A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov, translated from the original Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

http://catalog.openletterbooks.org/images/covers/Short_Tale-front.jpgAngela Rodel has translated three Bulgarian novels for Open Letter Books: 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev, Thrown Into Nature by Milen Rouskov, and A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov (the last is the subject of this review).  She also translated Nine Rabbits by Virginia Zaharieva for the UK publisher Istros Books. In addition to being a translator she is a musician and an actress.  She lives in Bulgaria.

A Short Tale of Shame is the second book I’ve read and reviewed by Rodel.  Both books featured introspective, male protagonists dealing with loss.  Her translation recalls for me Edith Grossman’s work in Spanish. Her work is fluid, allowing readers to slip gently into the prose like they would a swimming pool.  Both 18% Gray and A Short Tale of Shame are hauntingly poetic – and while the majority of the credit for that goes to their authors, I can’t help believing that some should go to Rodel as well.  Her name should be on your list of must-read translators.

Coincidence and fortuitous meetings propel the plot of A Short Tale of Shame. Boril Krustev is a middle-aged, former rock star.  His estranged wife has just died and his relationship with his daughter is not great.  In a cliché attempt to outrun his grief, he jumps into his car and drives.  There is no plan.  Within the first few pages he picks up a group of hitchhikes, a college-aged boy and two girls.  Maya, Sirma and Spartacus are likeable young people (just as Boril is likeable) who are unusually close.  They discover over small talk that the threesome are friends with his daughter, Elena.  Shortly after this revelation it’s decided that Boril will travel with them to  Thasos, an island off the coast of Greece. The story of their barely intertwined lives unfolds from there.

Krustev felt a little duped because instead of watching the boat arrive, instead of seeing the island dust off its dress uniform to meet the new arrivals, he had to go down to the car and get ready to leave.  But he left the kids up on deck to watch the palace of the Grand Master above the dappled coast, stern and supercilious, and at least that was some consolation, as if some part of him would stay there, too, watching.  Without noticing it and without meaning to, he had already slipped into their net of key words and tacit agreements, and he was force to admit that this made him feel good.  When he stopped on that Rhodope road and picked them up, he had simply wanted company, people to chat with, to distract him, and to have some immediate goal, in order to drive them to it.  But from then on everything had developed quickly and simply, and the mutual discomfort they had felt, he with them and they with him, was actually more helpful than not, for example on the beach on Thasos he had tried to look aside so as not to stare at Sirma’s brazenly displayed breasts, this had, in fact, brought him closer to them, some quiet thread of shame gleamed in the sunlight for an instant, weaving yet another tie between them.  Alone in his car, in the garage, winded from the gas fumes, Krustev told himself that whatever the three teenagers’ secret was, he didn’t want to know it, he wasn’t enticed by the possibility of muscling his way between them, of digging through the strange space enclosed by their triangle, and he was thankful that they returned the gesture, not asking him why he had taken off on his own and what had happened, and if they had guessed, they didn’t pursue their conjectures with the doggedness of a blind hunter, something he remembered so well from his own youth, back then he had probed every patch of earth, digging down to reach a spring, and once he had drunk from the precious water, he lost interest, just as when he had played his solo and had to return to the familiar and steady rhythm of the song and somehow hold out until the end of it.

Angel Igov assumes the detached perspective of the third person, and through him the reader has  the opportunity to dip into the minds and memories of each of the four characters.  Much of what is revealed involves Elena – apparently a cruel and manipulative person.  She bothered me.  In that she remains a fragmented character who we interact with only through the memories of others.  Her motivations remain elusive; her actions go unexplained. She is Iago-like in the casual way she goes about destroying the lives of others.

It’s hard to reconcile her being Boril’s daughter.

You would think that the story of an older man traveling with three young people would immediately turn creepy, and the title: A Short Tale of Shame seems to suggest it.  But Boril is decidedly un-creepy.  He’s actually really nice.  He doesn’t overstep or ogle the girls. He’s careful not to use his money to assume a position of power. In truth, he is just as he appears: a slightly lost and lonely man mourning the death of his wife and his lack of a meaningful relationship with his daughter.

Maya, Sirma and Spartacus have no ulterior motivations either.  They do not intend to take advantage of Boril or his wealth.  The car is convenient, but mostly they seem to genuinely like and feel sorry for him. The only snake in this garden appears to be Elena.  And she is far enough away as to not pose a significant threat.

