"Emerging from Years of Obscurity . . ." [Bulgarian Literature, Part II]

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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