"Zift: Socialist Noir," Paul Dry Books, Philadelphia, 2010

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From the Reviews

"Todorov has created a perverse crash course in the constancy of irony" - Thomas McGonigle, The Los Angeles Times

"Todorov’s raw, hard-boiled parody takes dead aim at noir and leaves it gasping for breath." - Michael Pinker, Review of Contemporary Fiction

"... a solid little piece of pulp, with a nice subversively humorous undertone." M.A.Orthofer, Complete Review

"Zift is like a flaming shot of rotgut smuggled in from the old country. (...) Vladislav Todorov adroitly uses the American genre of noir to excoriate the political villains of his homeland's past. (...) Zift is gritty and brisk." - Matt Jakubowski, Philadelphia Citypaper

"Todorov was obviously raised on a steady diet of American noir, and it shows in the pacing, the language, and the shadowy depths of every alleyway, every street corner." Jessa Crispin on PBS's Need to Know

"...stalking its genre with the meticulousness of an assassin, while simultaneously parodying it. A novel that unfolds over a single night, in a single breath—and also reads that way ... a black-and-white cinematographic vision of early-1960s Sofia by Night." —Georgi Gospodinov, Literaturen Vestnik.

Book Reviews

Philadelphia City Paper
For When: The reds want you dead
by Matt Jakubowski
Potent stuff distilled from ugly memories, already a cult movie in Bulgaria, Zift is like a flaming shot of rotgut smuggled in from the old country.
In this 2006 novel now available in English, local Bulgarian prof Vladislav Todorov adroitly uses the American genre of noir to excoriate the political villains of his homeland's past. Even Todorov's opening quote from Stalin, "Death solves all problems — no man, no problem," proves a dictator's rant can make for great pulp fiction.
Thanks to local translator Joseph Benatov, under local publisher Paul Dry, Zift is gritty and brisk. It's narrated in savage, haunting tones by Moth, a bookish scrapper put in prison for murder when the fascists took power in 1944. Cut to 1963, Moth is welcomed to now-communist Bulgaria by being stripped, tortured with a crowbar, poisoned, half-frozen, then chased across the socialist ruins of the capital Sofia by an evil military goon named Slug.
Two subplots hinge on a black diamond and Ada, a femme fatale whose name means "hell" in Bulgarian. Amid the bullets, sex and betrayals, a few scenes suffer from obvious social commentary and weak political jokes. ("What's two stakes, a rope, a saw and a hammer? A Siberian toilet.") But there's plenty of stylish gloom and lasting imagery, like Moth's mentor with "a glass eye that would often pop out, especially when he was boxing."
History's demons get the last laugh in this noir fantasy. They stick Moth with a real-world choice: "the forced-labor madhouse" or the grave.

Los Angeles Times
Book review: "Zift: Socialist Noir" By Vladislav Todorov
By Thomas McGonigle
Of all the places to set a story of intrigue, Bulgaria has served as a choice exotic location for many writers, among them George Bernard Shaw ("Arms and the Man"), Eric Ambler ("Judgment on Deltchev") and Vladislav Todorov, a young Bulgarian writer who, in "Zift," has taken the recent history of his country and wrestled it into a compelling thriller about vague characters with questionable motives. This translation comes on the heels of the surprising success of a movie based on the book, which won plenty of accolades when it was released in 2008.
The message of the novel (which comes with the ironic subtitle "socialist noir") is clearly announced by an epigram:
"Death solves all problems — no man, no problem." Stalin.
Taking place on one day in December 1963, the novel is told by Lev Zhelyazkov, who is released from the central prison in Sofia after serving 20 years for murder. He's harassed and chased all over the city, and fears he will be dead within 24 hours. Known by his nickname "Moth," Lev faces a desperate situation that deliberately echoes actor Edmond O'Brien's in the memorably haunting 1950 movie "D.O.A" — not to mention the many other noirs similarly composed around strange objects that everyone is after. In the case of this novel, the objects in question couldn't be stranger: a glass eye and a piece of "zift," a ball of gummy black material which Lev likes to chew on.
Todorov has created a perverse crash course in the constancy of irony: for instance, Lev endures 20 years in jail for a murder he didn't commit during a botched robbery; the robbery results in a missing diamond that everyone seems to want, and former fascists are all now communists. As all noir tales require, there must also be a femme fatale, and Lev unfortunately encounters one here. When he leaves the prison, in fact, he has among his possessions a picture of insects that kept him company and grimly hints at what is to come: It is a picture of "a diabolically rapacious female chewing up a male who had fallen…"
Entering prison during a time of monarcho-fascism, exiting it in one of the most rigid communist systems in Eastern Europe, Lev is a constant victim: "And when dusk falls again, a black widow with a bony face will silently flit across a fresh grave that will read, 'Moth, who lived fortuitously and died accordingly.' "
Here's another Bulgarian corpse that has been eloquently heard from.
McGonigle is the author of "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov" (Northwestern University Press) which has been translated into Bulgarian.

