Monday, February 6, 2012

Book Reveiw

Zift A Socialist Noir, Vladislav Todorov, trans Joseph Benatov (2010: Philadelphia, Paul Dry) (from library[1])

So this is the first Bulgarian text of any sort I have ever read. I thought that I had at least one Bulgarian student at Cave College, but now I think he was Albanian. In any event, this book won the prize for Bulgarian novel of the year and has been made into a movie. I cannot for the life of me remember where I heard about it but hear about it I had. I read id. Todorov teaches film and literature at the U Penn and it shows.  The  book, despite the back cover blurb's nonsense of its evocation of Sofia in 1963, is a pastiche of a couple of famous film noirs, DOA, OUt of the Past, Maltese Falcon, maybe Gilda, and the Ely comedy noir Kind Hearts and Coronets mashed up with Don Quixote or - at least - the picaresque novel.

The narrator moves from through a criminal underworld which is equal parts mafia and a corrupt Bulgarian nomenklatura that neatly recapitulates Raymond Chandler's claim, in one or another of the essays in The Simple Art of Murder, about the symbiotic relationship between criminals and the state, and he was talking about Los Angeles. The various scenes and characters are familiar to anyone mildly versed in the grammar of noir on film or the page. The prose is less lapidary than Chandler and more compelling than James M. Caine.

It is very much a MacGuffin novel in which who does what to whom and why are considerable less important than the aimless anecdotes the hero's various interlocutors provide. This means that all the characters are sharply drawn and the tales retold sound as if someone other than the author is speaking. The constant return to story telling and the consistently less than reliable narrators, for me -- in any event -- led to the book being less noir than quasi-philosophical discussion or, perhaps more precisely, invitation to contemplate the role of story-telling in the process of self creation as a means of escaping the future's uncertainty.

On the whole it is a clever little book, well written and well worth reading. It length, 185 pages, combined with the relatively lean but none-the-less convoluted prose means that its pages speed by. Not sure that I would buy it but I am definitely glad to have read it. Long live the library.

[1] About which more later.

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