THE WRITER AS SPY
An excerpt from The Radical Thinker's Companion, Ciela, 2018. This text was translated during Elizabeth Kostova Foundation's Translation Workshop in March 2021
I have a story in which the main character is a voyeur. It is called The Red Room. Every few months this guy rents a new place to stay in search of more and more new scenes for observation. One night, the lens of his powerful telescope falls upon a room flooded with intense red light. It is completely empty, except for the plain wooden chair in the middle. For days, weeks on end, our voyeur observes the room, but no one enters. The chair remains empty and the red light streams relentlessly into the night. Tormented by curiosity, he leaves his comfortable observation post, goes over to the apartment building across from his, and enters the room… Which turns out to be fatal.
The voyeur should not push himself into the picture. The task of the writer is the exact opposite – he strives to become part of the landscape, at least for a short time. For him, it is not enough to catch a glimpse of a woman’s bare back as she comes out of the shower. He absolutely must find out a bunch of other things: whether anyone else is in the room, what the two of them are talking about, and maybe even how they feel about each other. What did the woman do before getting in the shower and what will she do after that?… Naturally, these curious details cannot be uncovered by simply peeking behind the curtain. One would have to be inside the room, which is always associated with risks. Entering someone else's room requires solid reasons, and being a writer is definitely not one of them. In such cases, James Bond usually seduces the lady, and all doors automatically open up before him. The writer’s technique is not much different…
The affinity between the trade of the writer and that of the spy goes way back. This seems to be best acknowledged in the United Kingdom, but it also applies to other parts of the world. Many writers were spies and many spies took to writing books. Daniel Defoe, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, the list goes on and on. However, being a spy does not necessarily mean working for some sinister intelligence agency, no matter how prestigious it may seem at first glance. There are private spies, just like there are private detectives. There are also spies who work only for themselves – at least that is what they think. I do not know about the others, but I am precisely that type.
What kind of spy do you think you are, the real spies will say, if you don’t communicate with your Center? Who ordered you to collect information? Who do you report to? What is your code name? All reasonable questions. A real spy, however, would never answer such questions, and they know it well. If a spy compromises his cover in public, he ceases to be a spy. The same is true, to a large extent, of the writer. When in "action", he avoids disclosing his real profession. Spies, on the other hand, have this annoying habit of posing as writers when at work. The truth is, however, that this tactic is completely wrong. There is nothing more suspicious than someone investigating channels for illegal arms trafficking under the pretext of writing a book about it. I recently read a novel by Frederick Forsythe, where the agent behaves in that stupid way. The result is catastrophic.
Both the writer and the spy do not aim to take a snapshot of reality. That would be a job for the voyeur. The voyeur likes form, its fleeting sparkles dazzle him, while spies, including writers, stubbornly try to peek behind the facade of the visible. Form could turn out to be camouflage, with nuclear warheads hidden behind it. Therefore, they never take reality for what it is. The voyeur's horizon is limited to the window frame or to the gap between the blinds. It often captures many interesting things, but what cannot be seen is probably even more interesting.
Both writers and spies seem to not have a context of their own. They like to infiltrate, but they rarely integrate. Beyond all their incarnations lies the blank page, the information vacuum they must proceed to fill with text, artistic or operative, depending on their vocation. The work of an intelligence officer usually becomes available to as small a circle of people as possible. The work of the writer – quite the opposite. But at the end of the day, both build a parallel world, which reflects reality in reverse.
With the contribution by some of the participants at the 2021 Translation Workshop: Rozalia Petkova, Petriela Bacheva, Petia Ivanova, Bistra Andreeva, Vera Ivanova, Gergana Taleva, Ivelina Yotsova, Gergana Rantcheva, Marina Stefanova, Veronika Velcheva, Sophia Kleinsasser, Denitsa Todorova, Nicoletta Dicova, Gabriela Manova
Velina Minkoff is a literary translator and the author of three books in three languages. Her story collection Red Shorts (2001) was written in English and in 2020 was published in French. Her debut novel The Red and Blue Report of the Green Amoeba, originally published in Bulgarian in 2015, was published in French by Actes sud in 2018. Her second short story collection, Full–bush Brazillian was published in 2018. Velina lives in Paris, where she freelances as a translator, editor, lecturer, and writer. She is currently a doctoral candidate in translation of Bulgarian Literature at INALCO.
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