PBS: Need to Know
Antidotes to political alienation
Jessa Crispin
“Zift” by Vladislav Todorov
The communist takeover of Eastern Europe happened so quickly, and was so devastating, that it’s no wonder I keep pulling these books off the shelf during times of political uncertainty. In “Zift,” a man nicknamed “Moth” is released from prison after serving a 20-year sentence and finds his country of Bulgaria, now a communist state, completely unrecognizable. The book follows him through one night of terror and mayhem, where everything, even friends and family, are unrecognizable. Todorov was obviously raised on a steady diet of American noir, and it shows in the pacing, the language, and the shadowy depths of every alleyway, every street corner. It’s not just the witty “Moth,” but the city of Sofia, that, despite 20 years of oppression, endures.

Three Percent
Reviewed by Stiliana Milkova
Published in Bulgarian in 2006, Vladislav Todorov‘s debut novel Zift has been recently translated into English by Joseph Benatov (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2010). The very title of Todorov‘s novel, Zift: Socialist Noir, announces the text‘s generic ambiguity. Most notably, the novel interweaves the key tropes of Soviet socialist realism and American hard-boiled detective fiction to produce a richly inter-textual portrayal of a nightmarish – yet comical – Bulgarian communist society in late 1963. Zift conjoins the narratives of communist construction and ideological coming of age with dark images, plots, and characters à la Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain. The mix is further aided by nods to the Bulgarian, Russian, English, and French literary and intellectual traditions.
Zift evokes the hard-boiled characters and settings of American detective fiction of the 1930s and film noir of the 1940s. The novel follows the nocturnal adventures of Moth, the first-person narrator, just released from the Central Sofia Prison after doing time for twenty years for a heist gone wrong. Once out of jail, Moth goes after the mysterious carbon-ado diamond which he and his two accomplices were about to steal twenty years earlier when Moth was caught red-handed. The novel traces Moth‘s quest for the diamond through Sofia‘s streets, boiler rooms, bars and backyards and his bizarre encounters along the way. The chiaroscuro of the winter city, cold and shadowy, looms large as the backdrop of a film noir. Accordingly, the novel‘s slippery femme fatale and Moth‘s former lover, the night club singer Ada, straddles several literary and film characters (Hammett‘s Brigid, Cain‘s Cora or Phyllis, Charles Vidor‘s Gilda) as easily as she steps in and out of her gowns, while the elusive black diamond drives the plot just as "the black bird" motivates all action in The Maltese Falcon. But Moth is no Sam Spade – he gets poisoned early in the novel and walks through the city a doomed man.
Moth – in Todorov‘s perverse twist of the noir genre – is a character steeped in communist ideology and traversing the map of a distinctly communist city. Moth‘s character is a literary pastiche of the Soviet heroes who populate novels such as Nikolai Ostrovskii‘s How the Steel Was Tempered (1932), one of the master narratives of socialist realism (Moth‘s real name is Zhelyazkov – from the Bulgarian word "zhelyazo" or "iron"). Like those he-roes, he perfects his mind in jail by reading canonical texts and trains his battered body to withstand pain and privations. Caught and convicted in a pre-communist Bulgaria, Moth is already in jail when the communists seize power on September 9, 1944, and in prison he converts to the new system of thought and life. In this way, Moth straddles political regimes and cultural eras, skipping through time as if on his "Communist Time Machine" – the propaganda art-work that he installs in jail and that secures his early release into the night of December 1963.
