Lora Lazar’s murderous homage to Atanas Dalchev

02/11/2013 by Christopher Buxton

I’ve been long surprised at the lack of quality crime fiction in Bulgaria, particularly as the yellow press never misses an opportunity to report lurid stories about underworld figures with colourful nick-names.

In the summer in my last trawl of Bulgarian bookshops to tide me over my UK winter months, I chanced upon “Грешният Квартал” by Lora Lazar.  I read the blurb. Could this be the book to challenge the Scandinavian noir writers that dominate the English speaking market at the moment?

The title is difficult to translate as “Грешният” has two meanings – “sinful” and “wrong” as in the sense of “mistaken”. Let’s keep with sin and call it “The Sinful District”, though as every district has its shameful secrets we need to keep the second option open.

Lora Lazar provides a deeply satisfying read.  Her novel keeps close to the conventions of the serial killer genre – an irascible bloody minded detective at odds with his superiors; a loyal young sidekick/apprentice; a meddling journalist who gets under their feet: an anonymous murderer always one step ahead and with a real flair for dramatic visual representation; a series of marginalised and abusive victims and most importantly a vivid backdrop of a decaying urban wasteland.  Lazar keeps the reader hooked.  Her tightly organized plot drops timely clues and red herrings.

So far so Scandinavian but Lazar serves up two elements that are uniquely Bulgarian. First, her sinful district is a post communist mess of some neglected old houses, panel blocks, disused factories and workshops turned into warehouses, hovels and broken sheds, a sprawling gypsy quarter, with a railway line running through it all and a typically Bulgarian predilection for gossip. Shameful truths of physical and sexual abuse  slowly emerge.  Second she has skilfully weaved into the story several of Atanas Dalchev’s poems, which complement the mood, the environment and the characters perfectly. 

I read a lot of poetry when I first lived in Bulgaria in the Communist years, but it is only recently that a Bulgarian poet recommend I read Dalchev. It was a revelation. Perhaps it’s not surprising that I wouldn’t have heard much about him in Communist years.  In the 60s just before his death he wrote “Silence” about the paralysing fear of those times. Most of his poetry was written between the wars in a no less turbulent period . His dark poems invest simple everyday features – windows, doors, balconies with a threatening symbolism. A shadow in the yard like a broken spear on the staircase reminds him of some undiscovered murder. Lora Lazar allows her murderer to educate his pursuing policemen as he styles his murder scenes around Dalchev poems. Lazar’s prose complements Dalchev’s subtle shadows, making the book a pleasure to read.

As in any murder story doors are very significant.  Here is my translation of Atanas Dalchev’s poem on the those everyday objects

The doors

by Atanas Dalchev


The doors, the street front doors

            of the ancient rotting houses

 you recognise them, don’t you,

            for how many years gone by

they noisily close behind you,

            when at night you come back home,

they make way for you as if to say

            “Please enter dear Master!”

They speak in strange voices

            anytime weekday or Sunday

From morning  through to night

            they sing through yawning mouths

when you throw them open

            and then you close them gently:

Oh, those songs and voices,

            already known from childhood

The doors sodden in the rain,

            rotting from water and winter

gnawed by numberless worms

            stripped bare by the winds

the doors with thousands of scars –

            colours and nameless letter plates

 with studs, knockers and brackets

and their rust running like blood

And last night with all its might

            a storm, unleashed in the gloom,

battered them like a wrecking ball

            and the doors were stretched thin

and through the night till dawn

            they were beating and rattling

like the wings of some black bird

            dying wounded in the shadows.


The doors, your very own doors

            there’s little point in locking them

alas you will never feel

            safe and sound behind them.

When the night time fills your ears

            and startled dogs are barking

they cannot keep you safe

            from Her – the eternal hoodlum

More of my translations of Atanas Dalchev can be found here.