This lack of conflict comes as a surprise because there is an undercurrent of tension throughout the story – one that can’t be solely attributed to Elena.  Something doesn’t seem right. I kept expecting some kind of dark, sexual revelation to occur, when what is eventually revealed ends up being rather innocuous. This lack of a twist is strange, but it in no way takes away from the story. 

A Short Tale of Shame takes a more complicated path than one leading to a single moment or revelation.  Igov puts you in a bubble with Boril, Maya, Sirma and Spartacus.  Inevitably that bubble bursts and the ending, when it arrives, is abrupt.  The reader is left disoriented.  As if he or she has been startled from a daydream.  This, in a way, is what this book is: an interlude in the lives of these characters.  Lovely, but isolated.  The significance of which will no doubt diminish over time, even as the memory lingers.

A Short Tale of Shame was a Co-Winner of the 2012 Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest.

Publisher:  Open Letter, Rochester (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 934824 76

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The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain, translated from the original French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie, Emily Boyce & Jane Aitken

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain is another playful offering from Gallic Press, whose The Suicide Shop I reviewed just last month.

As he picked up his second oyster he glanced discreetly to his left. The President had put on his glasses and was reading the menu.  Daniel took in the famous noble profile, seen in magazines, on television and every New Year’s Eve for the past five years.  Now he was seeing that profile in the flesh.  He could have put out his hand and touched François Mitterrand.

The waiter returned and the President ordered a dozen oysters, and the salmon.  The large man chose mushroom pâté and a rare steak, while Roland Dumas followed the President’s lead with oysters and fish.  A few minutes later, the wine waiter appeared with a silver ice bucket on a stand containing another bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé bathed in ice.  He uncorked the bottle smoothly and poured a little into the presidential glass.  François Mitterrand tasted it, approving it with a brief nod.

Daniel poured himself another glass of wine, and drank it down almost in on, before taking a teaspoon of the red shallot vinegar and dressing an oyster.

‘As I was saying to Helmut Kohl last week…’ Daniel heard François Mitterrand say as he ate his oyster.  Never again, he told himself, would he be able to eat oysters with vinegar without hearing the words: ‘As I was saying to Helmut Kohl last week’.

The premise is relatively simple:  The French President François Mitterrand loses his hat in a Parisian brasserie.  Well, technically, Daniel steals it after dining next to the President and his party.  Through the course of the book the hat continues to change hands and transforms the lives of the four characters who wear it.  The prose is straightforward.  The story sweet.  Like The Suicide ShopThe President’s Hat has the slapstick quality of a French comedy.  It is not particularly complicated or challenging, but very engaging.  The relaxed, gentle tone in how it is told reminded me of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series – slightly more whimsical.

Which reminds me of a friend of mine who went to a book-signing by Alexander McCall Smith at Barnes & Noble.  She came back completely charmed.  The author relayed an anecdote in which someone asked him why there were no car chases in his novels.  He laughingly replied that he felt it would be irresponsible of him to include a car chase in one of his books.  That his readers might not be able to handle that level of excitement.  But, as a compromise, he had included a shopping cart chase in the new novel he was there to sign.  It received a huge laugh and a smattering of applause from the crowd.  They knew it to be true.

There’s always been a readership for quiet books in which very little happens.  Several examples come to mind. The types of stories found in Ladies Journals were very popular when Ladies Journals were in their heyday. Today, the Persephone Press seems to thrive on catering to the  quiet reader with re-prints of books by women authors from the first half of the 20th-century.  And while planning this post I kept thinking back on some of my favorite books/authors from when I was younger: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Jack & Jill, Under the Lilacs and Eight Cousins were read multiple times; and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series.  Those books had more in common with McCall Smith novels than what I read now.

So I’m wary of being too hard on or of dismissing The President’s Hat simply because I don’t have much to say about it.  I did read it in one sitting, cover to cover, and enjoyed it (particularly the little twist at the end).  I loved each of the characters who found the hat and became completely wrapped up in their individual stories.  This may be the perfect book for a quiet evening at home.  Antoine Laurain appears to have no aspirations other than to amuse his readers with a tale well told… which he does.  At least this reader was amused.  And I’m sure my friend who reads Alexander McCall Smith will love it.  In fact, I just sent her the recommendation on GoodReads.

Publisher:  Gallic Books, London (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 908313 47 8

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