A Short Tale of Shame
Open Letter, 2013 pg 145
Angel Igov is a young Bulgarian writer and is a recent winner of the Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest. A Short Tale of Shame follows four characters as they drive from Bulgaria to the Aegean Sea in a journey that explores the damage that a friend and daughter, Elena, has done to them all. Each character, Boris a former rock star, and three hitchhiking friends, Maya, Sirma, and Spartacus, alternates in narrating their journey and the past as each of their lives slowly intersect. The journey is unexpected: Boris starts out one day in his car with no particular goal. He is alone, unattached to anything, just a man, a car, and his credit cards. He is not even sure why he is driving. He sees three young people on the side of the road and decides to pick them up. They turn out to be friends with his daughter Elena which gives them instant rapport with Boris. They are going to the Aegean Sea and he decides to take them. Spartacus recognizes him as a former rock star and peppers him with questions for much of the journey in a charming bit of hero worship. As the journey continues they all remember Elena.
It should be said at this point that Elena is a disturbing young woman, more interested in being wild and leading her friends into problems. And her father is the least of her worries. At the same time, Elena has an outsized presence with in the novel that seems to animate the characters, but whose power is ultimately undeveloped. While we are viewing Elena through the eyes of four different witnesses and there is a limit to what we can know about her, the narrators don’t explain well enough what it is about here that is so problematic. So when we read of Boris’s listlessness now that his wife has died, and that he feels somewhat responsible, the effects on Elena are tenuous, not quite there. With the three youngsters, who have formed a love triangle for protection from her memory, it is more clear who wild she was, but even less clear the emotional damage she caused. There is something there but not fully realized.
They all make it to the sea and there is a moment of release for them all. For Boris, the youngsters have become a form of surrogate Elena. For the youngsters, the trip has released them from their defenses, as if life by the sea is open, unimpinged by friendships. Yet as they found themselves on some Greek Island I couldn’t help but thinking, what about Elena? Perhaps they have no more idea than we do, but she seemed to hang in the background. The sea may cleanse as Igov suggests, but it doesn’t forget and the resolution of their journey seemed only a pause, or the beginning. Maybe beginnings are enough, but it was not a satisfying conclusion.
Igov’s writing, translated by Angela Rodel, was enjoyable and portends to a bright future and made the book if not wholly satisfying, interesting. I leave you with a sentence that caught my eye and gives one a sense of his style.
And yell at your kids, Krustev (Boris) added, I’, sure it would be more fun if I could swim, but in any case I never learned, but back in the day going to the seaside and sitting on the beach for at least half a day, that was our idea of a vacation, I’m talking about when I was five or six, that was something new for my parents, I don’t know if they really even liked it or just went along with the trend, we’d rent an apartment on the seaside and go to the beach with our own umbrellas so we wouldn’t have to pay for them, that was an option back then, all this hysteria about hotels and private beaches hadn’t yet begun or was just beginning, I had fun, all kids surely have fun at the beach, and later, of course, whole crowds of us would go, huge groups with tents, guitars, girls and some more dubious things as well; we took Elena to the seaside ever since she was born, that’s how much sense we had, but be that as it may, I’ve got a fair amount of experience with camping, never mind that it was a while ago, true, back then we didn’t insist on having electricity and running water, at least not before Elena was born, so he’d seen her in the mirror, Sirma though, he had seen her smirk when he asked whether there was electricity and running water at the campground and she felt a little ashamed, maybe this person had actually had a much wilder youth than they had.