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Vladimir Zarev: “Every Book, if It’s Real, Is Directed Towards the Future”

February 20, 2012 by · No comments

Galya Mladenova interviews the writer Vladimir Zarev
Translated from the Bulgarian by Maya Mircheva


Your novel Destruction has been very well received by both the German media and literary critics. What is your explanation for that?

After the end of the Second World War during the subsequent rearranging of the world, natural development was halted in Bulgaria, as well as in other countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and we were involved in the biggest global experiment of all times.

Based on violent, false and ineffective ideological dogmas, as well as having unproductive equality instead of human diversity as its highest value, socialism was subject to economic and moral breakdown.

Our lives, which had been controlled and guided by unrealistic values, changed overnight and “the winds of change” not only resurrected the zeitgeist and brought the crowds to the squares, but they also moved the human strata, which not only changed but virtually swept away thousands of human destinies.

This is why borderline social conditions are terribly difficult, although interesting. They attract the writer’s curiosity and judgment; they are a happy challenge for his courage and imagination.

So, due to several years of ideological feeble-mindedness, and constant psychological and moral violence, the attempt to put one in the narrow limits of a poor but secure impersonality was swept away by people’s exaltation. However, this explosive, almost unexpected change brought its own troubles. Because of our surprise and inexperience, it brought total destruction of physical assets for billions of dollars. It also brought the collapse of the state and the moral decline of society.

In the novel Destruction I attempt to examine the relentless change of public consciousness and to look deeply into the human sense of these phenomena, to tell them in the most honest manner possible.

I want to show how the oligarchic party nomenclature and the secret services tried to replace total political power with economic power, how national assets were redistributed in an extremely selfish way, how the policy and the judiciary – the immune system of statehood – were deliberately paralyzed and how, getting quickly over the romantic exaltation of the change, the new political class got corrupted to the point of turning politics into the most secure and profitable business.

I suppose that this “peek” into the inner workings of change triggered the flattering interest of the media and the critics in Germany. In dozens of reviews, Destruction was called “the novel of change”. German critics couldn’t conceal their amazement because they expected it to appear in one of the Central European states, such as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic or even Germany itself. Instead, it appeared in Bulgaria as an important summary of the transition that was difficult everywhere.

Vladimir Zarev and his wife, the poet Mirela Ivanova

How did you decide to write a novel reflecting the Bulgarian transition?

Like many of my fellow countrymen, I also experienced the indescribable and seductive elation of change which ignited the squares and filled them with unparalleled civic energy. I was lit by the lights of the nightly peaceful processions which flowed like rivers through the streets of Sofia as if we were in a sort of never ending Easter.

However, I witnessed the ruthless exploitation (and even worse – the invalidation) of the work of several generations of Bulgarians by three generations of millionaires who exported the national wealth abroad or buried it in their monstrous luxurious homes, among a meaningless bacchanalia of sparkles and granite.

During those twenty years the most valuable qualities of life were restored – freedom, freedom of press, personal freedom, freedom to be different.At the same time, however, I witnessed the value system of Bulgarians erode while money, greed, hypocrisy and egoism turned into the main driving force of society.

Generations of Bulgarians learned to equate the honest, intelligent, sensitive and vulnerable individual with a fool, whereas the “untouchables”, with thick necks and vulgar demeanor, became a synonym for success and stepped into the limelight of societal attention, pampered by those in power.

Lastly, I saw the exodus of more than a million Bulgarians, who fled not just from economic scarcity but also from the moral ugliness of life. I saw how our children’s vocabulary shrank to just 300 words, and we were all involved in the total numbing imposed by the media and life in general.

The long and painful transition brought much light and hope, but also much disappointment. Yet the very occasion that urged me to write the novel, was really dramatic and scary. On a cold November night a long time ago, I was going back home. I was depressed, having suffered some blows in my personal life. It was raining.

Then, I saw a homeless man who was standing next to the garbage containers fumbling inside them. He was leaning over the garbage as if there were buried treasure inside, a hatless, bearded man, lost in the night, who had abandoned himself. I stared at him as he looked vaguely familiar to me, then I recognized him – this man was one of my favorite teachers from my youth. Anxious not to offend him, I turned and ran home. Before I even took my clothes off, I sat at the computer and wrote the title of my new novel: Destruction.

