Angel Igov’s A Short Tale of Shame, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel and published by Open Letter Books, is an ambitious, lyrical novel that succeeds in part by transplanting its story to a semi-fictitious version of the Balkan region. Igov experiments with setting and with an explosive style reminiscent of the Beats’ lyricism combined with Virginia Woolf’s free indirect discourse. His pages-long paragraphs build beyond bite-sized slices consumer readers favor—the reward is a sentential tension that delivers scene, exposition, and character thought all in one.
The following excerpt, taken from the end of the first chapter, captures the distinctive nature of both Igov’s setting and style. When asked via e-mail about the novel’s discomfiting mock-Balkan setting, he wrote:
“The main purpose in establishing this mock-Balkan background is precisely political irony, directed both ways: at Balkan nations, for making their history so crucial to their identity, and at the “West”, for being so eager to use ready-made stereotypes of the region. The Balkans in my novel resemble very much the ones we know from stereotypes even though the ethnonyms are different and history has gone some alternative way.
The mock-Balkan layer also has the idea to introduce some estrangement or alienation from the main story, in a somewhat Brechtian sense.
But I certainly didn’t try to establish a whole fictional world with its clearly cut geography and history. So I don’t expect readers anywhere to draw for themselves a clearer picture than the one I had in mind. The game of hints and ironies is purposefully vague, and it’s vague enough for Bulgarian readers too. As long as it holds and you are partially (but beneficially) lost, that’s good for you.”
Actually, it suddenly popped into Krustev’s mind, aren’t these three in college? It’s the middle of May, shouldn’t they be going to lectures right now? He received a full-on lecture in reply. All three of us are taking time off, Maya explained. At the end of sophomore year, lots of people begin doubting whether their major is really for them, they had, too. The three of them had gotten together at the end of last summer and decided that they would give themselves a year to clear things up, then they would decide whether to keep the same majors or to change, interesting, Krustev said, do the three of you always decide what to do as a group? Pretty often, the girl again gave her nervous laugh. It’s been like that since the beginning of high school, always the three of us together. In the beginning everybody thought it was weird, Spartacus cut in, then little by little they got used to it, at the end of the day there are people with much stranger relationships. Krustev couldn’t disagree with that, he himself handled strange relationships well, significantly more successfully than normal ones, take me, for example, Spartacus continued, I’m in law school. Sirma jokes that that’s why I’m such a chatterbox. Right now, I can’t say that I don’t want to study law anymore. It’s just that I need a year off to think things over and figure out whether I really want to go into law or if I’d rather do something else, and now’s the time, because afterwards it will be too late . . . Sirma wanted to know what Krustev’s major had been. Me? He had studied management. Only it was different then, he shrugged, I never really had the college experience, because of music I started my BA a lot later, after the Euphoria guys and I had ditched our instruments and decided to go into business. And I was in a hurry to graduate, even though I’m sure it would’ve been the same, even without a diploma. While they were teaching me how to run a company, I was already running three. He suddenly thought this sounded too arrogant and added that in those years, that happened a lot, it still does now, too, Maya said.
