleeping naked, enveloped in her hair. Her breath was barely perceptible. No adjectives could describe her for him. He couldn’t say that she was kind, for example, or anything like that. This creature had simply appeared and in the face of this fact Philip was powerless. He was suddenly overtaken by despair. What were his or her feelings? Only star dust, dispersing.
Then he realized that Maria was staring at him. Perhaps everyone having just risen out of sleep had this look in their eyes. Maria’s look was evil. At last, something definite. Philip had come to know something and now he could see she didn’t like it. Her eyes stared unblinkingly, as if she had no eyelids.
He got up from the bed and left the room.
After this first onrush of fear, Philip tried to talk to his brother. What he heard was that Maria was breaking all accepted codes of behavior.
At first he could not understand what his brother meant. Gradually it dawned on him that he was being accused of disloyalty. Towards himself, towards his family, towards his friends. The sound of these trivial words, which he hadn’t heard pronounced for a while, unsettled him.
That same night, Maria refused to sleep with him, and he knew her refusal was going to last.
Philip tried to hide in his work. From then on, he often slept in the hospital, he worked night shifts and became better at his job. He was called more often for criminal cases. He discovered courtrooms.
But he also started drinking. And drinking brought back his ability to speak.
Albena Stambolova’s novel, This Being How, translated by Olga Nikolova, has been selected as the winner of the third iteration of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation’s annual novel contest supporting Bulgarian literature.
Open Letter will be publishing this book in October 2013, making it the fourth Bulgarian title to be published by OL as a result of this award. Past winners include Milen Ruskov’s Thrown into Nature, Zachary Karabashliev’s 18% Gray, and the forthcoming A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov. All three of these novels were translated by superstar Angela Rodel.
(We’re also going to publish Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, after which, we will have effectively have a monopoly on Bulgarian literature. BOOM.)
What’s particularly interesting about this year’s winner is that the translator Olga Nikolova was selected as the recipient of last year’s Bulgarian Fellowship Contest, and spent three weeks here in Rochester working on her translation of This Being How, learning about the American publishing scene, and enjoying the cougar-tastic vibes of Taylor’s, a local dance club. (Which, interestingly enough is run by Cuban author Jose Manuel Prieto’s brother.)
In terms of Albena Stambolova, she is a language specialist and a psychologist, with a MA from the University of Paris VII Jusseu and a PhD from Sofia University St Kliment Ohridski. This Being How (2002) is her debut novel, which has also been transalted into Polish. It was followed by Hop-Hop the Stars (2003), and An Adventure, To Pass the Time (2007). The author of numerous articles and translations, she is now working on a book about fairy tales and a collection of short stories.
I’ll post an excerpt from This Being How separately, but here’s a brief description of the book as a whole:
Boris, a young boy painfully uncomfortable around people, feels at ease with bees. The apian approach to life, admirable in its single-mindedness, makes human existence appear imperfect and burdensome. He falls in love with a girl who wears a pleated skirt. He never speaks to her but he feels her presence as a spatial relationship his body cannot avoid. She disappears one moonlit evening magically climbing the wall of a house. In the meantime, Philip, a 27-year-old pathologist meets Maria, a woman whose eyes, we are told, are like fog. Philip proposes to Maria as if driven by some mysterious compulsion. They marry and have children, the twins Valentin and Margarita . . . And the story continues, accumulating archetypal events and relationships, until, one Christmas Eve, the fates of all its seven protagonists become tied in one existential knot. Unlike more traditional narratives, the novel does not provide the reader with the pleasures of a classical denouement. No character reaches a higher moral ground, no relationship is resolved, no mystery is solved. Rather, as with many a musical composition, the reader is led through a high-spirited climax, a detailed love-making scene in a chapter appropriately called “Erotica,” and a tragic one, the death of the mother, Maria, whose evasive yet intense presence in the book has formed its center of gravity. For a Christmas tale, which the novel is in so many ways, the lesson is not obvious, and if any, it concerns mostly the impossibility of making the deep as immediately accessible as the shallow.
In its scalpel-worthy succinctness, and in its psychological astuteness, which enhances the fairy tale elements of the novel in unexpected ways, Stambolova’s style is quite unique. An openly allegorical assemblage of stories, written with a preference for simple structures, This Being How is both highly readable and profoundly meaningful.
And here’s a quote about that appeared in Kultura newspaper from Milena Kirova:
This Being How as the title suggests, is not a conventional narrative novel. Its plot is not smoothly interwoven into an easy-to-follow logical sequence. . . . The novel begins with a series of seemingly unrelated individual stories, which gradually collide, overlap and blend into a whole, building a complex, and yet astonishingly simple, picture of life’s paradoxically chaotic order.
The runners-up this year—samples from which will appear here on Three Percent and at the Contemporary Bulgarian Writers website—are:
Ivan Dimitrov’s “Life as a Missing Spoon”
Kristin Dimitrova’s “Sabazius”
Milen Ruskov’s “Little Encyclopaedia of Mysteries”
Momchil Nikolov’s “The Spherical Fish”
Neli Lishkova’s “The Unborn”
Stanislava Ivancheva’s “Fake Is a State of Mind”
Teodora Dimova’s “Mothers”
Vladimir Zarev “Ruin”
If any publishers are interested in taking a look at these, you should contact Milena Deleva (milena.deleva[at]gmail.com), and I’m sure she’d be willing to send you the samples. (Which are pretty substantial, BTW.)
And thanks again to the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation for making this all possible!
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.
As promised last week, here’s a bit more information on 18% Gray, one of this year’s Bulgarian Contemporary Novel contest’s co-winners.
18% Gray is a sort of non-linear road novel. In the present, Zack is traveling to the East Coast trying to sell off the huge bag of marijuana that has come into his possession. Parallel to this storyline is a set of flashbacks detailing his obsessive romance with the now disappeared Stella. The plot shifts from present-day California to Eastern Europe in the nineties; it runs through anti-communist student rallies, and continues with the young couple’s exodus to America.
This paragraph from the synopsis also grabbed me:
Driving to New York, equipped with an old Nikon and bunch of expired black and white film rolls, Zack starts photographing an America we rarely see. Faces, roads, buildings, nature—everything caught on his film is raw and genuine. Zack captures America as if noticing it for the first time; as if he has never learned how to take pictures. Zack photographs America the way America no longer is—real.
Here’s an excerpt of the excerpt. The full book will be available to reviewers and booksellers by next summer, and will officially drop in November 2012:
She’s been gone nine mornings.
The blinds in the bedroom are shut tight, but the day still finds a way to get in, and with a roar – the garbage truck. That means it’s Wednesday. That means it’s eight-fifteen. Is there a noisier noise than the noise of a garbage truck at eight-fifteen?
I crawl out of bed, stagger to the living room, and flop down on the couch. The cool leather doesn’t help me fall back to sleep, and the garbage truck rumbles closer. I get up, push aside one of the blinds, a bright ray burns my face. I focus my powers and attempt to dismember the roaring green monster with a gaze. The effort only succeeds in waking me up completely.Read More...
