June 2013

Daniel Shvartsman

fiction

A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov, translated by Angela Rodel

There is a style of writing that echoes writers like, say, Jose Saramago, like Virginia Woolf in some works, not exactly stream of consciousness but similar. Where the writing is informal and the perspective shifts easily between the characters, and where the voice is largely the same between those characters. This easy, agreeable stream will take a reader through a story in smooth fashion, and will at times whisk that reader right through the dark forest surrounding the stream, or the creatures lurking below the water. When done right, the revelation of the lurking elements adds a real kick in the ass to an otherwise unsuspecting reader; otherwise, it's just an enjoyable ride. Angel Igov imbues A Short Tale of Shame with such a style.

There are five main characters in this short novel: a trio of college students who have formed a sacred friendship that is (nearly) impenetrable to outsiders, and a middle-aged ex-rock star who happens to be a father to the fifth character, Elena. Elena is the hidden danger in the story, never appearing in the present tense of the novel but haunting each of the characters' pasts, and as such bonding them.

With a shared ghost and shared voice, the four are off for Thasos, an island in the Aegean Sea. The trio of kids are hitchhiking while taking a year off from college to figure out their lives, and Boril, the ex-rock star, is fleeing his home in the wake of his estranged wife's death when he picks them up on the side of the road. Igov cycles through each of the characters' psyches in successive chapters as they get used to the strange company that isn't so strange after all. On boats, beaches, and exceedingly distant islands, the group each sort through their issues with each other and with Elena, until at the end they came to some sort of peace on both fronts.

The plot is a bit thin, an excuse for Igov to explore their issues. But, whether due to the amorphous and quick-paced writing style, the story's brevity, or the failure to make it hurt, none of the characters seem particularly damaged or troubled, not really that in need of a grand island escape and reckoning. Boril in his grief and his isolation from his daughter is compelling, but his epiphany -- a confession to a restaurant owner over a local liquor -- is not. Sirma, the trio's ringleader, also has her problems, but Igov never convinces that she's on the brink of anything major, nor that she reaches a great breakthrough to come back to shore. And the other two characters in the group -- a dopey boy and an easygoing girl -- are appealing but not deep enough.

Igov's use of setting and any possible political allusions are also either too slight or too clever for the foreign reader (which is our problem, not his). The references to fictional or satiric wars and peoples unspooling over a real landscape that most English readers won't be familiar with -- Bulgaria and the northern arm of Greece that encompasses much of ancient Macedonia -- are confusing, even if mysterious and exciting. And ultimately, either I missed the particularity or this story could have been set anywhere, which speaks for its universal appeal but also for the underuse of the backdrop.

This feeling of lightness could be a product of Igov's approach here, or it could just be that his first English translated work is not the full package (he has also written two short story collections). The book checks in at under 150 pages, and is at least a pleasant read throughout; toward the end, the narrative's current gains pace, and however pat the ending is, it still satisfies and leaves the story completed. Sparse and not fully realized, but completed.

The above paragraphs may sound like complaints or criticisms; they are, probably. But it's only because Igov's style, streaming and fresh and well-rendered in English by Angela Rodel, is so attractive. From the first page to the last, Igov doesn't strike a false note in style. Everything sounds good. And with such palpable talent and a solid base of writing ability, Igov should be able to strike, scare, or move the reader a little bit more than he does here.

Maybe that's something to watch for future works. The final note of the novel adds a clever twist that hints that Igov can certainly foment mysteries below the surface. In the meantime, A Short Tale of Shame offers a pleasant ride down the river of Igov's style. And if there's a lack of crocodiles ready to snap at the boat and spark the reader's adrenaline, it could be just that the style takes us along so quickly that we miss them.

A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov, translated by Angela Rodel
Open Letter Books
ISBN: 978-1934824764
145 pages