"H.H. stopped in front of the editorial offices, imagined (a third Gitane) those people snatching out of the totally unsuspecting jury’s hands just his short story. The case spreading like wildfire all over the press, despite all measures of precaution, the newspaper editors, the jury taking the lead, discussing the admissibility of such methods, plunging into the problem of fiction as court evidence."
Georgi Gospodinov (1968 –) is a poet, fiction writer, playwright, and critic who lives in Sofi a, Bulgaria. He is a researcher at the Institute of Literature at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the editor of a weekly literary newspaper, and a columnist. His book Natural Novel has been published in nine countries, including the United States; And Other Stories has appeared in French, German, Czech, and Macedonian. Gospodinov is also the editor of I’ve Lived Socialism: 171 Personal Stories and a coauthor of the Inventory Book of Socialism.
(A Crime Story)
He had it all in his pocket—the money, the cigarettes, the lighter . . . He looked around just once more, then carefully put on his bowler hat, took the bag, opened it for the third time that morning, and for the third time made sure the six densely printed pages were there. Then he fidgeted about the hallway, peeked into the kitchen, said a quick “Bye-bye, Barbie,” even though there was obviously no one there, unlocked the door, and left.
There were two possibilities.
The first one. It might well happen that a newspaper announces a short story contest, that it’s a contest for a crime story, dealing with a murder, actually, a murder for love. The newspaper explains: “The subject ‘murder for love’ has been suggested by a contest with the same name carried out recently in the United States, based on an idea by Otto Penzler.” It was logical for him, as a regular contributor— since he hadmade a name for himself, although in a limited circle, thanks to this newspaper, and the editors had praised him—to take part in the contest. Yes, it would even look suspicious if he didn’t. That thought occupied him for no less than a hundred steps. Logic demanded that he go there and give them his story. At this point H.H. stopped short, took out a Gitane—he usually got by with cheaper cigarettes like Melnik or Sredets, but that day was worth an exception, so he sheltered it between his palms and lit it. The harsh, pungent smoke put an end to this first, rosy version. He slowed down, partly because of the cigarette, and decided to think over the second possibility.
The contest had been announced three weeks after the case. The daily newspapers had flown with that murder, “the most terrifying one in the last twenty years,” filling whole pages with subsequent versions. Apparently, circulation had risen sharply. Even now, almost two months later, the event never left the front pages. People were hungry for a real thriller, for something unheard of. Not that there weren’t the regular couple of murders a week, but they were banal—murders of money exchange clerks, a shot in the head, some brains, the front of a skull missing—and that was it. But here the story was entirely different. A twelve-year-old girl, “beautiful as a Barbie doll,” as one of the metropolitan newspapers put it, plunged alive into a boiling mixture of resin, wax, wolfram fibers, and lead-silver filings. “As if prepared for the museum of Madame Tussaud,” another newspaper said. A perfect silver-colored cast. An enormous balloon tied to her left hand, and a box of popcorn inserted between the right arm and the torso. The most terrifying thing about it was that this “doll” had waited seven days—from December 29 to January 5, the first working day after those accidentally long New Year’s holidays—until it was removed as an illegal publicity toy, or for some other stupid reason. It had remained there for seven days, placed on the rooftop of an apartment building right at the Eagles Bridge, in plain sight of the whole city, next to an illuminated Lucky Strike advertising billboard.
It looked spectacular up there, its lead-silver particles gleaming, the enormous balloon in hand, and a sign on a long piece of cloth beneath that said, strangely enough, “Merry Christmas, Daddy.” It was impressive, like all new things, and people looked up and enjoyed it, although nobody knew for sure whom the doll was congratulating or what exactly she was advertising. When the workers came to take it down, thecast broke and the decaying body of a young girl came tumbling out. A few days later the police sent all newspapers a composite sketch of the murderer, supposedly seen by an old lady as he was carrying the doll up to the rooftop. H.H. was pleased to notice that the picture didn’t look at all like him and was rather reminiscent of a Cro-Magnon man, with its low forehead, thick eyebrows, and solid jaw. It had obviously been dug out of some old manual on criminology. More recently a guard at the Japanese embassy had been killed, and the man caught by the camera, with his rough face and long hair (bearing a striking resemblance to the Cro-Magnon, by the way), scared readers for a while, until the police caught two seventeen-year-old boys covered with blood, both sporting cropped
hair, in a train near Mezdra. Cheap cop tricks.
So—H.H. lit a second Gitane—three weeks after the live doll story, the literary newspaper, to which he contributed on a regular basis, announced that crime story contest. The prizes in the contest were suspiciously generous in the light of the precariousness of the newspaper’s financial condition. There was also a promise to publish a book of the best short stories. The bait was too loaded. The contest had been sponsored by some Crime Story Lovers’ Society that no one had ever heard of. He imagined them as a group hastily formed for the special occasion—top cops shaved clean, plain clothes, jackets slightly bulging on the left. No jury was announced, but rumors mentioned the names of a few university instructors. It was quite possible that, if the contest was a setup, the jury and the newspaper’s editors didn’t suspect that the killer could be someone inside their literary circle, or a maniac who loved describing his deeds.
Could the cops know anything about fiction, or did they read everything as a confession, as a deposition? Could they have ever heard of Humbert Humbert?
H.H. stopped in front of the editorial offices, imagined (a third Gitane) those people snatching out of the totally unsuspecting jury’s hands just his short story. The case spreading like wildfire all over the press, despite all measures of precaution, the newspaper editors, the jury taking the lead, discussing the admissibility of such methods, plunging into the problem of fiction as court evidence. The media going crazy. H.H.’s name appearing in unimaginable numbers of newspapers. Enterprising publishers collecting all the stories he had published in periodicals. Intellectuals protesting the arrest. The World Court in The Hague . . . Salman Rushdie sending . . . H.H. caught himself thinking in titles. Enormous letters, boldface, stern print, and all of it on the front page. He felt buttressed by all of world literature, the whole world’s fictionality before which the cops, the prosecutors, the court, and the state with all its institutions seemed miserable, like tin soldiers. No, like bugs scurrying around. The metamorphosis was about to be accomplished. He took the six pages from his bag and read the end of the short story once again: “. . . softhearted, painfully sensitive, extremely cautious. Taking revenge for all the softhearted, the painfully sensitive, the extremely cautious.
“And he opened the door to the editorial offices.”
And he opened the door to the editorial offices.
—from Georgi Gospodinov, And Other Stories (translated from the Bulgarian by Magdalena Levy and Alexis Levitin), Northwestern University Press, 2007. Originally published in Bulgarian in 2001 under the title I Drugi Istorii by Zhanet-45.
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