In addition to the Bulgarian Contemporary Novel contest, Open Letter and the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation also sponsor a special fellowship that allows for one Bulgarian translator to stay in Rochester for three weeks and learn about the American publishing scene and interact with the literary translation students at the University of Rochester.
This year’s recipient is Olga Nikolova, who got her Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University and currently teaches English at the Université de La Rochelle, France.
The project that she applied with is Albena Stambolova’s This Is the Way It Happens, which Nikolova described in this way:
Boris, a young boy painfully uncomfortable around people, feels at ease with bees. The apian approach to life, admirable in its single-mindedness, makes human existence appear imperfect and burdensome. He falls in love with a girl who wears a pleated skirt. He never speaks to her, but he feels her presence as a spatial relationship his body cannot avoid. She disappears one moonlit evening, magically climbing the wall of a house. In the meantime, Philip, a 27-year-old pathologist meets Maria, a woman whose eyes, we are told, are like fog. Philip proposes to Maria as if driven by some mysterious compulsion. They marry and have children, the twins Valentin and Margarita. . . . And thus the story continues, accumulating archetypal events and relationships, until the fates of all its seven protagonists become tied in one existential knot. In its scalpel-worthy precision and succinctness, and in its psychological astuteness, Stambolova’s novel can be compared with Albert Camus’s L’Etranger. Yet, unlike the latter, This Is the Way It Happens is not a manifesto, nor a “philosophical novel.” As the author herself claims in her brief introduction, the book aims to be “the story of everyone,” and everyone’s story is a love story in which “one”, as a singular individual, plays the part assigned to him or her by chance. An openly allegorical assemblage of simple stories, This Is the Way It Happens is both highly readable and profoundly meaningful—the mark of a true masterpiece.
I’m personally looking forward to meeting and working with Olga, and hopefully after her fellowship, we’ll publish an excerpt from her translation. And thanks again to the Elizabeth Kosotova Foundation and the America for Bulgaria Foundation for making this all possible.
As announced earlier, Open Letter, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, and the America for Bulgarian Foundation sponsor a yearly contest to bring attention to the best of contemporary Bulgarian literature, with Open Letter publishing the winning title (or titles in this case).
This contest was launched in 2010, when Francis Bickmore of Canongate helped me select Milen Ruskov’s Thrown into Nature as the top entry of the year. (Milen’s book was just released—for more info on the book and how to purchase it, click here. You can also read a long sample here.)
For this year’s contest, Courtney Hodell of FSG joined me as a judge, and we went through 27 submissions ranging from the highly literary and experimental to thrillers to more spiritual pieces. It was a tough contest to judge, what with so many admirable and interesting entries, so in the end we ended up choosing two books: Angel Igov’s A Short Tale of Shame and Zachary Karabashliev’s 18% Gray. Both of these are being translated by Angela Rodel (who also did Thrown into Nature), and we’re planning on bringing out 18% Gray in November 2012, and A Short Tale of Shame in April 2013.
In addition, Courtney and I chose four runners-up: Ivan Dimitrov’s Life As a Missing Spoon, Ivanka Mogilska’s Hideaways, Vladislav Todorov’s Zincograph, and Vessel Tsankov’s _Pixel. Excerpts from all of these will appear on Contemporary Bulgarian Writers and on Three Percent.
Going back to the two winners, I’ll put up individual posts for both books with excerpts, descriptions, etc., etc. They’re quite different in terms of writing style—Shame consists of a series of internal monologues from different characters, 18% Gray is more cinematic and fast-paced—but both will make excellent additions to our list.
This week’s Read This Next title is Milen Ruskov’s Thrown into Nature, which is translated from the Bulgarian by Angel Rodel, and won the first annual Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest.
This contest is sponsored by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, the America for Bulgaria Foundation, and Open Letter Books. It grew out of conversations that took place during the Sozopol Seminar that I attended a few years ago (which also featured skinny dipping in the Black Sea—a statement that sounds way more titillating when tossed-off like that than it was in reality), and resulted in the publication of this amazing book. (We’re only days away from announcing this year’s winner, so stay tuned.)
Before talking about the book, here’s a couple quick things about Milen: He’s the author of two novels, the Pocket Encyclopedia of Mysteries, which won the Bulgarian Prize for Debut Fiction, and Thrown into Nature, which received the VIK Novel of the Year prize. He’s also a translator from English into Bulgarian, and gave an amazing presentation in Sozopol about the horrors of translating Martin Amis. (After listening to him talk about living with these awful, horrible characters in his mind for months and months, I felt like translators—at least of certain books—deserved some sort of compensatory mental health care.) But of all that, I mostly remember Milen dropping the phrase “Kentucky Fried Chicken happy hour,” which is evocative in its oddness, and hits on a certain something . . .
Thrown into Nature is probably not the book you expect when you think of “Bulgarian literature.” There are no Bulgarians in here, it takes place in Spain, and is set in the 1500s. It’s a sort of adventure novel about Dr. Monardes and his Portuguese assistant, da Silva (who narrates), as they traverse Spain “curing” many a person through the use of tobacco. It’s a very funny book that features a smoke enema, the use of smoke to eradicate a poltergeist, and a start up industry of using tobacco to improve health care for animals, but behind all these set-pieces is the realization (from our modern perspective) that it was medical delusions like this that gave rise to the worldwide smoking epidemic.
Milen Ruskov’s second published novel (and first to be translated into English), Thrown Into Nature poses as the traipsing and unfinished manuscript of an eager young Guimaraes da Silva (“The ‘da Silva’ part is made-up, by the way, since an aristocratic title causes people pay more attention to what you say.”). Set in sixteenth-century Sevilla the book follows the exploits of the famous Dr. Nicolas Monardes, founder of that great and all-curing medicine: tobacco.
Ruskov introduces Guimaraes da Silva as a (in his own opinion) regrettably Portuguese student on the cutting edge of medicine. Dr. Monardes sees him smoking a cigarella one day in a bar and takes him on as assistant; they are together ever after. Guimaraes is a mass of contradictions, innocent of opinion yet aware of deceit, indecisive yet committed, and above all, sure but misled. Though he is sometimes brought into the most un-scientific of adventures—chasing a ghost out a church with a cigarella and a staff—he nonetheless carefully records his experiences in the hopes of creating a great book like his mentor.
Ruskov presents Guimaraes’ manuscript as an unfinished text, heading chapters in the haphazard order of 3. For Having a Good Time; 3b. The Title Will Be Thought Up in December; 3c. The Following Summer—note, there is no 3a. As the book goes on it becomes apparent that the manuscript is not so much the pieces of an unfinished text, seemingly plot-less as it is, but the pieces of an unfinished mind. Guimaraes, young and impressionable, picks his way through the good doctor’s values and philosophies as he comes to better understand the people around him and executes a somewhat shady, if comical, coming of age.
