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Four Minutes is a novel about people on the margins of society. Different storylines interlace in order to tell one story: about the invisibility. This is a book that grabs you by the throat, a poignant novel.”

– Georgi Gospodinov, author of The Physics of Sorrow

“Few are capable of reproducing, without even a slight trace of pretension, the lives of those who have lived in care homes for abandoned children, especially during the post-communist transition period, and their subsequent fates. In fact, generally speaking, each of us is an abandoned child, however those who the author depicts, really are invisible on the social map. Nataliya Deleva removes from their faces all the clichés that we’re so used to trashing at them. A difficult, poignant, important, really important book.”

                                    – Marin Bodakov, Culture Newspaper

Four Minutes by Nataliya Deleva is […] a powerful, captivating, fascinating book! A reader would never be the same, after allowing the narrative to pass through them.”

                                                                 – Bella Cholakova,

Selected Book reviews


“Anyone Can Become Invisible”

Interview with Nataliya Deleva for Toest

By Marin Bodakov

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Social invisibility is a well-explored motif in literary history: not to acknowledge your existence is far more cruel than to deny it. One novel I recall is Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible”; there are other many remarkable works in this tradition, but Tove Jansson’s “Invisible Child” is perhaps the most valuable one for me. It also points out a solution to the problem of invisibility: unobtrusive care, tolerance, empathy.

In her novel “Invisible” (Four Minutes) Nataliya Deleva builds a dreadful panorama of people who are being discriminated against and ignored by society in various ways—and she discreetly punctures the layer of emotional frost covering contemporary Bulgarian society. The text is to the point, non-melodramatic, painful, it sugarcoats nothing for the reader, and it doesn’t woo them. The text is honest. Nataliya Deleva knows what she is doing.

Marin Bodakov: What makes a human being invisible? And is literature capable of making your invisible characters visible to a wider audience? Visibility brings recognition, but it can be both affirmation and denial…

Natalia Deleva: In many cases this is the fear; the irrational fear that is not fact-based, but is quenched in stereotypes and prejudices. In “Invisible” (Four Minutes) I look at different states of invisibility, and rather different manifestations. One is invisibility as a desire to hide from the world in which you live, from the problems that come with this living – it is still a fear to face them because you feel powerless to change the situation. The narrator herself, Leah, often squeezes her eyes shut at night in an effort to dispel her childhood traumas: growing up in an orphanage, the very trauma of her abandonment itself.

The other invisibility is ignorance by the people around, by society as a whole. This is all the more terrible because it pushes entire social groups into the periphery. Outwardly, we speak on the importance of integrating minority groups and the importance of a good education to break the cycle of poverty, and yet I have heard parents who say they would not want their children to study in the same class or even in the same school with Roma children. Some say that there are not that many people with disabilities in Bulgaria compared to other countries, but the truth is that there is simply no infrastructure that enables people with disabilities to go outside — on the sidewalk, in school, at work, even go out to a bar. There is this ostrich-like burial of the head in the sand: if I do not see them, then they must not exist. Parents of children with disabilities had to start protesting to receive media and public attention (although attention from the institutions is yet to be seen).

I hope that literature is able to shake this up, to move the layers, to bring the invisible people out of the cocoon where we’ve placed them, without unnecessary pathos. I want to believe that reading the stories – as a way of looking those Others straight in the eyes – could help overcome this irrational fear that is at the root.

There are other things besides fear, of course. There seems to be an absence from the world we live in – media, including social media, fictionalize the problems, make them somewhat distant from us (or us – from the problems outside of our daily life), as if everything happens only on the screen. Literature, although it is fiction in itself, paradoxically brings those invisible people closer to the readers – just by telling their stories.

MB: How does the media story about the marginalized characters in your book differ from the literary story about them?

