By Nataliya Deleva
139 pp. Open Letter Books. $14.
This is painful, endlessly bleak stuff, so much so that turning the pages felt at times like engaging in a bit of literary masochism. At 139 pages, it is mercifully short, even if it often doesn’t feel that way when you’re reading.
Now, I know what you’re thinking — some recommendation, right? That’s just the thing — this is actually really good, and very nicely written (and, credit where credit’s due, wonderfully translated by Izidora Angel). As a result, while you don’t want to be immersed in this deeply disturbing world of child abuse and criminal neglect (of every imaginable variety, parental and governmental most particularly), you’re helpless to resist the pull of the writing.
You don’t have to have spent time in one to know that orphanages in formerly communist Eastern Europe are, by and large, dreadful places, something that seems to have only worsened since the fall of the USSR. Reading “Four Minutes” heightens that awareness by placing you directly in a Bulgarian orphanage.
Based on this, there sound like few worse places to be — especially for a child.
Much of the book revolves around the attempt of our protagonist, Leah, a gay woman who grew up an orphan herself, to adopt (“save” might be a better word) a young girl. Because of her sexuality, she’s repeatedly denied.
This plotline is very reminiscent of Elton John’s attempt to adopt an HIV-positive Ukrainian boy, Lev, from a Ukrainian orphanage back in 2009. Like our protagonist here, Elton John and his partner were denied their request to adopt the boy by Ukrainian officials, something so disgustingly ludicrous it appropriately earned the ire of much of the civilized world.
This book is divided into dozens of sections, each of which is designed to be read in four minutes. This is, according to my paperback edition, “a nod to a social experiment that put forth the hypothesis that it only takes four minutes of looking someone in the eye and listening to them in order to accept and empathize with them.”
Mission accomplished. But part of me wishes I was capable of a little less empathy, as most of these sections make for a very difficult four minutes.
This is the most recent selection of my subscription with Open Letter Books. I am extremely grateful for their work, and encourage you to check it out, as this independent publisher does a great job of selecting fascinating translated literature from around the world.
My first experience with Bulgarian fiction was also an Open Letter selection. That book, “The Physics of Sorrow” by Georgi Gospodinov, remains one of my favorite novels. Gospodinov apparently served as a mentor to the author of “Four Minutes,” Nataliya Deleva, which tells you something about this book’s quality.
Highly recommended. Just don’t read it if you’re already in a bad place. Or, actually, do … maybe it’ll put things in perspective for you.