In assisting with Dr. Monardes’ medical appointments Guimaraes literally gets thrown into Nature, and yes, that’s Nature with a capital N.
Is there anything more endlessly energetic, more lavishly fertile, yet crazier, than she? Of course not! If Nature put on a human face and strolled around the streets of Sevilla, she would have long since been locked up as a dangerous maniac, perhaps even burned at the stake by the Inquisition. She would be of the female sex, of course, giving birth to a child every five minutes, laughing and jumping about at the same time, and impregnated without a visible agent, as if by the wind itself. Yes, Nature is absolutely mad!
Yet she and she alone is the procreator of the world. Not the Devil or God, not some evil genius or some moronic mad scientist, much less the Good Lord, but simply a mad, all-powerful, all-purblind, accidental and chaotic Nature.
Again and again Guimaraes comes up against the force that seems to complicate everything in life. Serving everyone from King Don Felipe’s son to animals to peasants, Guimaraes gets taken on joyride that is not so much about the ins and outs of medicine as it is the ins and outs of human nature.
Dr. Monardes is a humanist because it is fashionable, a slave trader because it is profitable, and a chain smoking satire of privilege and money, yet serves as Guimaraes’ moral compass. A constant philosopher in his own way, Monardes tries to impart his wisdom on his apprentice and others, including peasants and priests. Though merciful in some instances, such as when Guimaraes and their resplendent carriage driver Jesus manage to burn down his barn, he can be capricious as well. Even in his will he displays this conflicting dual nature, going so far as to decide not to leave Guimaraes his house (“I’m not going to leave you anything, since I’ve never been particularly fond of you”), but gives him instructions on who to bribe on the municipal council to get it anyway.
As the story progresses the manuscript becomes less a tribute to the healing power of tobacco—for intestinal worms, bad breath, and waking the dead—and more a series of vignettes, flashing between Guimaraes’ past and present and brushing against the era’s most important figures: Don Felipe, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Lope de Vega and King James I. By pairing the serious with the ludicrous, Ruskov reminds us that even in its most sober moments life can be a farce.
You may remember that last year, after a wonderful trip to Sozopol where I skinny dipped in the Black Sea, drank wine, met the most amazing writers, and heard the phrase “Kentucky Fried Chicken Happy Hour,” Open Letter launched two Bulgarian literature contests sponsored by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation. The first contest sponsored a two-week fellowship here in Rochester for a Bulgarian translator, and the other led to the upcoming publication of Milen Ruskov’s amazing Thrown into Nature.
Well, it’s time once again to announce the details and deadlines for this year’s contests . . .
In terms of the Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest Bulgarian citizens who have published at least one novel should send a 30-50 page sample translation along with a synopsis and author bio to Simona Ilieva (silieva [at] ekf.bg) by September 16th. The winning book will be published in English by Open Letter in the fall of 2012.
Translators from Bulgarian into English should apply for the Translators Fellowship by submitting a 20-page sample (10-pages if it’s a short story collection) of the book they would work on during the fellowship, along with a statement of purpose and information about their project. Again, this should be submitted to Simona Ilieva (silieva [at] ekf.bg) by September 20th.
These were fun contests to judge last year, and everything worked out amazingly well. Milen’s novel is absolutely wonderful (more info on that when it’s featured as part of Read This Next), and it was a lot of fun having Zdravka Evtimova here for a few weeks while she worked on her translation of Master Mille’s Living Light and Other Stories by Boyan Biolchev. Hope we get a lot of entries again this year . . .
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
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,1 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.
Moth—in Todorov’s perverse twist of the noir genre—is a character steeped in communist ideology and traversing the map of a distinctly communist city. Moth’s character is a literary pastiche of the Soviet heroes who populate novels such as Nikolai Ostrovskii’s How the Steel Was Tempered (1932), one of the master narratives of socialist realism (Moth’s real name is Zhelyazkov—from the Bulgarian word “zhelyazo” or “iron”). Like those heroes, Moth perfects his mind in jail by reading canonical texts and trains his battered body to withstand pain and privations. Sent to jail in a pre-communist Bulgaria, Moth lives through September 9, 1944 and in prison converts into the new system of thought and life. In this way, Moth straddles political regimes and cultural eras, skipping through time as if on his “Communist Time Machine”—the propaganda artwork that he installs in jail and that secures his early release into the night of December 1963.
Moth’s flight through Sofia takes him to two key sites of communist power—Georgi Dimitrov’s mausoleum and the nearby party headquarters. Early in the text Moth informs the reader that in 1949 he took part in digging the foundation pit of the mausoleum; when he faces the imposing structure, he is awed by the ideological power emanating from it and from the embalmed body of the communist leader within. Moth not only partakes in the construction of Sofia’s communist space, he also becomes the ideal subject of the communist state. And yet, by subtly recalling Andrei Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (1930), the disturbing dystopian narrative about Soviet construction, Zift confers to Bulgaria’s communist reality a similarly nightmarish status. In fact, the novel transforms the city itself into a permanent construction site through the vocabulary of building materials, zift in particular.
An image that permeates the text, zift carries both a communist and noir aesthetic and thus unites the novel’s two generic strands. Zift is a black resin or asphalt used for its binding properties and belongs to the linguistic register of industrial construction and metallurgy. It is zift, according to Moth, that binds the yellow bricks of the pavement surrounding Dimitrov’s mausoleum and the Party headquarters. As the novel’s title, zift evokes another master narrative about Soviet construction, Gladkov’s novel Cement (1925). As the hard-boiled protagonist, Moth chews continuously on a ball of zift to signal his streetwise toughness; and it is the ball of black zift that holds the resolution of the black diamond mystery. Further, zift’s thick blackness seeps through the menacing noir city when Moth exits the prison and enters the “nebulously thick freezing night” where dusk is “streaming down the joint’s walls like molten asphalt.” Even are described as industrially manufactured bodies: “a tin gaze, ears of porous cast iron, a sheet-metal figure, a quarry jaw, skin the hues of zinc and lead . . .” As he methodically ingests the resin, Moth also claims that zift has embalming properties and that “mummy comes from the Arabic for zift.” It is precisely at this point that zift binds together the hard-boiled body with the embalmed communist body and roots it firmly into the communist-noir city’s pavement glued with zift.
The novel’s language poses a challenge to both reader and translator: fraught with allusions, puns, intertextual references, and shifts in discourse, it calls for constant alertness. The novel’s language spans the vocabulary of industrial construction, manufacturing, and metallurgy, the official parlance of communist ideology, the graphic twists of street jargon, the lyric eloquence of a poet’s letter, as well as various direct or indirect quotations. In a Nabokovian fashion (Ada is after all the title of Nabokov’s perhaps most ambitious work), Todorov’s text begs for a rereading (on my second reading, I detected a couple of modified quotes from the Bulgarian poets Geo Milev and Nikola Vaptsarov). Joseph Benatov’s English translation deftly negotiates the challenges of the text’s variegated lexicon, rhetorical figures, and discursive oscillations. Interestingly, the English translation differs significantly from the Bulgarian original in one key detail: the resolution of the diamond mystery that concludes the novel. The changed ending in the English translation, however, corresponds to the ending of the novel’s film adaptation Zift. Todorov, who wrote the screenplay for the film, has exercised his authorial license and rewritten the ending of the English translation of his novel. This alignment of verbal and cinematic modes of representation further endorses the communist noir poetics that Todorov has crafted.
