site.btaTeodora Dimova in BTA Interview: It Is Important for Our Society Now to Have Consensus and Unification for a National Goal - wrap-up
Bulgarian novelist, playwright and essayist Theodora Dimova won the French Fragonard Award for foreign literature for her novel The Defeated. The novel was published in France in early 2022 by the Syrtes publishers. It was translated from Bulgarian by Marie Vrinat.
The award ceremony took place on Thursday.
"The Defeated is a portrait of the Bulgarian intellectual elite crushed by terror. But it is also a portrait of a society in which tragedy is long kept silent to the point of becoming a painful secret. Without any pathos, Theodora Dimova achieves pure emotion and true empathy. Her subtle and direct style, as well as the sobriety of her writing, make this an evocation full of humanity," the Syrtes publishers write of the novel.
The Fragonard Award goes with a prize of 5,000 euro for the author and 2,000 euro for the translator. It was awarded by a jury including writer and translator Jakuta Alikavazovic, Elise Boghossian, founder of the NGO Elise Care, bookseller Danielle Cillien Sabatier, Goncourt-winning author Mathias Enard, actress Anna Mouglalis and Agnès Costa of Perfumerie Fragonard.
"When I started writing The Defeated back in 2016 I wrote in the course of almost four years," Dimova said in a BTA interview. "I thought that this was a book about memory, about the first months of terror after the installation of the totalitarian regime in Bulgaria. I had never suspected that the book could acquire such a chilling, sad and frightening topical relevance. I have never imagined that the scenes I describe after 1944 could be literally repeated, on the same scale, 77 years later, 300 km away from us. Such a case of history repeating itself, historical destiny and literature repeating themselves, is sometimes so mystical and so frightening. It is as if The Defeated turned out to be a novel not about memory but a premonition about what lies ahead. But this is the mystical side of being involved in fiction."
Dimova also said that after February 24, when the Ukraine started, she was nearly unable to write as she was trying to come to grips with what was happening.
Totalitarianism seemed to have disappeared but it remained deep in people's souls, in their reactions and attitude to the world, to other people, in the hatred for them - and that is the longest-lasting aftermath of the totalitarian period. It changes its dresscode and rhetoric but it lingered, Dimova said.
She believes that it is important for our society now to have unification and a consensus on a national goal. "The same as back in 1989, in 1997, when we had such common consensus, such a common goal. That's why I think that the role of fiction and art here acquire particular significance. We should speak with each other not with hatred, not with the feeling that we stand divided, that we are furious with the other person, as it often happens now. Just the opposite – that we are fellow Bulgarians, that we share the same fatherland, that we are headed to the same goal."
Following is the full text of the interview.
Question: Ms Dimova, what are awards for you?
Answer: Awards are a much enjoyable event but regretfully, of short duration. The joy from receiving an award lasts but a few days and then the customary writer's work returns. In fact, I can say that the genuine joy for a writer is exactly this work which is hard labour, sometimes very painful, very draining and exhausting, but the real success is when a book is written. Of course, the book needs to be appreciated by the audience and reach its readers. And in that sense, awards are a pathway for the book to reach readers more easily. And this is what makes awards a joyous occasion.
Q: Who are The Defeated and what is it that defeats – something extraneous that is independent of us or something inside us?
A: The defeated are we all who were born and who grew up in the totalitarian rule. I think that every single person from those generations and also from the following ones bears the stigmata of that time, in one way or another, consciously or unconsciously. Sometimes, and this happens often, we do not realize it that totalitarianism has seemingly disappeared but it is hidden very deep inside us, in our souls. It has remained in our reactions, in our attitude to the world, in our attitude to the other person, in our hatred, malice, envy, in our disregard for people. And this is the most lasting and insidious consequence of the totalitarian regime - totalitarianism changes its dress code, it changes its 'Newspeak' but in essence it remains the same. And we see this today with sad clarity, we see it in Ukraine, the threat the country is faced with.
Q: How should we, and can we react to aggression, to evil?