Vladimir Zarev with his youngest daughter, Zornitsa, in Amsterdam

Who is the novel meant for: the adults who have experienced those times, or young people who want to know what happened back then?

I wrote Destruction for everybody: for my loved ones, for my friends, for those whom I don’t know, but most of all, for myself. Every book, if it is real, is directed towards the future. Even if the story is set in the past and is becoming a more and more distant past, it is part of the future.

Do you have the feeling that the book is better received abroad than in Bulgaria?

In Bulgaria Destruction had nine editions; therefore the novel really must have touched people. Many of them recognized in it a part of their own life and the truth about that difficult and controversial time. I can proudly say that the novel was felt, talked about and appreciated by His Majesty, the reader.

The critics, however, did everything in their power to conceal that. As a matter of fact, I have never been a fan of Bulgarian literary criticism. Three or four different reviews about Destruction appeared in Bulgaria, while in Germany there were dozens, some of which were in the most prominent newspapers German-speaking press, such as: the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”, “Die Welt”, “Die Zeit”, and the “Stern”. I say this with regret, but unfortunately it is so.

Is this destruction of Bulgarian society still ongoing?

During these twenty years, significant national energy has been wasted. People were fed false illusions for quick and easy enriching, and then they were shamelessly robbed and stripped of their hope. Our mediocre political class not only agreed to the robbery and corruption, but it formed ties with the oligarchy and turned itself into a symbol of mediocrity, greed and moral poverty.

The state continues to be milked like a cow, thus the rich are getting richer and this wastefulness is being paid for by the poor, those for whom survival alone is a challenge. The forest deals, the dubious public procurement, the participation of political parties in the robbery of the impoverished country were part of our everyday life until just a few months ago.

The political parties haven’t offered an alternative for a long time, they have lost all trust and credibility with Bulgarian citizens and in a way they have also lost their reason for being. Institutions continue to be paralyzed, especially the judiciary institution. Instead of fighting the ulcers of society, it continues to breed corruption and impunity. The laws still protect criminals, especially if they are rich and shameless enough, and it has robbed the honest people who pay their taxes of their rights.

In all likelihood, Bulgaria will never reclaim its economic potential of the 90s. Most of the enterprises that were deliberately bankrupted were buried in the past, while a big part of what has been acquired did not work. People lost their security, then their savings and their pride, but they still have faith in some sort of minimal justice and expect at least ten of the major crooks to receive a just trial and bear the responsibility for the shattered illusions.

In this respect the joint efforts of Boyko Borisov and the Minister of the Interior, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, and the stern will that they have so far demonstrated, make room for hope. This is a desperate attempt to win the country back from the mafia and organized crime, but it’s also our last chance to bring people their faith back in justice and the rule of law. The politician who manages to do that and restore statehood, will remain throughout history.

This is the first thing to be done. Then civil society has to be “nurtured” and then, finally, the national idea must be rescued, that is, the cause which is acceptable for all and will give people perspective, as a sense of togetherness has to be found.

German literary critics call you “The Bulgarian Balzac”. Are you proud of this comparison, and what common features do you find between yourself and Balzac?

German critics were very flattering towards me and both my novels which have been translated so far: Destruction and Being. This, of course, fills me with great satisfaction and pride. Martin Ebel called me “The Bulgarian Balzac” because perhaps he was impressed by the epic power of the novels, the psychological accumulation of details in the narration and the energy of the language.

Thomas Rothschild was even more generous by comparing my writing style to that of Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov and Marques. I want to underline that both critics are of the highest caliber with proved authority and influence among German-speaking intellectuals. Moreover, when their reviews appeared in the “Berliner Zeitung” and “Die Presse” I did not yet know them. A year and a half later Mr. Ebel came to Bulgaria specifically to meet me and we spent two wonderful days together.

Vladimir Zarev and Dimitre Dinev in Vienna

The first book of the trilogy, Genesis, has already been published by “Deutike” and the remaining two books are about to be published. What, in your opinion, is the appeal that this topic holds for the German-speaking audience?