Structured as Moth’ written confession to the police, the novel also contains several embedded narratives—the stories told by a host of bizarre characters Moth encounters on his journey through Sofia. Each storyteller relates an absurdly comical anecdote about life in communist society (a famous actress skiing down a slope with a bare behind; a man picking up a hot iron instead of the telephone and pressing it to his ear; three tons of feces getting dumped into someone’s living room, to name just a few) that turn the novel into a grotesque parody.2 Inherently intertextual and overtly humorous, parody imitates or repeats a discourse, text, or style, but with a critical difference. We can then read Zift as a parody of both socialist realism and hard-boiled fiction as well as a parody of itself and the hybrid genre it creates.
1 Of course, the name “Ada” suggests the Bulgarian word for “hell”—“ad,” and thus hints at the femme fatale’s diabolical character.
2 For a discussion of parody, see Linda Hutcheon. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms.
And to close out the second series of Three Percent posts in two days, I thought I’d write something short about Zdravka Evtimova’s fellowship here in Rochester, which ended last week. As I mentioned back some time ago, Zdravka won the first annual Contest for Bulgarian Translators sponsored by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and the America for Bulgaria Foundation. Thanks to these foundations, we were able to host Zdravka in Rochester for three weeks, giving her a chance to learn about the American publishing industry and time to work on her translation project.
I may be putting words in Zdravka’s mouth, but one of the most beneficial activities of her stay was having a chance to workshop her translation of Boyan Biolchev’s “The End of a Bird” with some of the translation studies students at the University of Rochester.
Just to give a bit of background, every semester the Open Letter interns (usually around 6) have to take a one-hour a week Intro to Literary Publishing “class” in which we talk about various aspects of book publishing, its future, literature in translation, marketing, etc., etc. It’s a lot of fun to teach, and I think (hope?) the students enjoy it and get a lot out of it. It’s pretty much a crash course in publishing, an attempt to fill in all the blanks that they don’t get from their normal intern activities, such as writing reader’s reports, doing sample translations, designing marketing plans, writing catalog copy, et cetera.
This semester was the first time I tried workshopping the intern’s sample translations in class, and thanks to the great success of this, I think I’m going to incorporate it into all future semesters. The process we used was to read the translation aloud, pausing anytime something seemed out wack, or needed clarification, or seemed like the translator was forced to make an interesting choice (like dealing with Italian dialects, or describing parts of an antiquated train). It’s a lot of fun, and a bit brutal, since all the various “warts” are exposed when you read so slowly and so critically with a group of very bright people.
This also frequently led to numerous linguistic jokes and off-the-wall suggestions, which is both fun and would leave me personally feeling like I had lost control of the English language . . . But to be completely frank, it really is through this sort of editing/workshopping process that one learns how English can really function and what the possibilities are in translation. It’s incredibly informative, even if all the student translators are a bit embarrassed by the wide-ranging critiques of their work. (Although it should be written that they shouldn’t be embarrassed—they all did a marvelous job, and I think this process helped with all future translations.)
Anyway, Zdravka’s translations of Boyan Biolchev were what won her the Translation Fellowship, so she workshopped the story “The End of the Bird” on two separate occasions. It’s worth noting that a) Zdravka’s first language is Bulgarian and b) even though we went through this twice, there’s probably more work that can be done. But to give you a sense of more classic Bulgarian lit, and what Zdravka’s working on, her translation of the short story is posted below.
In terms of Biolchev, here’s the bio Zdravka wrote up about him:
Born in 1942 in Sofia, Boyan Biolchev is one of Bulgaria’s most interesting and original fiction writers. His novels and novellas have been translated into many languages, and in 2007 he won won the VIC Literary Prize for his novel Varoe’s Amazon. He’s also the author of several successful screenplays and is the former director of the University of Sofia.
And here’s “The End of the Bird”:
In early autumn, hunters often passed by my little house that I had built not far from the sea. Sometimes they carried quails and wood pigeons tied to their wide leather belts, most often however they came back with nothing. Then they talked about the good luck they used to have, or they swore that on the following day they would catch all wild animals in the forest.
They were among the few living things that disturbed the peace and quiet of the tired summer.
The only creatures that I saw moving about were the flocks of crows. They showed no burning enthusiasm as they darted across the yellow grass picking at things only they noticed. When they got sick of the bleached grass, they perched on the picket fence and appeared lost in thought as if they lived in a dark short story by Elin Pelin.
The crow is a despicable animal, I thought. It makes sense to kill a quail or a wood pigeon, yes, those are worth cooking. At a certain point I remembered that hunters were highly praised for the crows they’d shot. To prove their achievements, they carried only the crow’s legs. The remaining parts of the body had no value whatsoever and I asked myself if there was a living being in the world that worthless.
In those years, no one talked about environmentalism, and no one worried to ask what was so harmful about the crow. Why did the hunters lavish praise on each other for the crows’ legs they had cut?
So far so good. On the day I had in mind, two hunters happened by my house. It was evident they had trudged through the hills near the sea and were on their way back empty handed. A thought crossed my mind: at such moments a senseless thirst for compensation races through the blood of the hunter. I had seen boar hunters who having had no luck throughout the day shot at a young birch with their powerful guns until they shattered its trunk. Their eyes shone with wild frenzy, then after a while they withdrew, their steps weighed down by shame. I knew no matter what they’d tell tales about the non-existent boar that had dodged their bullets, and they wouldn’t mention the young birch they had destroyed.
The two hunters stopped in the middle of the clearing. The taller guy raised his gun and fired. One of the birds that had perched on the picket fence fell to the ground with a thud. Its wings flapped in the dust of my yard.
The hunters started for the village satisfied their last shot was a success. I had asked children why they launched stones at sparrows with their slingshots. And they had told me, “We want to see if we can hit them!” I had done the same thing myself. The seemingly senseless murder had not been my goal, but it was the result. Or was that true?
I approached the picket fence and I found the bird lying perfectly immobile. A thick droplet of blood shone on its back; that was the spot where the slug had passed. I turned the crow over. An identical drop of blood gleamed on its breast. At that moment I noticed the bird was looking at me. Its eyes resembled grains of black caviar. It was the first time in my life that I looked at a crow up close; these birds were very cautious and always flew away as I approached them. One can throw out a dead bird easily, I said to myself. This one however was staring at me as if it wanted to know what I intended to do. I reached out and tried to touch its wing with my forefinger. At that moment the crow suddenly turned around, flapped its wings and flew away as if the hunter’s slug had never hit it. In the few seconds I bent over it, the bird had mustered its strength. It was flying madly and powerfully. It soared and shot up high above the sea shore, then suddenly took a sharp turn to the tall trees in the village.
