Hard-boiled Detective Fiction or Socialist Realism? Vladislav Todorov’s “Zift,” Translated from Bulgarian by Joseph Benatov

By Stiliana Milkova

Vladislav Todorov’s debut novel Zift was published in Bulgarian in 2006 and translated in English by Joseph Benatov in 2010. Importantly, Benatov’s name appears on the cover, integrated into the typography of the title, as an indelible part of the book’s life. More than a decade later, it still offers a compelling narrative pastiche that moves between genres and ideologies. The very title, 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 intertextual 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 carbonado 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 is the night club singer Ada whose name suggests the Bulgarian word for “hell” – “ad,” and thus hints at the femme fatale’s diabolical nature. She 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 heroes, 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 into the new system of thought and life. In this way, Moth bridges political regimes and cultural eras, skipping through time as if on his “Communist Time Machine” – the propaganda artwork 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. Like 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, 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). A brilliant example of reverse translation, Joseph Benatov’s work 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 detail: 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 semi-nude; a man pressing a hot iron to his ear instead of the telephone; three tons of feces getting dumped into a 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.

Todorov, Vladislav. Zift. Translated by Joseph Benatov. Paul Dry Books, 2010.

Stiliana Milkova is the editor of Reading in Translation. She is the author of Elena Ferrante as World Literature (Bloomsbury Academic, 2011) and the collection of short fiction in Italian Storia delle prime volte (Voland, 2022). She has translated from Italian works by Italo Calvino, Antonio Tabucchi, Alessandro Baricco, and others. She is associate professor of Comparative Literature at Oberlin College.

This review was originally published in print in the Bulgarian Studies Association Newsletter in February 2011 (pages 9-12). In March 2011 it was published online on Three Percent, with the author’s permission. It is republished here by permission of the review’s author.

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