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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Vladislav Todorov

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To purchase Zift

Title: Zift
Author: Vladislav Todorov
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 185 pages
Original in: Bulgarian
Availability: Zift - US
Zift - UK
Zift - Canada
DVD: Zift - US
  • Bulgarian title: Дзифт
  • Socialist Noir
  • Translated by Joseph Benatov
  • Zift was made into a film on 2008, directed by Javor Gardev

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Our Assessment:

B : solid little piece of pulp, with a nice subversively humorous undertone

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 25/2/2011 Thomas McGonigle
Philadelphia Citypaper . 16/6/2010 Matt Jakubowski
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Summer/2011 Michael Pinker

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

  • "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

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

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Published in 2006, Zift is a product of the post-communist era, but, billed as Socialist 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

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Zift: Reviews: Zift - the movie: Vladislav Todorov: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Vladislav Todorov (Владислав Тодоров) teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.

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© 2010-2011 the complete review

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