It flew on for several minutes and grew small, turning into a black dot, then the black dot started falling, gently at first, and after a while vertically, heavily until it hit the ground. That was far away from me and I didn’t hear the dull thud of the dead body in the dead grass. Its flapping wings had drained the crow.
The bird had met its death flying.
I thought to myself, yes, the crow maybe was the most unwanted and abject bird, but nature has given it strength to die with dignity. Maybe there was some purpose to it that our imperfect human senses could not register. Maybe there was a meaning that our rational mind was incapable of describing.
Milen Ruskov’s speech about the horrors of translating Martin Amis was one of the highlights of Sozopol Fiction Workshops 2010. Milen has a certain style . . . a way of stating things in a simple, direct, seemingly serious fashion. But he undercuts the understatedness of his delivery time and again with ironic comments, hilarious anecdotes, witty observations and phrases like “those readers who just want a Kentucky Fried Chicken Happy Hour.” (Apparently KFC has “happy hour” in Bulgaria. Which is either totally rad, or vomit-inducing. Take your pick.)
Before getting to Milen’s novel, it’s worth dwelling on his translation work for a minute. Over his career, Milen has translated more than 20 books from English into Bulgarian, including Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey, several works by Jerome K. Jerome, Money by Martin Amis, and Transformation by Mary Shelley, among others. He even received the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation’s Krustan Dyankov Translation Award for his translations of Money and De Niro’s Game by Rawi Hage.
This past fall, I was asked along with Francis Bickmore of Canongate to judge the first Contemporary Bulgarian Novel contest, which was sponsored by both the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and the American for Bulgaria Foundation. Over the course of a month or so, we read 30-50 page sample translations from some 20 different works—all very interesting. We came up with a shortlist of books to promote through Contemporary Bulgarian Writers and then chose Milen’s Thrown into Nature as the winner for its interesting plot (introduction of smoking to Europe), its generous sense of humor (smoking enema!), and the witty complex style in which it’s written. As I mentioned before, we’re really excited to be publishing Angela Rodel’s translation of this in Fall 2011.
In writing the press release about these awards, I had a weird moment where I realizing I was singing the praises of a book that’s all about the doctor who gave his life advocating to get Europe hooked on smoking . . . which feels a little evil, you know? Then again, Open Letter already has it’s “questionable treatment of animals” series, what with The Pets and now The Guinea Pigs, and Jerzy Pilch’s book battles with alcoholism . . . But Thrown into Nature is a lot more than a book about a guy who thinks smoking is the ultimate panacea—I’ll let Milen explain:
The book – at least on the level of the plot – is about the introduction of tobacco into Europe. It’s one of the most absurd stories I know, and it’s real. This is what happened:
Tobacco was first brought to Europe by seamen in the beginning of the XVI century and used by them in port areas as part of their subculture, but it was introduced into the general population by a Spanish doctor called Dr. Nicolas Monardes. He wrote a treatise about tobacco entitled “Of the Tabaco and of His Great Vertues” (sic) in 1571 in which he told his readers that tobacco was the “herba panacea“ of the ancients, that mythical universal cure promised by them, and now found “by our brave seamen” in the West Indies, that is, in America. In this treatise, he enumerated 36 diseases that could be cured by tobacco (including chest diseases; it makes you spit, so it must clean your chest – logical, isn’t it?). The book was translated into English (“Englished,” as they said then) by John Frampton in 1577, and even earlier into Latin, then “lingua franca” of the medical profession, by Charles de l’Ecluse. Dr. Monardes was a well respected medical man of his day and his book became exceptionally popular within the profession. Then doctors began prescribing tobacco as a cure. The supreme irony is that it was doctors themselves who really introduced tobacco into the Western World. Before that, it was a marginal product popular among sailors only and used mostly in ports and aboard ships. But the doctors took it from there and in fact disseminated it all over Europe and among all the social classes because they prescribed it as a cure, and some of them believed it was a supreme and universal cure, the herba panacea indeed, so they prescribed it for everything, even as a prophylactic. Then opportunities for profit came into play, both private and governmental (duties, excises), and it became a huge business on its own. But it would never have been possible without what the doctors did. They did it inadvertently, of course.
So the book is about Dr. Monardes himself, narrated by an imaginary disciple, his assistant Da Silva. It consists of 19 chapters; in each of them, Dr. Monardes and Da Silva treat some disease with the help of tobacco, and are always successful. They treat death, plague, chase away evil spirits, chase away the devil himself, treat aching joints, a toothache of Cervantes, intestinal worms, pangs of love, indecision and hesitations, headache, and a few more things, and always with great success. Meanwhile, they go to England to participate in the debate on tobacco (there was such a debate in 1605) held in Oxford. Together with the brilliant rhetorician and wit Dr. Cheynell and other of their English followers, they win the debate; then they go back to Spain and continue their work. They are smart, energetic, terribly persevering, and wrong. But why should they think they’re wrong if everything goes well? The story ends with the death of Dr. Monardes who treated himself too much. Da Silva, however, continues his practice. But, close to the end, they begin to suspect that they’ve made a terrible mistake. It’s too late, however, their lives and careers are at stake, and they can’t go back. There is a suspicion growing little by little that actually the doctor knew the truth all the time. Did he? Well, who knows? Maybe. What’s certain is that it was the great chance of his career, the biggest opportunity of his life, and he knew it. It was his “child of love”, so to speak, and he was its instrument. He was able, like an ancient Demiurgos, to introduce something into the world, something marginal and unknown till then, and make it a Big Thing. His herba panacea. He did it with love and full dedication, and that’s where his incredible power and luck lay.
It is Cervantes-esque (Cervantean?) in its delusional grandeur, and wonderfully ironic. To give you a taste, you can download a PDF of the opening chapter here, and here are a couple excerpts from the opening:
My name is Guimarães da Silva. The “Da Silva” part is made-up, by the way, since an aristocratic title causes people to pay more attention to what you say. And besides, Dr. Monardes wanted me to change my name so he could introduce me as his assistant without embarrassment. “This is my assistant Da Silva,” Dr. Monardes now says, and it really does sound better that way. Sometimes he even presents me as “Dr. Da Silva.” Of course, I am not yet a doctor – although I hope to be some day – but rather a mere helpmate and student of Dr. Monardes. Incidentally, he never mentions that I am Portuguese. The Portuguese are thought to smell bad, spread malaria (since they wade through the swamps around the city), constantly present themselves as noblemen who just happen to end up in Sevilla and who try to swindle everyone they can out of piddling sums. “I,” he says, “am João da So-and-So, and I have come to buy a parcel of land in Peñana at a good price” or “to build a ship in Cadiz.” Then he starts playing the fool, so that you’ll swallow the act and decide to join the venture, usually for cheap or at a huge profit, at which point he disappears with the ducats. The curious thing here is that the notorious seductive power of money addles the mind of the one forking it over – a relatively rare and interesting phenomenon that lies behind the prosperity of many a crook, for example, the owners of gambling houses – for if he had preserved even a bit of his presence of mind, he would have asked himself why anyone would come to buy land or to build a ship in Spain given that it is far cheaper to do so in Portugal. Yet clearly people cease thinking in such cases. For this reason, Sevilla is full of fake receipts from Portuguese shysters. Even Dr. Monardes has one. [. . .]