A: We can react but this takes strength of spirit and strength of soul. Not to respond to evil with evil, to hatred with hatred. To follow what the Christian mindset dictates and fight evil with good. And this is very difficult when we see on the TV screen or on the screen of the computer what is taking place in Ukraine. But the good is to defend one's country, motherland, fatherland, which has been attacked by the aggressor. In this case this is the good that must prevail, which we all hope to prevail. When I started writing The Defeated back in 2016 I wrote in the course of almost four years. I thought that this was a book about memory, about the first months of terror after the installation of the totalitarian regime in Bulgaria. I had never suspected that the book could acquire such a chilling, sad and frightening topical relevance. I have never imagined that the scenes I describe after 1944 could be literally repeated, on the same scale, 77 years later, 300 km away from us. Such a case of history repeating itself, historical destiny and literature repeating themselves, is sometimes so mystical and so frightening. It is as if The Defeated turned out to be a novel not about memory but a premonition about what lies ahead. But this is the mystical side of being involved in fiction.
Q: Many of your recent essays are dedicated to the war in Ukraine. You say that “the rift of civilization makes its civilized resolution impossible." Is war inevitable in such case?
A: It seems inevitable. Although every one of us should make an effort to reach out to the other. This is the meaning of fiction and of art, to bind together. War is inevitable in the sense that it is the ultimate expression of the Fall. After the killing of Abel, wars have been waged all the time in the world. But both the Fall and war have always divided people, split them, torn them to pieces. In the Bulgarian language the word “healing” derives from wholeness, from whole. To be healed, to be healthy means to become one whole – to have these separate pieces of me come together. This what fiction should be doing - building bridges, reaching out. Literature and art. Of course, here we reach the main point – if literature cannot avert war, what is the point of literature then? And for myself, these three months since the war in Ukraine began gave an answer that the point of literature is precisely this: to heal the wounds received from the sin.
Q: In a recent interview you said that “we live in two Bulgarias, we speak totally different languages,” again concerning the war in Ukraine. My question is when are differing opinions a mark of democracy and when – what you mentioned earlier: healing, the absence of wholeness?
A: Differing opinions are a mark of democracy when they are not instilled by someone's propaganda. When they are an expression of one's own reflection, of honest reflection, an expression of one's conscience. When such opinions are an expression of the talking points of a given propaganda - we see that the Russian propaganda has been operating here for years now and has found fertile soil to do so - this it is not an expression of a personal opinion, it is an expression of a hybrid war that has been tacitly and very successfully waged on our territory for at least ten years. The goal of this hybrid war is to divide society, to destabilize it, to make the system of statehood unstable with ever-changing governments, to go from one election to another, and thereby undermine the foundations of statehood itself. And probably the next goal is to turn this country an easy prey for the Russian aggression. This is my pessimistic view.
Q: Do you think we can preserve our values and at the same time, fight off hybrid attacks?
A: We should have such powers as well. But the unification of our society at this moment is very important. To have consensus on a national goal. The same as back in 1989, in 1997, when we had such common consensus, such a common goal. That's why I think that the role of fiction and art here acquire particular significance. We should speak with each other not with hatred, not with the feeling that we stand divided, that we are furious with the other person, as it often happens now. Just the opposite – that we are fellow Bulgarians, that we share the same fatherland, that we are headed to the same goal.
Q: The idea for The Defeated appeared on a chilly February day. The beginning of the novel again is on an icy February day. The book ends with a magnificent autumn and a lot of light. Is this an optimistic metaphor?
A: The autumn you refer to, it is truly at the end of the book, and precedes the death of one of the main characters, Raina, who has already lost her memory but following the complex roads of blood, her granddaughter Alexandra has managed to complete the jigsaw puzzle of the family history. Because – do you know something I came across – the people who suffered from the terror in 1944 kept their suffering secret from their descendants, from their grandchildren, great-grandchildren, even their children. It was not until after 1989 that everyone learned about the suffering of their ancestors. Until then, these people seemed to want to protect their children and grandchildren from the pain. They wanted to prepare them in an easy way to adjust to the totalitarian system, to accept it. To spare them the internal division whether they are right or wrong. They just wanted to help their children. Although I do not approve of such behavior, in this sense Raina is a typical case of a person who suffered from the terror after the September 9 coup. She kept secret what she experienced. Alexandra - because children always have antennas that are very sensitive - they sense the lie, they sense the secret and somehow manage to penetrate and reach the truth. And so piece by piece Alexandra put together the family history, the family history of her grandmother. When her grandmother lost her memory, Alexandra learned the family history and carried it on her shoulders. The autumn heralds the light that they both hope will surround Raina, the main character.
Q: And what are you working on now?
A: My work in progress is about the present, about how we survived the pandemic. The book is not finished yet but the war in Ukraine happened and after February 24 I am almost unable to work, to concentrate. I am trying to make sense of what's going on. It seems to me that my new book will be about this war, not so much about the pandemic.