Zarev, Vladimir

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Vladimir Zarev, born in 1947, is Bulgaria’s leading contemporary writer of fiction. His literary works span four decades and a variety of genres. However, he is known in his native country as a novelist. His novel The Day of Impatience (1975) was translated into Russian, Ukrainian, and Turkish. The first book of his trilogy GenesisGenesis (1978 and 2007, revised version); The Exit (1983 and 2010, revised version); and The Choice, (1985, revised version published in 2011 as The Laws)—appeared in March 2009 in a German translation, Familienbrand, published by the Vienna-based subsidiary of the Carl Hanser Verlag in Munich, Zsolnay Verlag & Deuticke. The Exit is currently in print by the same publisher. Ruin (2003) was published in 2007 in German as Verfall, by Kiepenheuer & Witsch, K?ln. The Hound (1987) and The Hound Versus the Hound (1990) were translated into Russian. Other novels by Zarev are: Annum Dei 1850 (1988), Father Bogomil and the Perfection of Fear (1995 and 2005), and Worlds (2006).

Vladimir Zarev is the heir of an intelligentsia family with long literary traditions. His father was a prominent man of letters, a professor of Bulgarian literature at Sofia University. Zarev himself graduated in Bulgarian literature from Sofia University and, since 1974, has held the same job: he started as an associate editor of Savremennik (“Contemporary”), the most prestigious literary magazine in Bulgaria, and after 1989, he became, and currently is, its editor-in-chief. Savremennik has published and commented on the most interesting texts, phenomena, and events in Western European and American literature. After 1989, the magazine sustained its role as a literary guide for the intelligentsia and the artistic classes in the country.

Zarev lives in Sofia with his second wife, the poet Mirela Ivanova, and their daughter.


Synopsis of the novel Worlds by Vladimir Zarev

Sofia: Five Plus, 2006

Worlds is a novel about an American businessman and a Bulgarian woman from the intellectual class who cross paths in Bulgaria. Her world and his world turn out to be different beyond belief, to the point of clashing; yet, she and he discover that love, morality, and decency are the common ground on which they can make an attempt to find happiness. The plot is organized into four parts with no chapters.

The first part is about Samuel Greenberg, an American-born Jew, and his life in America until he decides to come on a mission to Bulgaria. Samuel is a smart, erudite, and emotionally gifted overachiever. His brother is a world-famous rock star, and this seems to have shaped Samuel’s goals in life: he is on a relentless mission to measure himself not so much against his brother’s fame as his brother’s achievements. In the late 1950s, long before the computer revolution, while serving in the Navy Samuel is struck with the idea that the huge and clumsy calculating machines of that time could be hooked to telecommunications in a global network. Fixated on this grand dream-idea, he resigns from the Navy and works consecutively at Univan, IBM, and A&GC [American & Global Communications, a fictional name] before landing on Wall Street as a broker with E. F. Hutton. Samuel quits these prestigious companies at will: they all want him as an outstanding engineer, but none trusts his idea of an Inter-World enough to invest in it. Samuel’s wife, Doris, born to a Jewish mother and an Irish father, is a self-made abstract painter, who misses no opportunity to ridicule Samuel’s Jewish origin. They are childless, sunk in a love-hate relationship. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 finds Samuel in the midst of a painful divorce. Out of the blue, his former bosses from A&GC offer him an astronomical sum of money to set up his global electronic system in a former Warsaw Pact country of his choice. Samuel chooses Bulgaria. It is geo-strategically well-located and the only former communist state that has developed advanced computer technologies. On top of everything, George Savov, the boyfriend of Samuel’s New York cousin, happens to be a second-generation Bulgarian immigrant to America who is now moving in Bulgaria’s high society as an adviser to the country’s prime minister.

The second part is about Diana Popova’s life in post-communist Bulgaria. Diana, a gorgeous, extraordinarily intelligent 40-year-old, teaches English and American literature at Sofia University. She is currently divorced from her husband of 18 years, one of the most famous Bulgarian actors, who, fearful of the ongoing political and social changes in Bulgaria, is drinking himself to oblivion. Their daughter is a high-school senior who takes drugs and has made a suicide attempt. Diana suddenly sees the reality of her life as a single, middle-aged woman, still attractive and full of energy, but poverty-stricken and helpless. She is torn between her scholarly work on Carl Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious, so well-fitted to explaining the Bulgarian character, and worries about her daughter and herself, and she is unable to discern the contours of past and future in a country shrouded in mistiness.