This unpredictability of the body – to get back to my original thought – is a consequence of the chaoticness, randomness and unpredictability of nature itself. Did I say unpredictability? In fact, this is not always the case. If there is any great marvel whatsoever in this world, it is that nature can sometimes be controlled. For that, of course, extensive skills and knowledge are necessary, but in principle it is possible. Figuratively speaking, you can drag nature out of the madhouse and force her to do something. Of course, she continues lurching and grimacing, keeps babbling nonsensically, but she does it. Then next time she won’t do it. It depends.
There are certain means through which she can be forced, in particular circumstances, to act as we wish. Such a means, practically omnipotent, was discovered by our seamen in the Indies over the past half-century or so. This well-nigh magical means was completely unknown to Antiquity, whose number includes even Herodotus, Heraclitus, or whatever they called that mighty ancient healer, whose name escapes me for the moment. Of course, we are talking about the almost almighty tobacco. This is precisely the medicine to which Dr. Monardes has dedicated his book about its healing powers. Dr. Monardes is an ideal innovator, a true discoverer. This was the first and, at the time, the only book of its kind in Europe. However, I will let the author speak for himself:
My assistant and colleague Señor Dr. Da Silva asked me to write a few words in his work – a request I responded to joyfully, being flattered by the faith shown in me, for which I wish to thank him sincerely. Henceforth I shall express myself more briefly (due to pressing engagements).
My tract about tobacco was published in Sevilla under the title “On Tobacco and Its Great Virtues, by Dr. Nicolas Monardes, M.D. LL.D. I.S.O. M.A. D.J. M.C.” The latter is a selection of my titles. It is also known by the same name in France (without the titles, however). The tract in question is part of my book “A Medical History of Remedies Brought from the West Indies,” or, in short, “Historia medicinal.” In England, due to the singular whim of its translator, it appeared under the title “Joyfull News out of the New Found World.” Following my indignant inquiry I was assured that in England if something does not begin with “Joyfull News” no one buys it and reads it. The English, as I came to understand, look upon all books, including medical writings, primarily as a means of entertainment to pleasantly while away one’s spare time, for which reason every other title there now begins with “Joyfull News.” For example, if the work in question addresses the massacre in Lancaster, the book will be published as “Joyfull News out of the Massacre in Lancaster.” I give this example because I have seen it with my own eyes. In short, I was forced to back down.
This was merely a clarification. Now I would like to offer the reader some useful advice:
1. Go to bed early. The best time is around eight o’ clock in the evening in the winter and nine o’ clock during the summer.
2. No fewer than eight hours of sleep. The advice above could be paraphrased more simply as follows: Go to bed one hour after sundown, get up one hour before sunrise. The more attentive reader will most likely note that this is precisely a simplified paraphrase. However, with the passage of time I have become convinced that not only in England, where it is absolutely necessary, but also everywhere else, it is best to state things in a simplified manner, as this is the only way they will be understood. With the exception of France, however, where it is preferable to state things as complexly as possible, ideally such that nothing whatsoever can be understood. Then in France they will declare you a philosopher.
3. Food – three times a day. Lavish breakfast, fair-to-middling lunch, light supper. The reader may imagine food as a slide: in the morning you find yourself at its highest point, at noon in the middle, and in the evening at its lowest part. Its lowest part is not necessarily a place where one falls on one’s arse and subsequently spends the next hour thus in the privy.
4. Meat dishes should be alternated with meatless ones, ideally on the same day, but if this proves impossible – then every other day. Overconsumption of meaty foods leads to diseases of the kidneys, while eating only meatless fare weakens the organism.
5. Moderate labor. If possible – none at all. Avoid working in the afternoon and especially the evening. Do not forget what the Bible teaches us – labor was something used to punish Adam.
6. Warm clothes during the winter. If when you look outside you reckon you will need one woolen jersey, put on two. It is of particular importance to keep your feet warm, thus the same applies to socks as well. Countless people die of colds that could easily be avoided, except in the cases of the most destitute, among whose ranks our reader can scarcely be counted. Furthermore, one’s neck should be wrapped in a scarf.
3a) It is sufficient for a person to go to any pub whatsoever to see gluttonous animals. Overeating gathers all the bodily fluids in the stomach, leads to a feeling of heaviness and upsets the activity of the entire organism (from whose extremities the fluids are withdrawn so as to aid digestion within the stomach). In cases of systematic abuse, this leads to corpulence, which thins the bones and encumbers the heart. Stop gorging yourself!
3b (7.) It has been said many times, but let us repeat: Do not abuse alcoholic beverages. Two glasses of wine a day maximum, one at noon and one in the evening. Spirits – only in the winter, 75 gr. maximum. Yes, I know it seems like very little. This is not news to me. The above-mentioned advice could be formulated in a more simplified manner (and summarized, which is, in fact, the same thing) as follows: He who eats and drinks a lot dies young. You have certainly heard the so-called blessing “Eat, drink and be merry!” To the same effect they may as well have told you: “Die sooner!”
8. Use tobacco habitually, in the form of smoke for inhalation. This protects the organism from infection and strengthens it as a whole. Señor Dr. Da Silva has informed me that in the present work he will discuss several illustrative examples of tobacco’s healing power, thus I will conclude, remaining
Your fervent well-wisher
and most humble servant,
Dr. Nicolas Monardes, M.D. LL.D. I.S.O. M.A. D.J. M.C.
P.S. For other examples of the healing power of tobacco see my above-cited tract. “On Tobacco and Its, etc.”
About seven years ago, when I was working at Dalkey and prepping the marketing plan for Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov’s Natural Novel, I came up with a bit of a crazy idea. (Yeah, surprising, I know.) This remarkable books—a moving, fragmented portrait of one man’s dealing with divorce1 that’s funny, a bit meta, and charming through and through—was the only Bulgarian novel I could find in any sort of Google search.
So I decided to tell everyone that it was the first Bulgarian novel to ever be translated into English and published in America. That’s worthy of a New York Times profile piece, right? “First Bulgarian Novel to Reach American Readers.” Shit, that was Oprah sort of golden.
Well, dreams of hundreds of thousands of sales became simply hundreds of sales, but this little claim did make its way into Publishers Weekly, and aside from one aggressive letter from a publisher claiming that he had published “a number” of Bulgarian collections of poetry, no one had refused my “First Bulgarian Novel in English” claim.
