Set in post-communist Bulgaria, Four Minutes by Nataliya Deleva (translated by Izidora Angel), tells the story of a young woman named Leah who suffers the legacy of a traumatic upbringing. Placed in a state institution for unwanted children as an infant, and with no knowledge of why this happened to her, she has spent her life longing for a loving home and family. Since being ejected from the care system when she reached the age of eighteen, she has gradually made a life for herself. Nevertheless, scars remain.
Interspersed with Leah’s recollections are nine short stories about other ‘frequently ignored voices’. Each of these is structured to be read in four minutes, the length of time studies have shown it takes to accept and empathise with a stranger. Some portray events that are as shocking as Leah’s own childhood experiences. All are heart-rending although never mined for schmaltz. The power of the writing is in how matter of fact the accounts are presented to be – horrific behaviours accepted as to be expected by all who could wield their powers to effect change.
Life in the children’s home is brutal. Hunger and beatings – from both Matrons and the other children – are lived with daily. Leah learned young that she was all but invisible. Few outside cared about the unwanted, often blaming them for their predicaments given unruly behaviours. Reasons for this were rarely questioned. When donations were occasionally sent in by the more charitable, they did not reach the intended recipients.
“One Christmas, a big box of donations arrived for us at the Home. Clothes, toys, sweets. We were elated, and jumped up and down for two hours. Sure enough, the Matrons ransacked everything. They kept the nicer clothes for their own kids or to give away as Christmas presents to relatives, and what remained they sold to the sales women at the department store, reaffirming that enduring, two-way relationship. Those same saleswomen then sold everything off-register for a percentage of the profit – even the youngest of us at the Home knew this.”
As the girls grew towards their teens, they became the prey of older boys who would break into their sleeping quarters nightly and rape them. If the only Matron on duty heard the screams she ignored them.
“I will forever associate the smell of semen with those painfully importunate, feral attempts by the boys in the Home to reach their sacred orgasm while I writhed in hell.”
Salim is one of the nine additional stories. It tells of a ‘not yet seven’ year old boy required to earn money for his family as a pickpocket.
“For his fifth birthday, his parents cut off his right thumb”
“Salim’s lucky. They cut off his older brother’s leg at the knee and now he begs”
Salim is proud to have a ‘trade’. When his mother is taken to hospital with failing kidneys, he determines to acquire for her replacements.
Elina is another deeply shocking vignette. The abuse suffered by the titular young girl is sadly commonplace throughout the world. What is it about some men that drives them to act in this way?
Kaloyan takes the reader down a different route, one of consensual sexual pleasure that nevertheless raises underlying questions.
Each of these short stories shines a light on the lived experience of those the mainstream often frowns upon, preferring not to be made to think too deeply about the hows and whys of their plights. Overheard conversations relay how the troubled are judged superficially by those who live comfortably.
Getting back to Leah, her tale takes us to a time when she wishes to adopt a child from an institution, just as she had longed to be adopted by the potential mothers who occasionally visited. She discovers the prejudices that lie hidden behind rules described as safeguarding the children, ironic given Leah’s personal suffering within the system.
“As I said, you live alone. I don’t want to comment on whom you choose to see, namely other women, but I can tell you that this is not a healthy environment for a young, vulnerable child. Or any child for that matter … It’s the rules, I’m sorry.”
It is not just a child Leah wishes to help. She also offers practical assistance from time to time to the hungry and homeless, recognising herself in them. These efforts are not always met with the gratitude those who try to be kind may expect.
Much is covered within this short book, written with uncompromising clarity that lays bare hard truths. Although asking the reader to consider issues, the author avoids polemic. A reminder that being humane is not about giving a few coins and forgetting. Looking away, because that is easier, makes us complicit.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Open Letter, via the author.