Moth‘s flight through Sofia takes him to two key sites of communist power – Georgi Dimitrov‘s mausoleum and the nearby party headquarters. Early in the text Moth informs the reader that in 1949 he took part in digging the foundation pit of the mausoleum; when he faces the imposing structure, he is awed by the ideological power emanating from it and from the embalmed body of the communist leader within. Moth not only partakes in the construction of Sofia‘s communist space, he also becomes the ideal subject of the communist state. And yet, by subtly recalling Andrei Platonov‘s The Foundation Pit (1930), the disturbing dystopian narrative about Soviet construction, Zift confers to Bulgaria‘s communist reality a nightmarish status. In fact, the novel transforms the city itself into a permanent construction site through the vocabulary of building materials, zift in particular.
Zift carries both a communist and noir aesthetic and thus unites the novel‘s two generic strands. Zift is a black resin or asphalt used for its binding properties and belongs to the linguistic register of industrial construction and metallurgy. It is zift, according to Moth, that binds the yellow bricks of the pavement surrounding Dimitrov‘s mausoleum and the Party headquarters. As the novel‘s title, zift evokes another master narrative about Soviet construction, Gladkov‘s novel Cement (1925). In a hard-boiled manner Moth chews continuously on a ball of zift to signal his streetwise toughness; and it is the ball of black zift that holds the resolution of the black diamond mystery. Further, Zift‘s thick blackness seeps through the menacing noir city when Moth exits the prison and enters the "nebulously thick freezing night" where dusk is "streaming down the joint‘s walls like molten asphalt" (10). Even people are described as industrially manufactured bodies: "a tin gaze, ears of porous cast iron, a sheet-metal figure, a quarry jaw, skin the hues of zinc and lead…" (11). Methodically ingesting the resin, Moth claims that zift has embalming properties and that "mummy comes from the Arabic for zift" (109). It is precisely at this point that zift binds together the hard-boiled body with the embalmed communist body and roots it firmly into the communist-noir city‘s pavement glued with zift.
The novel‘s language poses a challenge to both reader and translator: fraught with allusions, puns, intertextual references and shifts in discourse, it calls for constant alertness. The text spans the vocabulary of industrial construction, manufacturing and metallurgy, the official parlance of communist ideology, the graphic twists of street jargon and the lyric eloquence of a poet‘s letter, as well as various direct or indirect quotations. In a Nabokovian fashion (Ada is after all the title of Nabokov‘s perhaps most ambitious work), Zift begs for a rereading (on my second reading, I detected modified quotes from the Bulgarian poets Geo Milev and Nikola Vaptsarov). Joseph Benatov‘s English translation deftly negotiates the challenges of the text‘s variegated lexicon, rhetorical figures and discursive oscillations. Interestingly, the English translation differs significantly from the Bulgarian original in one important de-tail: the resolution of the diamond mystery that concludes the novel. The changed ending in the English version, however, corresponds to the denouement of the novel‘s film adaptation, Zift (Gardev, 2008). Todorov, who wrote the screenplay for the film, has rewritten the ending of the English edition of his novel. This alignment of verbal and cinematic modes of representation further endorses the communist noir poetics Todorov has crafted.
Structured as Moth‘s written confession to the police, the novel also contains several embedded narratives – the stories told by a host of bizarre characters Moth encounters on his journey through Sofia. Each storyteller relates an absurdly comical anecdote about life in communist society (a famous actress skiing down a slope with a bare behind; a man pressing a hot iron to his ear instead of the telephone; three tons of feces getting dumped into someone‘s living room, to name just a few) that turns the novel into a parody. Inherently intertextual and overtly humorous, parody imitates or repeats a discourse, text or style, but with a critical difference. We can then read Zift as a parody of both socialist realism and hard-boiled fiction as well as a parody of itself and the hybrid genre it creates.

