When my aunt Fani called me in Chicago from Bulgaria to tell me she had found her brother, my father, dead, lying back across his bed with his right hand over the heart, she chose the inferential mood to relay the news. Баща ти си е отишъл. / Bashta ti si e otishal. / Your father has left, apparently.
“Bashta ti si e otishal,” she said. It wasn’t a “Your father’s dead” but more of a “It appears that your father’s gone.” The structure enabled a lack of finality that my brain chose to translate as my father had decided to slip out of the room, elegantly and without witnesses.
Earlier that same year, I had seen my father die, or had seen how he would die, or rather I had seen what he would look like, dead, when I entered his room—to call it an apartment would be generous—and found him in the same pose. He wasn’t dead, just resting.
In this last summer of his life, my maximalist father had shed nearly all material possessions, by choice or by kismet. He’d made and lost a fortune on two separate occasions, been twice imprisoned, owned no property, and had barely a bank account. And in that sweltering summer of 2019, when he wasn’t draped diagonally across his bed, he had taken to sitting up on it, knees facing west, head facing south—towards the small flatscreen TV, hung artistically by two wide chains against a mirror wall that looked back at him—wearing nothing but a T-shirt and a white disposable diaper. The twenty-three hour permanence of this pose had indented the mattress. I’m not sure why he had started to wear the diaper. He’d had a psychotic breakdown earlier in the year which had almost done him in, but he wasn’t incontinent, just inert.
[ B / Б ]
Solomon was dead. It wasn’t an allegation or a supposition but there was an air of mystery about it. Like he’d called that final shot. Decided to exit with grace after making a lot of noise and our lives a nightmare for decades. The dread which had filled me at the expectation of this inevitable trans-Atlantic phone call had begun to border a fetish. I’d chewed on it for nearly twenty years, sure without a doubt what the precise words would be when I finally heard them:
Баща ти почина. / Bashta ti pochina. / Your father died. Оr perhaps even: Баща ти умря. / Bashta ti umria. / Your father’s dead.
But when at last they came, the words were different, more complicated, and therefore the meaning couldn’t possibly have been the same. I’d always known it would be Fani who would make the call and I was certain what it would be she’d say. And she was the one who called, but instead she said: Your father appears to have gone. This lack of finality mirrored my relationship with my father. He was always one step ahead, always had one more trick up his sleeve, managed to remain in so many ways a mystery to me.
[ C / В ]
When he left us, I flew to Bulgaria to arrange the funeral and to go through his things, that unenviable task of sorting through a life. But minimized as it was, the objects that now summarized him were still, in their own way, extraordinary. Even if the entirety of what he owned now fit into two wooden wardrobes and a corner shelf, everything within revealed a once impeccable taste, an intellectual rebelliousness, a man who had taken a beating. There were piles of papers, photographs, lengthy legal verdicts, a catastrophic sounding epicrisis issued six years prior, many and varied powers of attorney, his university economics dissertation, a notebook with recipes for a culinary store called “The Good Taste” he had worked on opening following the second prison stay, the certificate one gets as a souvenir after one flies with the Concorde, and a delicate bronze sculpture of the tree of life.
Among these was also a tattered, spineless English-Bulgarian dictionary that had once been bought for me after I’d moved back to Bulgaria as a twenty-something at Solomon’s insistence. He’d originally sent me to America as a twelve year old, and my going back across the Atlantic to England for university without his blessing was something he considered a personal affront. I was now back in America, waiting tables at the Cheesecake Factory at Woodfield Mall. Something about his firstborn working as a waitress after graduating university irritated him enough that he summoned me back so he could sort me out, maybe even help me get an internship. By then, I’d been gone from Bulgaria for ten years, had lost or misplaced my Bulgarian, and was now translating my sentences from English. I had to relearn my mother tongue, word by word, so that I could find myself again and bridge the old world and the new one. So that I could, somehow, hold my own in a conversation with my intellectually superior father. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was now an immigrant in the very place that’d birthed me.
My father’s close friend, a linguist, aware of my interest in writing and burgeoning interest in translating, as well as of the rather startling gaps in both, bought me the dictionary to ease me back into my mother tongue. The front half of the book is English to Bulgarian; the back half, vice versa. The book became emblematic of the life, the language barrier, the ineradicable time difference that had been erected between my father and me in the decade we’d spent apart after he’d sent me, then brought first my mother than my little sister to Chicago and had left, at first returning periodically for a week here and there, then, when his passport got taken away, not returning ever again.
Izidora Angel is a Bulgarian-born writer and literary translator based in Chicago. She’s a 2023 National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellow for her work on Keder, Yordanka Beleva’s acclaimed collection of stories, and the author of two book length translations from Bulgarian: Hristo Karastoyanov’s The Same Night Awaits Us All and Nataliya Deleva’s Four Minutes. Izidora's criticism, essays, translations and interviews have been featured in Astra Magazine, Sublunary Editions, Electric Literature, Chicago Reader, Words Without Borders, Asymptote and elsewhere. She's received recognition and support from English PEN, Art Omi, Bread Loaf, the Rona Jaffe Foundation and the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation. Izidora is writing a book about growing up during the last days of communism, the made and lost fortunes of a mercurial father, and a family’s forced, prolonged separation.