But how could this possibly be true? Sure, it’s Bulgaria. Not a huge country, granted, but, you know, it’s not Malta. Seemed like somehow, someone would’ve come across something, and brought it into English. But maybe not . . .
As I came to find out later (in Bulgaria, on a trip to the Sozopol Fiction Workshops, thanks to the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation), one of the reasons for this possible lack was the late development of the novel in Bulgaria. For ages there had been Bulgarian poets, but novelists are a relatively new phenomenon. Which led to a weird (compared to the U.S. anyway) situation in which most books published by Bulgarian publishers are in translation. Not necessarily because Bulgarian readers are fascinated with world literature, but because there just aren’t enough Bulgarian books being written to sustain larger houses.
Things are obviously changing, and based on my short visit, and on judging the contemporary Bulgarian novel contest, there’s a lot of great Bulgarian stuff out there waiting to be translated into English.
But going back to my original story, approximately one year after making this little announcement, I received a photocopied page from a “Dictionary of World Literature” that a bookseller from Madison, WI found at a garage sale. This dictionary, which I think was published in the early 1950s, was a guide to the literatures of the world, and under the heading of “Bulgaria” there was one novel. Ivan Vazov’s Under the Yoke, which was originally written in 1888 and was translated into English in 1912.
Seven (or so) years later, there are a number of Bulgarian works that have been translated and published in English. And looking at the Translation Database, there are three recent titles worth taking a look at:
I swear to god that after I finish Olga Tokarczuk’s Primeval and Other Times (which is an amazing novel) I’m going to read and review Zift. Based on this description, it sounds fantastic:
December 21, 1963: Having served 20 years for a murder he didn’t commit, “Moth” exits Central Sofia Prison anticipating his first night of freedom. Instead he steps into a new and alien world—the nightmarish totalitarianism of Communist Bulgaria. In his first hours of freedom he traverses the map of a diabolical city, full of decaying neighborhoods, gloomy streets, and a bizarre parade of characters.
A novel of grave wit, Zift unfolds in the course of a single, frenetic night, offering a fast-paced, ghoulish, even grotesque—but also enchanting—tour of shadowy, socialist Sofia. To achieve his depiction of totalitarian absurdity, Vladislav Todorov combines the methods of hardboiled American crime fiction and film noir with socialist symbols and communist ideological clichés.
And seeing that Rochester is the fourth most obscene city in the U.S. thanks in part to this blog (or, probably not, but give me my moment of obscene glory, please), I might as well explain what Zift means:
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, form Arabic]
You can read an except of Zift by clicking on this pdf.
Just from the title, author’s name, and description, I wouldn’t have guessed this was translated from Bulgarian, but there you go. Here’s what Other Press has to say:
This novel is the saga in five parts of Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld, who grows up in Kolodetz, a small town near Lvov, which, when he’s a boy, belongs to the Hapsburg Empire, but which subsequently belongs to Poland, Soviet Russia, Germany, and then Russia again. Isaac survives the absurdity and horror of Eastern Europe during the 20th century by pretending to be a fool. If this is an old Jewish art, then Isaac is a consummate artist. He plays the fool all his life, from his boyhood in Kolodetz shetl to the time when he is an accused war criminal in a Gulag in Siberia.
Inseparable from Isaac’s life and story are the Yiddish jokes and fables of Kolodetz. These and the counsel of his dear friend, the rabbi and chair of the atheist club in Kolodetz, Shmuel Ben David, sustain Isaac through two world wars, three concentration camps, and five motherlands. The book puts on record, with full art, what is perhaps the central story of the last one hundred years. It is a wise book.
They also have a slick-as-money “look inside” feature where you can read the first 20+ pages. Worth checking out, especially since Other Press also published Wagenstein’s Farewell, Shanghai
Unfortunately, the Carnegie Mellon website doesn’t seem to have a page for this book, or any additional information at all (shame!), so instead, I’ll just quote this description from Flipkart, which is also where the title of this post comes from:
In Unreal Estate, the much-anticipated follow-up to the internationally acclaimed Pagan (Carnegie Mellon University Press 1992), Lyubomir Nikolov has made the Balkans a permanent feature of the American literary landscape. Blending rich Bulgarian folk song traditions with Old World intellectual skepticism and American grit, Nikolov dares to venture where few others have gone. Miroslav Nikolovas bold translations make the poems more accessible than ever. Emerging from years of obscurity, Lyubomir Nikolov strikes again.
And with that, I’m off till tomorrow when I’ll post a bunch of info and samples from Milen Ruskov’s Thrown into Nature.
1 In the time-honored Three Percent tradition of TMI, it’s fitting that I’m writing about this today seeing that I was finally, officially divorced yesterday afternoon. Yay! Or yay? Or whatever.
We mentioned these contests a while back and at long last, here’s the official press release about the winning novel and translator. To make this all a bit more exciting, tomorrow I’m going to post short capsules on recent Bulgarian works published in English translation; Thursday I’ll post a long section of Milen’s novel; and on Friday I’ll post a piece of Zdravka’s translations. This is all so Three Percent: an ongoing series on Spanish-language novelists, and a mini-focus on Bulgaria. I have the best job in the world.
Milen Ruskov and Zdravka Evtimova Win Inaugural Contests for Contemporary Bulgarian Literature
December 2010—Open Letter Books and the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation are proud to announce the inaugural winners of two contests supporting Bulgarian literature: Milen Ruskov won the first Contest for Contemporary Bulgarian Writers for his novel Thrown into Nature, and Zdravka Evtimova won the Contest for Translators.
“What the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation is doing for Bulgarian literature is remarkable,” said Open Letter publisher Chad W. Post. “The support they’re giving to Bulgarian writers—through the Sozopol Fiction Seminars and these contests—goes a long way to helping bring contemporary Bulgarian literature to the attention of readers throughout the world.”
Milen Rouskov’s Thrown into Nature will be published by Open Letter in the fall of 2011. The novel is an ironic, humorous book set in sixteenth-century Spain and tells the story of Dr. Nicolas Monardes, whose treatise “Of the Tabaco and His Great Vertues” was partially responsible for introducing tobacco to Europe. Da Silva—Dr. Monardes’s assistant—narrates the novel and the absurd adventures of Dr. monardes, who attempts to cure all ills through the “power of tobacco,” until it becomes painfully clear that tobacco isn’t the perfect panacea.
As a result of winning the Contest for Transaltors, Zdravka Evtimova will spend three weeks in Rochester, NY, working with Open Letter on her translation of Master Mille’s Living Light and Other Stories by Boyan Biolchev and learning about the U.S. publishing industry. An author in her own right, Evtimova has also translated several English novels into Bulgarian (including Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved) and Bulgarian stories into English.
