SOFIA, An excerpt from a novel

by Albena Todorova; translated from the Bulgarian by Traci Speed

A text by the 2018 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow and CapitaLiterature participant Albena Todorova

Of course, with Andrej there was no question of it being anything more serious than sex. We weren't even girlfriend and boyfriend. He never once introduced me as his girlfriend. I was a girl. Not his girl. When we would go out with other people, they were usually foreigners, current or potential clients, very rarely his friends. I would sit by some guest, explaining what was in a shopska salad, saying "cheers," letting them light my cigarettes if they were men, or lighting their cigarettes if they were women, and when Andrej's stories or the other people's interest began to dry up, or dessert was taking a long time, with his subtle, smiling diplomacy he would turn the conversation around something at the table and casually say, "And this is how we were influenced heavily by the Soviets. Oh, by the way, did you know, Danny was born in the Soviet Union. Right, Danny?," after which the conversation would start back again, fueled by questions that would immediately be forgotten and answers that didn't interest anyone.

What could I tell people about this Soviet Union where I had been born? From the town where I was born I remembered the blue letters on the bus station, lit up against the winter night – I was a year and a half old, and my mother insisted that there was no way I could remember this, that someone must have told me; I remembered my grandfather's Zaporozhets, where we would drive with two more people than were allowed, and so the children were seated down in the floor wells; I remembered my grandmother's kitchen and her yard, where my brother and I would examine the lines of red firebugs. These tiny pieces were important only to me, so for the foreign guests I would borrow others from my mother's stories – southern summers, veiled women, high peaks over unscalable walls, stormy seas, the gardens that my grandfather planted.

Because of the nature of his work, Andrej was surrounded by all manner of people who, for their part, were able to get various things done. Some connections were managed carefully, while others were exploited once and then dropped. The same went for the women, who placed more value on breaking into careers as models, make-up artists, or business women than on their reputations. Andrej's contacts were spread out not only in the publishing and advertising industries, but also among film producers, studios, and modeling agencies, as well as in big international business. He claimed that this was the most important key for the women's favorable disposition towards him. One night in intimate company he had had a little too much to drink and excitedly explained the price list of the news anchors on national television: for dinner with A. – one three-figure sum, to spend the night with I. – a certain four-figure sum, for which she might condescend to a second evening.

Yes, the '90s had just dropped off the calendar, but they were still hanging around. The mafia were successful. Politicians were successful. Someone who didn't know these times might have a hard time drawing a boundary between these two professions. Mushrooming and flourishing alongside them were their lawyers, doctors, bodyguards, and errand boys – bunches of people who rendered expert services, and their attendants and their children.

The women who were successful were the wives, or more often the lovers, of many of these successful men. The sins and sorrows that befell us in later years were born and built up their muscles precisely then – just like we did ourselves. But whereas we were struggling to survive and to grow up, to maintain our families and a little sanity, to overcome this crisis, too, to help this friend, to send off the latest one who couldn't endure it anymore, to stave off the latest outrage, they were accumulating resources that subsequently allowed them to divide and control us unimpeded.

To leave for abroad – where, in our imaginations, better opportunities awaited us at the airport with a bag of good luck – was a universal practice. At the end of the '90s the Bulgarian family was a scattered jigsaw puzzle – some of the pieces stayed home, others worked abroad. Our mothers, sisters, and husbands built hotels in Spain, cared for Greek pensioners, washed cars in Germany, flipped burgers in the States, and the children who had the opportunity studied at universities. Most of them would send money home. So we also traveled – going there with sacks of rattling jars, and coming back with bags full of electronics and appliances.

The route out often led first from a small town to Sofia, and then from Sofia to abroad.

I couldn't see what my options were to be successful, but I wanted, really wanted, to succeed. I didn't have the money to leave as a student. That's what my mother told me – "I have no money, I have no opportunities, see if you can think up something yourself."

I didn't know how to become a politician. The mafia were men. I couldn't imagine myself marrying one of these people or sleeping with them – not just because they were lewd, greasy, bow-legged older men with horrible, Cranachian expressions, or because they were criminals, or because they were inaccessible in their heights of the nomenklatura elite. We were just from different worlds. I and the people I lived among were one Bulgaria; they were another. And even when they would shoot each other on the neighboring street, I would never have said that these people and I lived in the same world.

Andrej, for his part, was at home in every world, in the company of anyone. Even today I still have no idea why he paid attention to me, of all people.

I can see much more logic in why he was in a hurry for us to split up.


Albena Todorova is a poet with a day job. Her self-published debut poetry book stihotvoreniya (poems) won an award at the prestigious Ivan Nikolov Awards in 2014 – one of a very few self-published collections to do so. Her second poetry book, Stihotvoreniya, ot koito ti se jivee (Poems to make you want to live), was published in 2018. Albena has been working on a novel draft for the last several months. You can find her blog, written mostly in Bulgarian, at 


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