Thursday, 18 July 2013

ZIFT (ДЗИФТ): the Socialist Noir

"zift (zĭft) n. mineral pitch, bitumen, asphalt; used as bonding material for road surfacing and, in the past, as streetwise chewing gum. 2.Slang. shit. [Turkish, from Arabic]" 

ZIFT by Vladislav Todorov (the English edition).

Some people just aren't born lucky. Consider life of Moth, the main character of Vladislav Todorov's novel Zift

In 1943, at the age of eighteen, he goes to prison to serve a sentence for a murder he didn't commit. Twenty years later he is released, only to discover that the world as he knew it doesn't exist anymore. It's now 1963, one of the gloomiest times of communist Bulgaria. The whole political system has changed.

Upon leaving the prison, Moth has a vision: to settle in a tropical island and swing in a hammock for the rest of his life. Instead, he finds himself in a reality more suffocating than any prison: that of a totalitarian state.

Right outside the door a bulky soviet Pobeda car (the name means 'victory' in English) awaits; it takes him to Slug, Moth's former gang mate, and the actual killer - now a police officer. Slug has in his interest that (1) the truth about the murder is never revealed; (2) Moth tells him where a precious diamond is. Moreover, Slug sleeps with Moth's beloved Ada, a.k.a. the Mantis - although Moth has yet to find this out, the hard way.

Slug poisons Moth and declares he would be dead by the next morning. Although Moth manages to escape, he is doomed. With Slug plus companions on his heels, body & willpower declining, Moth runs through the night streets of Sofia. He is lonely, injured, being chased; the city of his youth no longer shelters. He can trust no-one, and his lover now plots with his persecutor.

Moth indeed dies the next morning: in a cemetery, at a gravediggers' office, with a pair of misshapen work boots under his head, being looked-after by the deputy-chief gravedigger - perhaps the only genuinely caring person in the whole story. He dies chewing on zift, his default choice of chew (although this last time the reason why Moth wants to munch on zift is a bit different).

Symbolically, the novel takes place during one of the longest nights of the year, that of the 21st of December. Although it does have some comic elements, the novel is gloomy, just like life back in the communist times. Through the story of Moth, we learn about the realities of a totalitarian state.     

After reading the novel, I no longer feel the same as I walk through my current neighbourhood in Sofia. Fragments of the city's recent past seem to be everywhere, and I keep thinking about the events described. Although Zift is a fiction book, it is based on real facts - it is a historical novel. It reminds me of another similarly gloomy book, Vilnius Poker by Ricardas Gavelis, about the soviet times in my home city Vilnius.

I find Zift a valuable book in a way that it tells about the realities of the communist past. A former involuntary soviet* myself, I often notice that certain people in Western Europe find things connected with Eastern Europe's socialist past exotic, adorable. Typically, those are not the most historically aware leftists who easily get hooked on symbolics such as USSR flags & hammer and sickle t-shirts.  

Therefore, I believe, historical novels like Zift are highly needed. More than 20 years have gone now since the end of the Eastern Bloc but there still is a shortage of information about what was happening in that part of the world for a half of the 20th century. We need historical fiction so that the average, lay people become more aware - not just the academics. 

In 2008 a namesake film was released, with the script written by the novel's author Vladislav Todorov. Told in a tough, laconic manner, it immediatelly became cult in Bulgaria, and won numerous awards in local film festivals.

The film is entirely black-and-white, thus giving a first impression (to me, at least) of a TV documentary from the 1960s. I have to say I have not yet had the chance to watch the film, apart from a few random episodes on YouTube.

Below is the trailer. If we excuse the earsplitting soundtrack, Zift does indeed look like a promising movie. Or exotic and/or comical - depends on what you are looking for. 

Zift, the film trailer (2008). Directed by Javor Gardev.

A copy of Vladislav Todorov's Zift (in English) can be found at the library.

* from Lithuania. During the early communist times part of my family - as well as thousands of other Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians - were banished to Siberia and labour camps for not being 'good' socialist citizens. A historic novel Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys gives an insight into such deportations.   

Review by Agne Drumelyte.

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