Review published on February 12, 2013.Reviewed by Richard W Jackson
[product sku=”9781908236050″]Virginia Zaharieva’s meditatively endearing ‘Nine Rabbits’ is the latest novel from Bulgaria’s thriving contemporary literary scene to be warmly received by an English-speaking audience. Originally published in 2008, it was unsurprising to learn that the book was a bestseller in her native land for that year. Accolades aplenty, praise has ranged from appreciation of the novel’s experimental language, to the critical assertion that ‘9 Rabbits’ ranks highly amongst the most important works of Bulgarian literature. A defiant read, opposing the ‘crisis’ tag that has been attached to modern literature in recent years (as Gilles Deleuze wrote, when imitators imitate one another), it demands the question: are these tributes deserved? In respect of the novel’s unique presentation and experimental narrative style, the answer has to be a ‘yes’.
Offering an epistolary driven snapshot of Zaharieva’s life, beginning with her scarred childhood by the Black Sea, before shifting to an almost prophetic mediation on adulthood and memory, ‘9 Rabbits’ is an eclectic part-novel, part-memoir (even part-cookbook) mixture of prose and poetry that muses on the author’s optimistic appreciation of life. Uplifting and thoughtful, it is nonetheless unafraid to reveal and positively challenge the tragic moments of human existence, which are often presented in an unexpected, starkly brutal, manner. Praise should therefore be given to Istros Books and translator Angela Rodel for bringing such a daring title to the English-language market. With so much vital European literature often ignored, many hidden continental gems are too frequently unearthed; no more so than Balkan fiction, the Danube-straddling corner of Europe that Istros happens to specialise in.
Beginning in 1960s communist Bulgaria, Virginia Zaharieva, or “Manda”, is a young girl living with her grandparents at the seaside town of Nesbar. Recalling familial memories – stretching from her oppressive Czecho-Bulgarian grandmother (punishments include being jabbed by a needle one moment, flogged with nettles another), to her absent mother, and the cheeky childhood tormenting of nuns – it is a lively account of a child living under the dual tyrannies of Soviet-influence and a pugnacious matriarchy. However, in keeping with the abiding sentiment of ‘9 Rabbits’, her youthful reflections are described through a constructive looking-glass. Good memories are recalled using an identifiable nostalgia, evoked through cooking smells, such as the ‘shimmering cauldrons’ of tomato soup from Nesbar’s convent, grandma’s Czech dishes, and even collecting the ingredients:
“One day, at the start of tomato time, Grandpa and I set off around noon in the dog buggy. We had two giant wolfhounds that he hitched up to a cart big enough for two people and a little luggage. The people of Nesbar had gotten used to my grandfather’s eccentricities, but that dog buggy made him famous throughout the whole region.… It was fun travelling by dog, to say nothing of how proud I was to sit next to Boris in that strange vehicle.”
Food and the pleasure of eating are prominent motifs within ‘9 Rabbits’. The text is littered with recipes. Delightfully, all twenty-nine “characters” – as Zaharieva deems them – appear in an accompanying second volume, free with each copy of the book. A charming idea, the recipes open a palpable dialogue between the author and reader, inviting everyone to try (the Eggs á la Arménien and Arse-End Potatoes are personal favourites). Labelling food as a ‘door to sensitivity and childhood’, Zaharieva writes: “The fuel we give our bodies is important so that we have more room for the soul, self-awareness, playing and creation. For me, cooking is a form of meditation.” Not one for imitating others, she uses the ingredients from her life to serve as the novel’s spiritual iconography, seemingly preferable to the icons of Bulgaria’s Orthodox Church, as well as the socialist-realism of the communist period.
A novel in two parts, the recipes also bind the disparate stories together, for beyond the classic narrative of Manda’s childhood lies her poetic adult story. Forty years on, we encounter her once more, on this occasion through a collection of disjointed, life “episodes”. Deliberately lacking a linear narrative (the stories are separated chronologically, thematically, even structurally), Part Two reads like a metafictional scrapbook, pieced together during a course of sympathetic introspective analysis (Virginia Zaharieva is a qualified psychotherapist after all). The change in writing style firmly readjusts and establishes ‘9 Rabbits’ in a contemporary setting, employing a sprightlier, exuberant poetic voice (descending occasionally into pure poetry). Here, Manda is an adoring mother, a dating divorcee, an esteemed academic, therapist, and journalist, though she still encompasses the same heightened sense of the world around her as she did as a child.
And as before, her struggles are universal: travails of work, womanhood, even her struggles with writing dominate: “My poems have stood silent for years, unheard, because I have no voice for my own things.” Indeed, one could argue that ‘9 Rabbits’ is an extravagant writing exercise, albeit one that performs above the author’s expectations of herself. Yet it would be a gross error to comment on the theory alone: the novel is also startlingly funny. As Manda moves from situation to situation, she often meets people with hilarious consequences, whether it is a pervy, toothless taxi driver – he stares at me and says: ‘Wow, just look at those breasts… Beg your pardon, but … can I look at ‘em for just a moment, after that I’ll turn around and keep my eyes on the road.’ – in a Moscow restaurant, or when she meets arrogant art-aficionados on film sets.
For a short volume, ‘9 Rabbits’ certainly covers a lot of ground. Adopting the teachings of Shunryu Suzuki of Zen Buddhism – eastern philosophies dominate Manda’s thoughts – it could be read as a guide to pursuing a fulfilled life. Which Manda is daring enough to achieve: Can I explain the juggling act of a woman who had the nerve to work with culture in a country, transitioning to capitalism, which has no particular need for art? If living is an art form, then it’s the obsessive struggle to capture this in literature that forms the spine of ‘9 Rabbits’. It’s the fact that Zaharieva succeeds that makes the read so special.
An extract from The Night Rainbow, by Claire King