A Short Tale of Shame
Angela Rodel, Translator
In and around Thrace, where this novel takes place, we find ourselves lollygagging about in and among some of the loveliest geographical names on the planet: Phrygia, Thasos, Illyria, Lydia.
But look up "Thracia" in Wikipedia and you'll find that that it doesn't exist. Or it didn't until the Ancient Greeks decided that the locale, vaguely defined as "stretching from the River Axios in the west to the Hellespont and Black Sea in the east," should be named Thrace.
It is crammed with fine geographic poetry. Cities are named Komotini, Cicones, the Fortress of Kiis. There (in what we now think of as the Balkans), you'll find gentle Illyricum, lovely Dardancia, kindly Pannonia, pacific Ismaros, wild Timicum Minus. There too is Dacia Superior (and Dacia Inferior), Moésia Superior (and Moésia Inferior).
Even those warring kings (like Flanders, Thrace was the chosen battlefield for the rulers from the north and east and west) ... even those vandals had sumptuous names: Acamas, Peiros, Asius, Diomedes, Lycurgus, Phineus, Eumolpus, and Oeagrus (the one who lost his wife to his son: he was the father of Oedipus).
Finally, there was the King whose name would turn out to be the most gracious of them all: Euphemus.
This then is the eponymous background of our story.
§ § §
And what is our story? Well, not much at all, really. It's a travel tale, an on-the-road with Boril Krustev and three juveniles, going from Sevtopolis to the Island of Rhodes. Who are they? Maya, Sirma, and our wise if geeky law student, Spartacus.
Like the land they travel, the characters share a poetic if not historical ring to their names: Boril --- is he boring? Or is there a hint of that terrible English bread-spread concoction?
How about Maya? For the Buddhists, Maya means "illusion." Sirma? There's another illusion: the word in Arabic brings to mind "khol," that black stuff you spread around your eyes to make you more beautiful. And, finally there's Spartacus, the leader of the uprising of the slaves in ancient Rome: the "military leader."
Twenty years ago, our driver, Boris, cobbled together one of the first rock bands in Bulgaria (can you imagine being in there at the start of rock-and-roll in Bulgaria?) He was known as "the guitarist from Euphoria" (that was the name of his first --- and most famous --- band. Which fell apart, as these things do. Then, it was resurrected, as "Stinkweed," as in Cannabis indica).
Bulgaria was in fact falling apart, Slavs against Illyrians, Dacians against both, and Macedonia somewhere there in the middle of the pie. In the midst of all this chaos, Krustev went straight, sold out, took to managing rock bands. He was soon a business success, but then --- these things happen --- his wife, Irina, almost drowned. Ended up in what they call "a vegetative state." It happened while she was off at the beach. With her new lover.
Maya et al have been Best of Friends for the last seven years, starting in the eighth grade. They've just dropped out of college for a year "to find themselves." And, luckily, we (and Krustev) find them hitchhiking, on a deserted old road just outside of Sevtopolis. They are all live wires, and their interior dialogue, their back-and-forth, and their memories light up this tale. Spartacus, a beginning archeologist, has gotten interested in ancient art, "thinking about aesthetics in ancient terms, understanding the codes and messages."
He was now capable of sincerely delighting in all those armless torsos and arrogant faces with wounded noses.
Maya, on the other hand, is ruminating on her ex-boyfriend, the one who looked like a bear. After they had split up, they occasionally met on the street, and "He would give her a friendly smile and she was sure that his ursine river was flowing as calmly and gently as ever through thick Slavic forests filled with wooly elms and raspberries twinkling amid the greenery."
Sirma remembers meeting "a blonde girl with a leather jacket" who took her along to an alley where she robs kids for spare change. She would corner a young teen-aged girl in an alley, hit her, then, after extracting her money, hold her tightly and repeat, "oh, what a good girl,"
and suddenly she kissed her on the lips and laughed loudly, then she roughly spun her around and launched her up the street with a slap on the ass.
Sirma thought this very strange. And somehow strangely appealing.
§ § §
The art of our author, Angel Igov, is partly an art of elegant writing --- "wounded noses," "wooly elms and raspberries twinkling amid the greenery" --- but it is also the art of taking a fairly innocuous series of events and spinning them together with five characters and somehow turning it into something spellbinding. It's a fairly mystifying process (isn't all good art fairly mysterious?) ... but it seems doubly or trebly so here.
I dandled Short Tale of Shame about for days, read it through once, dropped it (not sure why), picked it up again; went back through parts, puzzled over it for awhile, dropped it up again (here I am trying to tell you about it, and not being sure I can so do) then I went back, and I haven't even touched on the most salient part, where the plot thickens, grows entrancing: four people from mythical Thrace, jumbled up as it were (and is) in the Balkans, in the latter days of the 20th Century, in a car, all of them bound together for a week or so. For they find out that they are not only bound together by Krustev, and Krustev's wife dying, his new life, where he finds that he had gradually
gotten used to it all: the visits to the hospital, the silent Irina tangled up in plastic tubes, the white sheets, the nurses. the smell of bleach in the hallways, where men and women padded around in green pajamas.
And, in the car, not there at all, except in spirit --- a mysterious stranger, a girl named Elena. The girl in the leather jacket, the one who introduced Sirma to savaging schoolgirls for spare change and kissing them and sending them on their way (and, later, going though a time on the streets with "horse" --- heroin).
Elena, who tried at one time to break into the trio, breaking the bond of the three of them; wanting, apparently, to "play with them," inject herself into Being Best Friends. First, trying to wriggle in via Maya; but, failing that, by sleeping with Spartacus; until, at last, she gets bounced by Sirma.
Coming, then going: leather-jacketed Elena. Who, it develops, is daughter of our widower driver Krustev.
§ § §
Throughout A Short Tale of Shame, you will find lots of shame and no little hubris (which, we are told, is closely associated with shame). "Croesus had claimed that he was the happiest person in the world," our narrator explains. So the gods intervened,
Croesus ... lost his son, who had been killed accidentally by a friend of his, his wife had committed suicide out of grief and now there he was, the former ruler of a collapsed empire, about to be roasted at the stake by foreigners.
There's shame and hubris and a great deal more here. Love and friendship and death: all the key elements of life so cleverly hidden that one at first thinks that it really is no more than another on-the-road novel. But after coming back to it again, and again, several times, we find that it is more, far more than that. The run-on sentences, the stream of consciousness (part Joyce, part Beckett, part Proust).
Most of all, artful writing that tells an enthralling tale (of a simple journey) with complicated people (we are all complicated), but in a style that at the end, can devolve into pure poetry. About, for example, a sleeping house,
ln the house, the windows are sleeping, the furniture is sleeping, the refrigerator is sleeping, a plug dangling from its shoulder. The doors are sleeping: beautiful, solid, heavy doors. Krustev is sleeping, hung on the wall, his wife is sleeping on one side of him, his daughter on the other, they are sleeping with open eyes, smiling amid the garden outside. The empty bottles jammed into the black bag in the hallway are sleeping. The air conditioner. The Lawnmower. The dirty dishes piled in the dishwasher. The slippers, collapsed from exhaustion, are sleeping in indecent poses. Sssssleep . . . The only ones standing guard are the tiny lights of the alarm system and a few inexperienced spiders, who have stretched their webs in various corners of various rooms, stalking their puny prey without an inkling of one another's existence...--- Pamela Wylie