Monday, February 18, 2013

Existential Bathroom Visits?: Karabashliev’s 18% Gray

Zachary Karabashliev’s 18% Gray, which I read in Angela Rodel’s translation from the original Bulgarian, is a lively and lovely blend of love story, road novel, and self-discovery, all told by a first-person narrator named Zack. Zack  begins his story with “She’s been gone nine mornings.” “She” refers to his wife, Stella, who left him. Stella is an ever-more-successful artist, Zack works in clinical trials under, well, false pretenses, and they emigrated to the U.S. from Bulgaria. Zack doesn’t take Stella’s departure well. He goes to Tijuana, where he ends up in possession of a big bag of pot, then decides to drive to New York City to sell it.

What makes 18% Gray work so well is that Karabashliev asks Zack to alternate stories about his present and his past: in italicized passages, Zack describes how he met Stella, their life in Bulgaria, and the disintegration of their relationship. The two timelines converge at the end of the book. The novel also includes brief dialogues from the past that beautifully combine the mundane and the intimate—many are about Zack’s photography and/or Stella’s painting. These various types of text might sound as if they’d result in a choppy novel, but they have the opposite effect because they integrate memories of Stella into Zack’s present life despite her physical absence on his road trip.

Another reason for18% Gray’s success is that Karabashliev isn’t afraid of any kind of material. Pretty much everything seems to work for him: there’s that rather unlikely bag of pot, there’s a chase scene, there’s the eternal search for espresso on the road (something I relate to all too well), there’s a failed suicide that Zack happens upon on the side of the road, and there are trips into men’s rooms, complete with olfactory and audio effects I hope never to witness in real life. There’s even one scene at a truck stop, where Zack eavesdrops—whilst standing on a toilet seat, for sanitary purposes—on a conversation about relationships. Though I’m not quite sure I’d agree with Zack that that particular conversation is especially “existential,” one of the best aspects of 18% Gray is Karabashliev’s ability to combine, with tremendous sincerity and grace, elements like bathroom humor, an extended parallel of painting and photography, difficulties for immigrants, and lost love. Plus the meaning of it all.

Finally, I should mention how much I enjoyed reading Angela Rodel’s translation: her version of 18% Gray reads smoothly and Rodel has a great sense of humor, something I noticed in her translation of Thrown into Nature, too (previous post). Early in 18% Gray there are two medium-length paragraphs where Zack mentally promises all sorts of things to Stella if she shows up “at the door right now.” Here’s the second paragraph, which I think nicely sums up 18% Gray, Karabashliev’s writing in Rodel’s translation, and Zack’s character. I’m sure you’ll recognize something in here:
I will not correct you when you’re telling jokes, I will not interrupt you when you’re excited about something, I will not sing over your favorite songs, I will not be a smartass when we watch sentimental movies, I will not share my opinion about every single thing, we will not have Josh and Katya over for dinner ever again, we will never ever go to Vegas again, ever, I will not rent Hitchcock films, I will not order Chinese, I will not leave the room when we fight (what am I saying? we won’t ever fight!), you will never see me picking my nose, I will not burp loudly (or strain to fart on purpose), I will never be silent with you for so long, never, I will never watch CNN, I will never promise you the moon—you are a star, Stella.

Disclaimers: I received a review copy of 18% Gray from Open Letter, a publisher with which I always enjoy discussing literature in translation, including a specific piece I’m translating.

Up Next: Esmahan Aykol’s Baksheesh. Then Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans.


  1. I just read through a lot of this blog - referred from your other blog about Russian literature - and I noticed you did not post a list of your favourite 2012 reads. Unless I missed it? Or were there no favourites last year? It's great to read blogs about translated (into English, I mean) fiction, as not many people cover it consistently.

    1. Thank you for your question, Unknown. No, you didn't miss anything. The truth of the matter is that I sleepwalked through most of December after bringing a cold home from Moscow... and just never wrote a post about 2012 favorites! But I just looked through last year's posts and see there were some books I liked very much. I'll write up a "better late than never" list and post it within the next week. This will be a good occasion to refresh my sidebar, too. (Lizok needs to refresh hers, as well, hmm...)

    2. I didn't know I was 'Unknown' - so now I have an identity! Much appreciate your reply and I shall look forward to your favourites. Ii was your post on Mikhail Butov's Свобода ('Freedom') somewhere that initially intrigued me - but I do not think he is translated into English(?)

    3. Yes, you were initially "Unknown," a variation on the usual "Anonymous"!

      Alas, no, Butov has not been translated into English.