In the third part, Samuel and Diana run into each other, inevitably. He, a rich and enterprising American, arrives as a missionary and a savior who is nevertheless ignorant about her and the other eight million Bulgarians who face the brutal winter amidst a fuel shortage and rationed electricity, with no blueprint for the future. He meets people who, in defiance of all his made-up theories, struggle for survival and are surprisingly magnificent but painfully unpredictable, just like life itself. Former and present secret services—invisible yet still omniscient—have caught these people in their dark mesh. Diana is one of them, and she is assigned as his interpreter. She gets involved in his dealings with the arrogant George Savov, who arranges for Samuel to meet with the PM and the president and to ask for their support for his project, though in reality he is working covertly to sabotage it if Samuel refuses his demand for a bribe. As honest and na?ve about Bulgaria’s corrupt political climate as any Westerner on a mission could be, Samuel is slow to find his feet in the local game and is bound to lose. However, the ambiguous spirit of the country works fast to soak up his soul. He is able to keep his senses open to all the astounding, comical, and absurd life situations that he encounters. Led by the curiosity of an inquisitive mind, he has the courage to let this world close in on him, and even endanger his life. Just on the verge of comprehending it and increasingly attracted to his irresistible interpreter, Samuel is half-kidnapped by a nouveau riche thug who takes him to a God-forsaken high-mountain monastery where, under duress, he is offered a deal: to set up his Inter World by investing in a private enterprise, thus, keeping 10% of the start-up money for himself. The scenes in the monastery are a brutal embodiment of the quintessential Balkan mystery of action and character that have bewildered Samuel since he set foot in this land. Cutting into the knot of this mystery, the story shows Diana and Samuel managing to get away from the deal and, in a superbly crafted sexual scene, discovering how fatally attracted to one another they are. Samuel’s project’s failure is vindicated by his unforeseen find: the love of a Bulgarian woman who bears all the traits of a Western intellectual yet deep under the social luster is as unpredictable and ambiguous as the vague PM and non-committal president. Unlike his own wealthy, orderly, iron rule-abiding yet unexciting world, Diana’s is a world of misery, disorder, flukes, and improvisation. But it is a remarkably vital and exciting one. These two worlds at once attract and repel one another; they need each other as much as they deny each other.

In the fourth part, Samuel removes himself from Bulgaria but cannot remove his love for Diana from his heart. He departs from Bulgaria turned down by Diana, and convinced—by her, again—of the futility of his Inter World project, a killer of the collective unconscious. Yet in a sublime twist of events two months later, following his brother’s advice, Samuel takes the plane to Sofia on the day Diana takes off to New York with a plane ticket bought by her daughter. They pass each other at an altitude of 30,000 feet over the Atlantic, wanting and destined to meet.

Vladimir Zarev is both an intuitive and very experienced narrator, with a stunning sense of the energy of words. His Bulgarian is captivating and matches the breathtaking power of his story line. Or, it can be put in reverse: the breathtaking power of Zarev’s story line springs from his vocabulary’s energy. By far Zarev’s most cosmopolitan work—his 16th novel—Worlds demonstrates the ability of a great writer to capture a culturally distant environment, such as business life in Manhattan, on par with his own. The audacity of the author to choose an American as his main character, and to portray him equally well as if an American writer had done it, will no doubt help in the market success of his novel in America. And here is the challenge: if this long overdue first translation of a novel by a master of fiction who writes in a language rarely heard in America found its American readership, this might become the cornerstone of a publishing project promising to deliver previously published and still unpublished Zarev’s works to the American book market.

Note: Samuel’s character is based on the true story of Jules Garfunkel, the late brother of the famous American pop singer Art Garfunkel. Jules went to Bulgaria in 1992, in a year or so lost his fight with the evasive Bulgarian authorities, met a beautiful Bulgarian woman, married her, and set out to build a new life in this Balkan country. Sadly, in 2004, he was afflicted with cancer, and, after a desperate battle with the disease, died in September 2006. In accordance with his will, the family buried Mr. Garfunkel in Bulgaria.

Synopsis by Zlatko Anguelov and Elizabeth Frank, March 2009

Revised September, 2010



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