Elizabeth Kostova (author of The Historian and The Swan Thieves) helped found the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation in 2007 with the goal of promoting Bulgarian creative writing, the translation of contemporary Bulgarian literature into English, and friendship between Bulgarian authors and American and British authors. To this end, and among other initiatives, the Foundation supports the Sozopol Fiction Seminars, the Contemporary Bulgarian Writers website, and, with support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, these two inaugural contests.
Open Letter Books was also founded in 2007 at the University of Rochester with the goal of publishing and promoting literature in translation. In addition to publishing 10 works in translation every year, the press helps run the Three Percent website, the Reading the World Conversation Series at the University of Rochester, and the Best Translated Book Awards.
“I’m delighted and grateful that Open Letter Books is partnering with Elizabeth Kostova Foundation to support the very fine—and very interesting—literature currently coming out of Bulgaria,” said Elizabeth Kostova. “These awards will do much to nurture the work of Bulgarian writers in the global literary scene.”
“In the context of how few English translations of contemporary Bulgarian literature are published on an annual basis, I consider these two complementary awards both indispensable and essential to the mission of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation,” EFK director Milena Deleva stated. “These awards create new and much needed opportunities for both Bulgarian writers and literary translators. They also expand the Foundation’s collaborative framework through two ideal partnerships with Open Letter and the America for Bulgaria Foundation.”
It would be hard to overstate all the amazing things the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation for Creative Writing (and Elizabeth herself) has done for contemporary Bulgarian writers. Sure, there’s the Sozopol Fiction Seminars, but they also organized a special day of panels on Literary Diplomacy to take place in Sofia, helped bring publishers and Bulgarian writers & translators together, sponsor the Dyankov Translation Award for the most outstanding translation from English into Bulgarian, and now have helped launch the Contemporary Bulgarian Writers website to help promote Bulgarian writers abroad.
For publishers, these sorts of sites are invaluable. Aside from random meetings at the Frankfurt Book Fair, or personal connections developed slowly and one-by-one over the years, it can be extremely hard for editors to find out about contemporary literature from countries such as Bulgaria. (And by “countries such as Bulgaria” I mean ones that don’t have an active governmental organization like the Finnish Literature Exchange, German Book Office, French Cultural Services, Japanese Literature Publishing Project, etc., promoting their contemporary writers to the rest of the world.) Beyond identifying new writers to check out, a site like this helps provide a bit of context for any submissions that an editor does happen to receive. I mean, there are only a handful of Bulgarian novels that have ever been published in English, so it’s hard to understand the tradition and evolution of Bulgarian literature.
Seriously—anyone interested in Bulgarian (or simply international) literature should check this out. I’m sure that it’ll expand greatly over the next year, but the site already features maybe two dozen writers (and a handful of Bulgarian-to-English translators), and has biographical info, excerpts, critical reviews, contact information for all of them.
One author worth looking at is Zachary Karabashliev, whose first novel won the Book of the Year Award from the Vick Foundation and was chosen as one of the 100 Most Loved Books of All Time by Bulgarians, and his first collection of short stories won the Book of the Year Award from Helikon. He’s a very funny guy, and his stories are quite sharp.
In terms of translators, Angela Rodel deserves some special attention. She translated all of the pieces by the Bulgarian writers at the Sozopol Seminars AND she just was awarded a PEN Translation Fund Award for Georgi Tenev’s Holy Light, which sounds pretty interesting:
Alloying political sci-fi with striking eroticism, the stories in Holy Light depict a world of endless, wearying revolution and apocalypse, where bodies have succumbed to a sinister bio-politics of relentless cruelty and perversion. “In first class they offered easy emancipation, perhaps even electrocution, but he was traveling economy class where they wouldn’t even serve him food.” (No publisher)
(I was actually on a panel with both Georgi and Angela—both very smart, very interesting people.)
By the way, if I haven’t said this in a while, all fiction writers should apply to the Sozopol Fiction Seminars . . .
Before heading off to Bulgaria to participate in the special translation panels at this year’s Sozopol Fiction Seminars, I knew next to nothing about Sozopol. I knew that we had to fly in Sofia and take a bus for something like
eternity 8 hours to get to Sozopol and the Black Sea. From Wikipedia I found out that Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and Goldfrapp (?!) have been spotted there.
To be honest, I didn’t even realize that Bulgaria — which is part of the EU — doesn’t use Euros.
What I know now: Sozopol is one of the most beautiful places on earth. The beach is pristine, the water unbelievable, the weather spectacular, the food delicious. Even the Art Gallery where all the Seminar events take place is wonderful and charming. And the people! Not just the people involved with the Workshop itself—and Elizabeth Kosotova and Milena Deleva deserve a very special, very public shout-out for their generosity and overall brilliance—but the three sisters that ran the Hotel Diamanti where we stayed were also amazing, as were all of the other locals we met during the Seminars.
My main point with this post is that any and all eligible fiction writers should apply for this. The American writers that I spent the most time with — Carin Clevidence, Charles Conley, Kelly Luce and Paul Vidich — absolutely loved the morning workshop sessions, and the afternoon translation panels were always quite interesting. The evening lectures — from Alex Miller and Kristin Dimitrova — were really fascinating, as was the reading by all ten of the American and Bulgarian fellows. And I haven’t laughed as hard in months as I did during the evening informal bonding sessions that took place over a seemingly limitless amount of wine . . .
Definitely apply for this.
There were a number of interesting outcomes from this, starting with the Contemporary Bulgarian Writers website, but that totally deserves its own post . . .
Today’s installment in “The Guardian‘s” week of Eastern European stories is Mustafa by Nikolai Grozni. By far the funniest piece of the week, “Mustafa” centers around a funereal gone awry:
In any event, questioning the authenticity of my grandmother’s body at her funeral was not the proper thing to do. Then again, I had been away from Eastern Europe for ten years. I had a good excuse to act inappropriately. So, I walked over to the two gypsies and asked them where they’d found the body. I thought it a perfect question: I didn’t challenge their right to choose which body we should bury at my grandmother’s funeral, and I certainly didn’t threaten to disrupt the funeral ceremony, already in progress. Just a casual question, an offhand remark, as it were. Nothing serious. Where did you guys find this body?
“You don’t think that’s her nose?” countered the younger one. “Mustafa, you tell him.”
“My friend,” said Mustafa, blinking very slowly, “this is definitely your grandmother’s nose. I’ve been around. I know what a nose looks like.”
“But you don’t even know my grandmother,” I objected, trying not to raise my voice.
“You should listen to what this man says,” the younger gypsy advised me. “He’s been in the piano delivery business for thirty years. He can tell a Zimerman from a Bosendorf from a hundred meters with his eyes closed, and with the wind blowing in the opposite direction.”
“I think I know this guy,” said Mustafa, pointing at me. “Didn’t we deliver a Petroff to your house fifteen years ago? A good lower register, somewhat tinny as the notes get higher?”
“Probably you did,” I conceded. “You must have.”
“What do you know,” said Mustafa, raising his hands toward the sky. “Now I come to deliver your grandmother.”
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