Vladimir Zarev: A good book makes our life more beautiful

I have understood with both my heart and mind how hopelessly frail human civilisation is, how vulnerable and endangered human beings are

To get immersed in an alien world and make friends with it, to experience the deep emotions, suffering, the hopes and dreams of other people, to become absorbed by the beauty and greatness of the Word, is a spiritual adventure and delight for the soul which at least to a certain extent saves us from this compulsory isolation and the surging fears, says writer Vladimir Zarev in an interview to Monitor.

Mr Zarev, your latest novel was published last year. It is titled The Monster and explores the unavoidable traps of old age. If you had to set about writing a book under this title today, what would you describe in it?

There are so many monsters in the modern world that it wouldn't be difficult for me to choose one among them. Of course, there are some smaller, almost nice little monsters, but one emerged recently that will most probably alter humanity. I have long been tormented by a suspicion, which I have publicly mentioned, that the human mind is like cancer in Nature. That in its uncontrolled and devastating evolution it metastasizes like cancerous cells, changes and eventually destroys the blessed environment - the world which created it. The liberal model has given rise not only to the global economy but is also successfully modelling a so-called “global human being”. These beings' national identities have to be erased, their intelligence has to be below average, they have to be professionals in their trade, that is to be skilled to perfection in something, and to have the most important quality - to consume, consume and again consume. The more the better. Money has been elevated to the position of greatest value. The model according to which success is the key to happiness, while success is measured only in money, has turned into a worldwide philosophy and - what is even worse - into the universal dream and way of life. However, happiness is something much more complicated and significant, happiness means to be healthy, to love and be loved, to live in harmony with yourself and the world, to enjoy elevated spiritual experiences. It is true that money is a key to freedom and power, huge money creates the delusion of unlimited freedom and power, but if you think better, money at the same time really bends one to submission, makes us constantly dependent and deprives us of freedom. To that I would like to add the wise words of Paul the Apostle: “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” Brazen materialism, despiritualisation, total vulgarisation, all-pervasive egoism and soullessness have acquired ugly dimensions. If mankind does not recognise this Monster, which has laid hold on the entire world, if it does not interpret it as a really fatal warning then very soon we will be in for disasters much more excruciating than this coronavirus.      

What storylines come to your mind from this surrealist situation with the pandemic, which “anchored” at home billions of people, “chained” to their TV sets and fridges? Would you write a catastrophe thriller or a dystopian novel?

What we associate with - through this treacherous virus which every day and every hour haunts even our dreams - is violence. The sense of violence. The unending violence over us, all due to amorphous, abstract angst, and later - to the fear of death. Moreover, it is the violence we feel due to lack of freedom, we are punished to communicate with ourselves day and night, with our good and pure selves but also with the disgusting and the evil within us. This is exhausting. We are encaged within repetition, tautology and compulsory isolation, and even if the cage is made of gold this unending isolation virtually ruins our psyche. The recent months strangely remind me of 1984, the novel by George Orwell. This book in a genius way describes the basic mechanisms of violence, the crushing violence as a false attempt to attain equality and universal happiness. The destructive and all-pervasive pandemic has brutally thrusted upon us the equality, which in real life is a form of mediocrity. It is the last equality that is hovering over us, because only death makes us all really equal. The poor die, same as the rich, the unhappy - same as the happy. Facing this menace, this invisible virus, we are boringly equal.  

What are your fears now - the purely mundane ones or the existential?

My everyday fears - I would rather call them inconveniences - and my existential ones are interwoven, they evolve into a general escalating fear that it may never end, that this virus, for which there is no cure or vaccine, will hit us again and again.

Artists are among those who were hit by this crisis first and worst. How will it affect authors and publishers in particular? Have you already sensed its aftermath?

It's horrible that bookstores have been closed for such a long time, the losses incurred to all publishing houses and chains of bookstores are huge, writers suffered painful losses as well. Because their books are not read, they do not carry their spiritual message, do not leave an imprint on the nation's memory and the writers, similar to others, were left without earnings.

Is there any panacea that will help us preserve our mental health during this trying period when we are deprived of live communication, cannot practice our routine exercises and sometimes cannot even work to earn our crust?

It would be hard to find universal panacea that would save us from fear and isolation. It seems that the cure will be different for different people. As for me, whenever I felt disparaged or unhappy, when I felt depressed, confused, smashed by the circumstances, when I had to live through violence caused by lack of freedom, I would turn to literature. A real good book makes life more interesting and meaningful, more beautiful and in a way never-ending. To get immersed in an alien world and make friends with it, to experience the deep emotions, feel the suffering, the hopes and dreams of other people, to become absorbed by the beauty and greatness of the Word, is a spiritual adventure and delight for the soul, which at least to a certain extent saves us from this compulsory isolation and the surging fears.

The world and our way of life have changed over a span of several weeks, and it is highly likely that they will go on changing. In your opinion, what are the lessons that mankind will have to learn from the challenge that was sent to us (accidentally or not)?

We must simply create new moral values, restore morals, enhance our individual responsibility, realise that we are living together, and also revive spirituality and make our life more beautiful, more real and - what is most important - more just.  

Have you had any personal insights?

Just like all sensitive and intelligent people, I have understood with both my heart and mind how hopelessly frail human civilisation is, how vulnerable and endangered human beings and their very existence are.

How would you picture life and art, or life in art, after the crisis? In your opinion, what has undergone more significant transformations - being or consciousness?

I see it as an open wound that will be bleeding for a long time, it will heal slowly. This is an open wound in our material world and in our souls, as well as in the spiritual being of all of us. I hope we all get back to normalcy as soon as possible, and that the Bulgarian and the global economy survive and save us all from the horrors of starvation. However, no matter how long this monstrous trial will last, neither Being nor Consciousness will be the same. And, first and foremost, I hope that politicians, nations and all human beings grow wiser, feel the healing power of repentance, become humble and make peace with it.

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Vladimir Zarev was born on 5 October 1947 in Sofia. He is the author of the novels The Being, The Exit, The Law, Priest Bogomil and the Perfection of Fear, Annum Dei 1850, Worlds, Decay, The Monster, etc. - most of them translated in many languages. German literary critics call Vladimir Zarev the Bulgarian Balzac. He is the laureate of many awards and distinctions. 

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