The road rushed on ahead and took the curves fast, narrow, but nice, repaved recently with the Union’s money, traffic was light, few drivers chose to pass through the heart of the Rhodopes on their way to the sea, and Krustev felt a fleeting, hesitant delight in the freedom to drive freely, without getting furious over the trucks and junkers blocking traffic. Below them, to the left, was the river, high since all the snow had already melted, running its course with a cold and no-nonsense determination; beyond it rippled the newly greened hills. They passed through several villages, long and narrow, built along the river, with two-story houses, their black wooden timbers sternly crossed over whitewashed walls. Since few cars passed, people were walking along the highway here and there, sinewy grandfathers and ancient grandmothers, some even leading goats and from the backseat Sirma for no rhyme or reason announced that she had dreamed of being a goat her whole life, but didn’t manage to expand on her argument, seemingly having dozed off again. Krustev put on some music, Maya and Spartacus, perhaps to make him happy, or perhaps completely spontaneously, sang along quietly and swayed in rhythm such that in their interpretation, the careless rock, designed for Saturday night and chicks in leather jackets, sounded and looked like some mystical Indian mantra. Krustev kept silent, he drove slowly through the villages and looked at the people. They spontaneously reminded him of his grandfather, a strange, scowling person, who always looked angry before you started talking to him, then it turned out that he gladly gave himself over to shooting the breeze and telling stories, mostly amusing tales, one, however, the most recent story, was swollen with darkness and violence, and Krustev thought of it from time to time. His grandfather’s village lay on the border of the Ludogorie region, the only Slavic village around, and his house was on the very edge of the village, near the river, a quiet village, pleasant, albeit a lost cause, the communists had forgotten it in their general industrialization, occupied as they were with the more densely Slavic regions, after the fall of communism the state had left the Slavs in peace once and for all, but back then it was the Dacians’ turn, they had moved into erstwhile Thracian towns, and, of course, in the end they fought, the Thracians called it “The Three Months of Unrest,” while everyone else called it the Civil War of ’73. Before the war, everyone from my grandfather’s village figured that the quarrels between the Thracians and the Dacians weren’t their business, they even joked about how the names of the two peoples rhymed, people for whom they felt equally little love lost, the civil war in the Ludogorie, however, made the hostility their business, too. The battles began, the Dacian militias defended their cities street by street and building by building against the army, who rolled in with tanks, but the tanks didn’t do much good in a war in which you couldn’t see your enemy. Everything really had lasted only three months and Krustev, no matter how young he had been then, could confirm that beyond the region and even in the capital, people were hardly aware of the unrest in practice, his father and mother said the same thing, his grandfather’s village, however, was a whole different story. For three days they heard machine gun fire from the direction of the city, all the radios were turned on in hopes of picking up some news, but they only played cheerful Thracian music around the clock. On the third day, the shooting ceased. A rumor spread that the army had taken the city and that the Dacian fighters had scattered, every man trying to save his own skin however he could. The village mayor warned them not to take any Dacians into their homes, should they arrive. Only five years had passed since the Slavic events in Moesia and everyone was afraid of what might happen if Thracian soldiers came to search the village and found hidden enemy fighters. That evening, my grandfather went out to feed his animals and when he opened the door of the barn, he saw two human eyes. It was a young man, no older than twenty, with dirty, matted hair, a gashed forehead and blood stains on his ragged striped shirt, like the shirts the Dacian militias had worn, he hadn’t even managed to take it off. He was severely wounded and feverish, wheezing, rolling his eyes from the cow to the mule and back again, he didn’t say anything. What could Krustev’s grandfather do? All alone in the very last house, just as his village was all alone between the hammer and the anvil of this war, which was not its own. Perhaps the boy would die before the soldiers came, but perhaps not. He left the barn, grabbed his hoe, went back in and brought it down on the boy’s head with all the geezerly strength left in him. He loaded him on the mule somehow or other and threw him into the river. The neighbors kept quiet. The next day a Thracian regiment really did arrive in the village, searched a few houses, sniffed around suspiciously, doled out slaps to a few young men whose looks they didn’t like, and went on their way. The river carried the corpse away and no one in the village mentioned it, his grandfather, however, for some unclear reason was sure that the neighbors had seen everything, he crossed himself surreptitiously, like under communism, and kept repeating, a terrible sin, a terrible sin, a terrible sin, but what else could I do? He lived a long life. He had told Krustev this story the same year that Elena was born and several months before he died. Much time had already passed, he had taken a second wife, a widow from the village, and he had continued living in the last house by the river. Senility was already getting the best of him and Krustev had even wondered whether he hadn’t made the whole story up, because who, really, who could imagine his grandfather killing someone in cold blood with a hoe? Yes, indeed, he had lived in a different time, he had fought in two wars and had won medals for bravery, so that means he surely had killed people, but not with a hoe and not in his very own barn, although do the place and the method really change anything, Krustev grunted and tried to keep his mind on the road.