The Complete Review
Published in 2006, Zift is a product of the post-communist era, but, billed asSocialist Noir in its English translation, it is set firmly in Bulgaria's previous eras. The story is narrated by Lev Kaludov Zhelyazkov, better known as 'Moth', and it begins in the late 1963, on the day he has been released from prison after serving some two decades for a murder he did not commit. Immediately, he tries to catch up with his past -- in particular Ada, the woman he left behind -- and the past catches up with him.
Moth was jailed after a botched robbery he arranged with Ada and his partner, Slug. They planned to rob the jeweler Ada worked for, but it didn't work out well; Slug escaped and Moth took the blame -- and the big diamond that was supposed to be on the premises hasn't been seen since.
While Moth was in jail Slug opportunistically embraced what the new regime offered, and now wields considerable power. As soon as Moth is out of jail Slug picks him up, and plots to get him to reveal the whereabouts of the diamond that he's been pining for these two decades. Moth escapes his clutches, more or less, and finds Ada -- who hasn't been able to escape Slug entirely all these years, and who is also interested in that diamond.
Zift is a play on the pulp noir genre, in book and film, and Todorov has fun playing it to the hilt, unashamed to present scenes such as:
We fell quiet, as if each of us had started counting silently to infinity. All of a sudden the doorbell rang, then it rang again, and I gave her a questioning look.
"That's the postman," she uttered calmly. "He always rings twice."
The entire novel is a pastiche of pulp, with borrowed plots (from the 1950 film D.O.A. to every hardboiled black-and-white noir they ever made, it can seem) layered one on the other. Moth is the epitome of the noir hero, the weary, philosophical loner who briefly gets the woman but has to deal with double-dealing all along the way and who, even if he gets the last laugh (of sorts), can only take limited pleasure in that. As he describes his nickname:
The moth -- just imagine how it flies: not flying, really, but zigzagging erratically. If you try to sketch a moth's flight, you will end up with an unintelligible drawing. My life paints a similar picture -- anyone's life, really.
Jailed during the Second World War, as Bulgaria was in complete political turmoil -- the botched robbery takes places around the time of the death of Tsar Boris III, which led to the coup by the communist Fatherland Front in 1944 --, Moth missed Bulgaria's transition into a workers' state and, while he was certainly criminally-minded before, he never took the turn Slug did; indeed, jailed during this entire period he clearly is meant to be presented as having stayed, in a way, 'pure.' (The date of the crime is, however, the most problematic part of the book: it seems unlikely that the communist authorities, once they had consolidated power, would have left him jailed for two decades: he would surely either have been summarily executed, or released much sooner (having done nothing worse than murder some bourgeois jeweler) .)
The zift of the title is a piece of bitumen Moth likes to chew on; it's among the few possessions that he can reclaim as he leaves prison. As he notes at one point:
"Mummy" comes from the Arabic for zift -- black bitumen, a powerful resin with embalming properties.
For all its properties -- his piece of zift is just as good now as it was all those years ago --, time hasn't stood still while Moth was in the slammer, and if the triangle of characters is still the same, they've shifted shapes and essences in the meantime. You can't go home again, and past is past -- but none of the three can quite let go.
Todorov offers an amusing sort of Eastern European super-noir -- the genre boiled down to its essences, and then every one of these used in shaping this variation on all the themes and tropes. It's amusing to see the borrowings in the new setting, and it's quite an accomplished novel in that sense alone, as his feel for American noir is better than that of most Europeans. Like most noir, Zift is rushed and simplistic and over-the-top, too -- but it's still a solid little piece of pulp, with a nice Bulgarian spin to it.

M.A.Orthofer, 17 September 2010
Review of Contemporary Fiction
Michael Pinker
Zift is raw asphalt, chewed by aficionados like gum; as a slang term it also means dirt or shit. Lev Zhelyazkov, nicknamed "Moth," antihero of this fast-paced novel, chews it incessantly while involved in a long night of catching shit upon his release from a Bulgarian prison, serving twenty years for a murder he didn't commit. As soon as Lev is out, clad in an overlarge, dated gabardine suit, two security types accost and carry him off to another sort of prison, in a grimy bathhouse, for no apparent reason. The rest of Todorov's novel relates Lev’s more or less ineffectual attempts to repel his captors, rejoin his wife, and learn about the son they had, who was born and died during his father’s imprisonment. At length, fleeing the bathhouse, Lev traverses a sordid world amid the streets of Sofia, retracing the convolutions of the murder scenario, during which he stumbles upon Slug, his slimy accomplice in the jewel heist that went wrong, who is now an apparatchik himself, bent on rubbing out his erstwhile partner in crime. In another opportunistic meeting Lev discovers his wife, for whom he took the murder rap, singing in a bar. Although they swiftly, passionately reconcile, soon afterward Lev must unravel a succession of stories about what she did, where she was, and what happened to their son during Lev’s enforced estrangement. This hunt takes on added importance when Lev finds that he has been dosed unwittingly with a poison for which there is no antidote. Assailed by time, the cold, and betrayal, Lev finally meets, in the cemetery where his parents and child are buried, a crew of philosophical gravediggers whose hearty optimism disarms his world-weariness. Todorov’s raw, hard-boiled parody takes dead aim at noir and leaves it gasping for breath.

Running From the State
By Jeff Frankas On October 7, 2014


Imagine being shut off from your country and, after some time, cast back in, only to find it unrecognizable. It has become a huge gray void, another world where everything is turned upside down. A new state. A new government with enhanced power to squash individual resolve and reason. The irrational is rational. Purpose is collectively driven. There is no choice. It’s the Revolution. It is unquestioned, and it is not debated, because it has to be right. People and their interests are cheap; no one can rise above the dogma. It is the state, and not the person, that is sacred. And everyone, of course, understands this. Sound familiar?