ND: The media narration reflects statistically and publicistically the stories of the invisible as a specific fragment of the here and now. Without making it sound too general, there are media that show personal stories as a way to humanise the news, and are somewhat close to the literary narrative, but there are also many that infuse their news and features with fear of those who might be seen as different. Even thinking of the language used by (not only Bulgarian, but also international) media in connection to Syrian refugees would give us a context: they are streaming across the border, flooding Europe with their otherness. Their faces are washed out of their personal stories and there is no room left for empathy.

MB: The characters in your book usually combine several discriminatory factors: do you think one trauma could be a magnet for another?

ND: You could look at things that way, i.e. one trauma that attracts others. Social problems, I mean those that create the invisible sub-community, are never flat and one-dimensional; instead, they are multi-layered and each layer is a prerequisite for the next one. The fact that a large percentage of the abandoned children in the Homes are Roma or disabled would not be a problem in itself if it did not overlap with others: discriminatory thinking and the reluctance of potential parents to adopt these children, as well as the lack of financial support or alternative social services for parents to be able to raise these children. So, things are deeply connected indeed, and at the base is our thinking, our attitude towards others.

MB: I find your novel’s poignantly equal tone and your refusal to balm the brutal personal stories with rhetorical ornamental ointments fascinating; it’s one of its biggest achievements. Where does your conclusion about the social crisis of our world end, and where does your own interpretation – and criticism – start?

ND: In literature, as well as in life at all, everything we say or write is our own interpretation. As people with our own subjective minds and with all our cultural accumulations, it is difficult to be objective. Our previous experience would naturally remind of itself like a broken bone in the past, and would twist things through its prism. But I do not want to think that “Invisible” sounds too critical or edgy. I would be pleased if it provoked discussion and shifted the layers of obsolete thinking, or thinking without thinking even.

MB: What would be the reaction of the invisible people, if they read your testimonies for their existence?

ND: Living in the periphery, in the margins of society marks them all, leaves a scar. So they will probably recognise themselves by that mark. And perhaps they will be pleased that in the book they are presented as real and multi-dimensional characters: they way they are indeed. However, “Invisible” is aimed at the other part of society. Because anyone can fall into a state of invisibility at some point in their life; it’s good to keep that in mind.

MB: If we focus on the problem of abandoned children, what are the prerequisites for the crisis and even the catastrophic aftermath of the modern parenthood?

ND: I think we have lost sensitivity to the reasons for these children to be abandoned in the first place. We look at the situation on the surface only. But the problems are much deeper. Years ago, although this might still be relevant today, there was a shame of being a single parent, or to be a parent of a child with physical or mental disability.

There was also fear – how would one manage financially. In maternity wards, women were encouraged, almost persuaded to leave their disabled children to Homes instead of being supported to look after them. The lack of support, as well as the stigma of a child born with a “defect”, made this decision of the mother rational, however emotionally intolerable. In fact, the defect is elsewhere – in our attitude, in archaic thinking, in the lack of financial support and alternative social care for these children and their families in order to prevent their institutionalization.

If we are talking about a crisis in modern parenthood at large, this crisis is very much connected with many others – with the crisis of audibility, for example; the talking, constant buzzing, without listening. Our dependence on having someone else around to entertain us, something else to fill our time.

Let’s look as the demand for shortcuts, quick fixes always and in everything, including raising our children. The time children spend with their parents often comes down to watching TV together or staring into the phone screen. However, this togetherness and seemingly close connection in fact disconnects and alienates – both children and parents, and people in general.

MB: Where do you see, if you see at all, a spring of hope for the Bulgarian society?

ND: In the book I make a reference to the Amnesty International experiment in Poland, where people from different cities and refugees look at each other’s eyes for four minutes. According to the experiment, this is the time that it takes to accept the other person. For me, the spring of hope is perhaps in our ability to slow down for a moment, so we can hear each other. That audibility I mentioned above. The honest look in the eyes of those who seem different to us at a first glance, the desire to hear their stories. And, of course, to accept them.

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