Sirma announced her latest awakening with a powerful yawn and a quick commentary on her friends’ mantra-like chanting, and for the next half hour they all talked over one another, including Krustev. The asphalt was much better than on the last road. Maya, for her part, had never come this way. They argued for some time about whether she really hadn’t. Krustev asked them whether they hitchhiked often. Not very often, they had done it more in high school. Surely his daughter had tagged along with them as well, but in any case, his observations about the decline of hitchhiking were confirmed. The three of them generally tried to hitch together, sometimes they tried other combinations, but it never went as well. Spartacus had once hitched with three other guys and only a Gypsy horse cart had deigned to drive them between two villages, after which they split up, otherwise it was never going to work. Sirma, for her part, had hitched alone a couple times. Didn’t you ever run into any trouble? No, only once, when a woman had picked her up. Everyone laughed at that, even Krustev. He was feeling better and better, he was tempted to say more normal, but he was no longer sure whether this was normal or whether, on the contrary, the scowling pre-dawn, semi-twilight he had inhabited for such a long time was. There had been flashes during the winter, too, but then Elena had left and he had collapsed again, only he didn’t turn on the television, but read instead, first he read the books he had been given on various occasions in recent years, then the ones Elena had left in her room, after that he went to an online bookstore and ordered a whole series of contemporary titles in translation, they were delivered by van, an astonished young man unloaded two full cardboard boxes in his hallway and left, shaking his head pensively, Krustev read them, some were good, others not so good, but once he had closed the last one—a novel by a Dutch writer about a malicious, blind cellist—he decided that he wouldn’t read anymore and that he had to get out of the house. Maya said that she thought she had forgotten her bathing suit. As if we haven’t seen you without your bathing suit on, Spartacus replied, then realized that they weren’t alone and fell silent, embarrassed. The three of them seemed to spend so much time together that when they found themselves with other people, they quickly forgot about the others’ presence. With the involuntary habit of the male imagination, Krustev envisioned the girl sitting next to him without her bathing suit for an instant and felt uncomfortable about it, as if he had made her an indecent proposal. She was his daughter’s age. Sirma preferred Samothrace to Thasos. Samo-thrace, only Thracians, Krustev joked, without knowing whether they spoke Slavic, but at least Sirma seemed to get it and repeated in delight: Only Thracians, how cool is that! Thasos and Samothrace, the two islands the new state had managed to save when the Macedonian legacy was divvied up. Like many other Slavs, Krustev, with a nostalgia instilled by foreign books, sometimes dreamed of Macedonian times, when the Slavs were merely one of the dozens of people who had inhabited the empire and were in no case so special that they should be subjected to attempts at assimilation, but still, things were clearly changing. Twenty years ago, Thracian kids wouldn’t have taken a ride from a Slav. Twenty years ago, there weren’t many Slavs with their own cars and even fewer of them would have dared to drive straight through the Rhodopes. Had they been to any other Aegean islands? Last year the three of them had made it to Lemnos, while Maya had gone to Santorini with her father. We also want to go to Lesbos, Sirma announced. You two go right on ahead to Lesbos, Spartacus said, that island doesn’t interest me a bit, they all burst out laughing. Krustev was impressed, however. So now that’s possible, he said. We’re all part of the Union and the borders are open. Do you know how hard it was to get a Phrygian visa back in the day? Especially for me, Sirma suddenly blurted out, seeing as how my grandfather is Lydian. But she had never set foot in Lydia. Spartacus and Maya looked extremely surprised, apparently not so much at her parentage, rather at the fact that there was something about her that they didn’t know. The mood crashed for a whole five minutes, at which point Spartacus started talking about Euphoria’s first album again, asking Krustev whether he had it with him in the car and insisting on putting it on. Later, Krustev replied, because in disbelieving gratitude for this kind-hearted twist of fate, he felt himself wanting to sleep, the curves ahead were giving off warm sleep, and when on the outskirts of the next village he saw a shabby roadside dive, he stopped immediately to drink a coffee.