Igov, Angel

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Angel Igov was born on July 3, 1981, in Sofia. He graduated with diplomas in English and American studies and literary studies from Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, where he is currently a PhD student in European literature. He was a Fulbright visiting researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and a grantholder of the Halma international program.

Angel Igov has published one novel, A Short Tale of Shame (2011) which won the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation contest for writers in English translation that same year (together with Zachary Karabashliev’s 18 % Gray), and two collections of short stories. The first of those, Road Encounters (2002), won the Southern Spring award for a debut in fiction (2003), and the second one, K. (2006), was nominated for the Elias Canetti award (2007). Igov also holds an award from the Rashko Sugarev contest for his short storyEverything” (2002). In 2013, A Short Tale of Shame has been published in the U.S. by Open Letter Books with the support of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation.
Igov has worked as a literary critic and journalist for the weekly Kultura as well as for several journals, a radio show, and a TV show. In this capacity, he took part in the juries of the Vick Prize for the novel of the year (2007) and the Ivan Nikolov prize for the poetry book of the year (2009). For his activity as a critic he was nominated for the Hristo G. Danov award in 2006. He is also a freelance literary translator, having translated several novels by authors such as Ian McEwan, Paul Auster, Angela Carter, and Martin Amis, among others, as well as Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads. Two of his translations were nominated for the Krastan Dyankov prize in 2008 and 2009 respectively, and he is a member of the Union of Translators in Bulgaria.


Synopsis of the novel A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov

The story of the novel is told in the third person, but through the eyes of its four protagonists in turns.

The first chapter opens suddenly with a middle-aged man driving three young hitchikers – two girls and a boy – in his car. While the man, Krustev, is trying to figure out what his fellow travelers are like, they recognize him as the former guitar player from a once-popular rock band and, more importantly, as the father of a girl with whom the three have seemingly had an uneasy relationship. Through dialogue and through Krustev’s thoughts, readers get some hints as to his background and the general setting of the novel: a country that geographically and culturally resembles Bulgaria, yet its history and ethnography seem to have gone some alternative way. Readers also learn that Krustev’s journey has no clear point: he just took off in the morning, driving anywhere, before picking up the hitchikers.

The second chapter is told through the eyes of one of the girls, Maya. She has guessed Krustev must be living through some emotional crisis. This chapter reveals information about the friendship of the three hitchikers (Maya, Sirma, and Spartacus). Through Maya’s memories, readers learn how the three, now aged around 20-22, met in their freshman year in high school. The difficult progress of their unusually strong friendship is traced through (retrospectively) humorous teenage events and emotions. The crucial point in building their friendship was Sirma telling Maya about her first sexual experience in a deliberately crude and self-aggressive way.

Spartacus takes his turn in the third chapter, telling about the trio’s hitchiking on that day. Before they met Krustev, they traveled with an old wannabe writer from the countryside whom Spartacus ridicules in a phonetically ingenious passage. Readers learn more about the general region where the novel is set: a pastiche of mock Balkan states, exploiting common stereotypes about the region, with a complex history, ethnic strifes, and toppled communist regimes. Spartacus then recalls how Krustev’s daughter, Elena, met the three friends and persistently tried to break into their unusual friendship, before initiating a passionate affair with him much to the displeasure of the other two girls.

The fourth chapter is told through the eyes of Sirma, a strikingly independent and sceptical young woman. While watching Krustev drive, she also falls into retrospection, gradually revealing more of the pre-story of the novel, especially the character of Elena, whom she perceived as an intruder to their exclusive trio, using Spartacus as a means to get inside. She dwells for a time on her uneasy relationship with her family before falling back into more humorous stories from her teenage years. By this time, all four travelers have decided to go to the island of Thasos by ferryboat, while also speculating about going to far-off Rhodes next, an island belonging to another mock Balkan state where Sirma’s great-grandfather came from many years ago. Sirma, however, is worried by the prospect of spending so much time with Elena’s depressed father; at the end of the chapter, taking a clue from the where he is wearing his wedding ring, Sirma realizes Krustev has (perhaps recently) been widowed.

In the fifth chapter, we find the characters on their way to Thasos on the ferryboat. This chapter is mostly focused on the story of how Krustev’s estranged wife, Irina, died after spending several months in coma. Krustev’s emotions and perceptions are followed in detail through flashbacks and flashforwards. Irina died shortly after their daughter Elena came back from her studies in the US; catalyzed by her mother’s death, Elena managed to break through to her incommunicado father but then left again. Back in the novel’s present, the four travelers arrive at a campsite on Thasos, as the narrative explores Krustev’s uneasiness with the much younger, liberal and relaxed trio. Meanwhile,  he has told a story that later proves to be symbolic, of how in his youth he received a gift from an old fisherman: a guitar that ought to be played only by the seaside. Krustev, however, after the start of his business career, has not played any guitar for quite some time.