The trilogy, Genesis, Exodus, and The Choice, is the saga of my family told in over 2,700 standard pages. The story begins back in 1890 in Vidin, following the death of the family patriarch, Asen Valchev, and continues until Bulgaria’s EU accession.

I suppose that this honest and epic development of the narration which flows through time as if it flows with the Danube River is what intrigued the German-speaking reader. Slow, tender, dangerous and majestic, infused with the smell of sludge and some sort of a never ending nostalgic journey; the river changes every second but it also remains the same.

This is a metaphor for human life which is perennial and changing at the same time. I suppose that the psychological power of the characters, their untamed authenticity, as well as the richness of the phrase and the magical color and energy of the language was also appealing.

Your project to film Destruction is still pending. Will you continue to work towards that direction? Do you expect such a production to be successful in Bulgaria and abroad?

The novels Destruction and Worlds should have been filmed a long time ago. The scripts were written and several very ambitious directors were working on them, but for better or worse things slowed down with or first attempt. Now we are working on the second attempt and both novels stand a good chance to be filmed outside of Bulgaria, most probably in co-productions with other countries.

Metody Petrikov, who is an exceptionally intelligent, modern, “European” manager and producer, is specifically in charge of Destruction. I hope that he will soon be able to raise the necessary funds and will take up the intellectual leadership for the implementation of the project.

Whose opinion on your works matter more to you?

I think Salvador Dali once said: “Don’t worry too much about perfection, because you will never achieve it.” And this is true, perfection is like the horizon: the closer we come to it, the more it seems to fall back into the distance.
The writing profession involves a continuous, crushing, but also wonderful creative insecurity, which I feel to an exaggerated degree. That is, even when I feel that I have done my maximum, I like giving away my manuscripts to people whom I admire.

The most important opinion for me is that of my wife’s, the poet Mirela Ivanova. I believe in her good will, her relentless honesty and impeccable taste, which sometimes borders on cruelty.

I also highly value the opinion of Professor Michail Nedeltchev and Assistant Professor Nikolay Dimitrov, both of whom teach New Bulgarian Literature at the University of Veliko Tarnovo; of the Professor of Philosophy Sergey Gerdzhikov; and of my old friend Tsvyatko Kamenov, who is an engineer by training and a businessman by profession, but possesses an infallible feel for literature.

Are you working on any new literary projects? What can your fans look forward to?

My plans are to edit the third part of the trilogy, The Choice, by the end of this year, which, if I want to keep the Biblical reference, I might wish to rename to Judges.

So the wonderful and welcoming “Ciela” Publishers will have published the whole trilogy: Genesis – 2007, Exodus – 2010 and Judges – 2011. Right after I hand in the last manuscript I plan to start writing The Library, a game novel set in the time of the Isichasm in Bulgaria, which has been brewing for a while. I believe that I will further develop some of the philosophical ideas from the novel The Priest Bogomil and the Perfection of Fear.

Vladimir Zarev was born on 05.10.1947 in Sofia. He studied Bulgarian philology at the Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. Currently, he is the chief editor of the “Savremennik” magazine.
He is the author of 16 books, among which the trilogy Genesis, Exodus, The Choice, as well as Bloodhound, Bloodhound vs. Bloodhound, The Year of 1850, The Priest Bogomil and the Perfection of Fear, Destruction, and Worlds.

In 2006 the novel Destruction was translated into German and was published by “Kippenheuer & Witsch”. According to Deutsche Welle Radio, it is the most successful Bulgarian book ever to appear in the German language. The “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” calls Destruction “the novel of change for the whole of Eastern Europe” and the author – “the Bulgarian Balzac”.

In May of 2009, the first part of the trilogy, Genesis was published into German and received a very positive feedback from Austrian radio and television, as well as the most prestigious German-speaking newspapers: “Die Presse”, “Der Standard”, the “Tages-Anzeiger”, and the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”. The subsequent two novels, Exodus and The Choice, will be published in German, again in Thomas Framm’s translation, in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

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