1 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

11 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

11 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

8 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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:



  • Zift by Vladislav Todorov, translated from the Bulgarian by Joseph Benatov (Paul Dry Books)

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.




  • Isaac’s Torah by Angel Wagenstein, translated from the Bulgarian by Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova (Other Press)

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




  • Unreal Estate by Lyubomir Nikolov, translated by Miroslav Nikolov (Carnegie Mellon University Press)

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.

....
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