So welcome to the new paradise, where the “end starts at the very beginning.”

Vladislav Todorov’s Zift is a multi-layered view of a Bulgarian society written as a bizarre, neo-noir novel. The story is extraordinarily surreal and twisted, taking place in Sofia from before the communist takeover in 1944 to the early 1960s. Todorov paints the capital city as a dark, foreboding place after the coup, with unusual characters dancing back and forth between the two different time periods. The backdrop of darkness within the novel works well as a kind of metaphor, satirizing the communist state as an out of control, clownish circus act. Nothing is illuminated. Unhappiness against happiness. Life against death. And man against himself. Dystopia has replaced a more lively, folksy Bulgaria from the past. As the plot moves around, the author skillfully blends the old, familiar ways of days gone by with light, while the new order is continuously shrouded in a murky blackness. On the surface everything may be in place for a reason, but underneath the writer displays a real parody of truth.

The central character is Moth, who is thrown into prison at a young age for a violent crime he did not commit. It is in prison that Moth gets an education from one Van Voorst the Eye, a man with a glass eye and the uncanny ability to spring deep philosophical anecdotes at every turn. The Eye is not only a cellmate and much older mentor, but an ally for him and his best friend. He represents truth and common sense to the young prisoner. Moth even boasts how he “graduated from the University of Van Voorst the Eye” to others, and uses his wise tales as a prescription for a new life soon to emerge. His influence on Moth during and after prison is repeatedly touched on throughout the story.

The Eye warns Moth to be careful after the “cooler,” and that a man’s downfall could be a woman, any woman actually, and that real peace “requires that you sever all ties with people and things outside the cage, especially with women . . . especially with Woman.” It is a warning that Moth reflects on, but also seems to quietly ignore. He yearns for something simple, and his past is replete with hidden desires for the one he loved.

Moth is released early from prison and sets out with “hope in heart and plan in mind.” As he exits the stripey hole, however, he is immediately thrown into mayhem. His former life begins to haunt his every move, as a partner in crime from the past enters the scene and uses the apparatus of the state to aggressively pursue Moth through the shadowy streets of Sofia. He wants something from Moth, and is not going to give up until he gets it. A cast of strange, exaggerated characters greets the protagonist along the way, exposing the seedy underground of a city that seems to have no soul. Everywhere there is decadence, listlessness, and a lack of what once was tradition. The community Moth knew as a boy has vanished.

He finds himself lost in a different world, thrown into various situations that reflect a society changed for the worse. Whether it’s a bath house, clinic, or a bar, Moth feels compelled to keep running from the state. He has to. He can have no peace, no chance to rest from those who use any and all means necessary to complete their objective. While Tordorov uses the power of the state as a show of force with iron-fisted insanity, it is for my own perception merely a set. It’s a stage for the corrupt, a useful setting for the real center of the story — Moth’s race against time, and his encounters with his own misunderstandings while grappling with the knowledge he acquired under the guidance of The Eye. Moth and his personality are the story. The reader will no doubt turn each page in anticipation of what lies ahead as the hero lurches towards his inevitable end.

The work displays striking parallels with the intolerance we experience daily. Real repression, at least in my humble opinion, has always been a trademark of the Left. It is the psychology of fanatics who want to impose social engineering on groups who would otherwise prefer to just be left alone. This Todorov knows this well. The author has a unique perspective of totalitarianism as he is from the country. He understands that much of the facade is merely pretend, as the inhabitants recite passages or “maxims,” but in no way really believe in the virtues of the state — like the liberals who plague our institutions today. It’s just a routine, an act, an understanding that requires you play along or get punished. In the modern world you can lose your livelihood for uttering truths, or simply noticing faults in people or the system. This is what the Left has achieved — frightening people into submission, or else. For me, Zift embodies this theme over and over as Moth struggles to escape the grasp of henchmen in the state Leviathan.

My take is that Zift is great for readers who want a story about personal struggle within the unknown, or who question the extremes of government control versus individual worth. Read it with your own surroundings in mind, always looking towards the sky as it “looks back at you with a barred eye.”

(The novel was also brought to the screen in a spectacular cinematic work of art by director Javor Gardev [3], and is well worth the view.)