The sixth chapter drifts back to Maya, exploring her feelings about what is happening, her sexuality, the story of her parents’ divorce, and the inherent conflicts in the peculiar three-way friendship. This chapter resumes more poignantly the theme of ethnicity in the mock Balkan region, Krustev belonging to a “Slavic”-speaking minority in a “Thracian”-dominated state, thus his daughter is of mixed ancestry. The ambiguities of the latter concept are touched upon in Maya’s recollection of her childhood wonderment about how the girl sitting next to her could possibly be “half-something” and “half-another.” The theme is sustained in Maya’s conversation with two French tourists, amusingly bewildered by the ethnic and linguistic complexity of the region; some hints on the historical roles of the Great Powers in this complexity are given.

The seventh chapter starts in a surrealistic setting that turns out to be Spartacus’ dream during the following night. The dream is rife with flashbacks from the journey with the wannabe writer, which humorously yet disturbingly intersect with images arising from the young man’s intuition about a possible crisis in his relationship with the two girls. Feeling confused in the presence of the man whose daughter he has dated, Spartacus graphically recalls his passionate affair with Elena. Their relationship seems to have come to a crisis after Elena confessed to harbouring sexual fantasies involving Maya and Sirma, too.

Sirma takes turn again in the key eighth chapter. While traveling on a second ferryboat from Thasos to Rhodes, she recalls a detailed story of how she was given a taste of a teenage life centred on drugs and violence. Incidentally, for just one night Sirma took part in a girls’ gang dominated by a charismatic blonde who seemed to enjoy watching the decay of her friends, while she herself would not take drugs or use the money they took from helpless kids. The asymmetry between different teenage lifestyles is explored, with Sirma only gradually realising the seriousness of the drug dimension in the gang, this leading to a poignant scene of nausea which repeats itself in the novel’s present. Sirma’s story is told from a perplexing point-of-view that leaves doubts as to her narrator reliability and generally the “reality status” of the narrative, especially as to the illusory (or not) character of a symbolic kiss which the gang leader gives to a victim, but which Sirma interprets as if meant for her. Only later, after the intruding Elena started her affair with Spartacus, Sirma managed to put the pieces together and realize that Elena and the gang leader are the same girl. The chapter ends with some information on Sirma’s semi-mythical great-grandfather coming from Rhodes, and a contextually important conversation about hubris and shame.

In the ninth chapter the foursome arrive on Rhodes, the island’s atmosphere gradually reinforcing the semi-mythical note. Krustev, reaching a somewhat cathartic decision not to delve into the trio’s secrets, drifts back in his memories to his previous visit to the island with his wife and daugher. Emotionally, the visit culminated in an attempt at adultery that Krustev gave up on halfway through because it was not disgusting enough; thus revealing that he, too, just like the three younger characters (and Elena), has an inclination towards self-humiliation and self-aggression. Krustev takes advantage of an opportunity to leave his fellow travelers and go to a tiny restaurant he visited with his family the previous time. In the slightly unreal atmosphere of the restaurant, Krustev breaks down and tells his whole story to the charismatic proprietor, who in turn lectures him on the topic of shame and gives him his own guitar as a present, echoing Krustev’s earlier guitar story.

Sirma’s final, ninth chapter leads the novel’s plot to a climax – the reader is led to expect first a sexual scene between the three friends, and then crisis and tragedy. Sirma finally reveals how she managed to chase Elena off in the past, although she never had the feeling of complete victory over her because she was forced to hear Elena’s own story of her life (which we never learn). After a disturbing dream echoing Spartacus’ earlier one, Sirma manages to steer her friends and herself past the ripening crisis by suddenly realizing, and expressing, the comic dimension of their relationship. However, when the three friends start looking for Krustev in the night, they only find the guitar he brought from the restaurant, left on the beach. They are immediately scared, because, as pointed out several times in the novel, Krustev (literally and symbolically) cannot swim. They enter the sea expecting to find him drowning but he appears, having miraculously learned to swim, and the foursome sit on the beach with Krustev playing the guitar for the first time in a long time. The older man then tells them he received a text message from Elena who was expecting him at home, and after some hesitation, all four decide to go back. At the very end, another surrealistic and allegoric scene appears, with Elena sleeping in her father’s garden, possibly having alternative yet overlapping dreams; the novel ends with her opening eyes.


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