Nataliya Deleva’s award-winning debut Bulgarian novel, Four Minutes, edited by Georgi Gospodinov, is a multi-layered portrait of the kids left in care homes for orphaned and abandoned children during communism and its painful aftermath in Bulgaria.
The novel employs a fragmented narrative, experimental hybrid style, and a language both succinct and allusive to examine how communism affected people on the fringes. Individual stories pleat into the main narrative, giving voice to a different character, each uniquely stigmatized. It foregrounds a society which, although separated by its own distinct post-communist context, is challenged to face universal human issues.
The main protagonist, Leah, endures almost unimaginable daily horrors in the orphanage she’s been left in as a baby. Her story is told through vignettes of imaginary conversations, flashbacks to her childhood and her life now.
Once Leah is out of the orphanage, the novel examines her struggle to both integrate into society while also identifying as a gay woman. She confronts her trauma of her childhood by going back to the orphanage as a volunteer and deciding to adopt a little girl, Dara. Bureaucracy and stigma against gay women and single parents creates a chain of obstacles.
Nine other stand-alone stories intertwine through a common thread: they are the stories of people who exist on the periphery of the society as two-dimensional stereotypes. A girl is sexually abused by her father but suffers in silence. A teenage boy with cerebral palsy longs for physical contact. An ageing ballerina is forgotten by the world. A young Roma boy is desperate to save his dying mother. Syrian siblings, stuck in a refugee camp in Bulgaria, pendulum between memories of a happy childhood at home, the awful current reality, and dreams for a new life.
The title of the book in the original language translates into English as invisible. However, by giving them a voice, the book makes them all the opposite of invisible; it makes them salient. It gives them all an identity, a name, a life. A social experiment is mentioned in the novel, according to which it takes four minutes only to accept someone who seems different to you, by looking them in the eyes. These interwoven stories take about four minutes each to read, playing on the idea that this is the time needed to understand the characters’ viewpoints and to accept them.
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