Zara: Pages of a Diary by Evgeniya Dimitrova first showed up on my Facebook feed through one of those reading groups. It was dubbed the first Bulgarian psychological novel of the 20th century, which explores the coming of age struggles of a young middle class girl. More importantly, the author of the book is also a woman, something not so common in those days, whose writing focuses on the inner world of women and children. As mentioned in previous book reviews, traditionally the gradual shift from secondary to main characters for female and young characters in Bulgarian literary works started about 200 years ago. Consequently, we are fortunate to get a glimpse of what it was like to be a woman at the start of the 20th century in Bulgaria.
The Foreword is very telling of this as in an attempt to explain who this forgotten female author is, the editors end up describing the life of her male relatives because there is more information regarding their actions rather than hers.
Who is Zara?
Zara is a young woman from a rather well-off middle class family. She is constantly pondering the truth about the world, and people in particular. Most of her views and beliefs are shaped by her own hopes and dreams rather than being set in reality. So, it’s no wonder her diary is her constant companion.
In a time where one couldn’t directly speak one’s own mind and displaying oneself as the most courteous and virtuous human being was mandatory, having a diary helped many people channel their feelings and deal with them in their own time. Zara is no different. However, compared to her contemporaries, she is still not sure which path before her is the truthful one. Hence, her diary is filled with many confused feelings, failed romances and musings regarding her mission in life.
What is this truth Zara is searching for? It is not evident at first glance. The novel is written in the style of a diary, but the entries are grouped thematically in different parts rather than having narrative laid out in a chronological order. Right from the start I got the impression that Zara is a very indecisive young woman, who has been fortunate enough to have an education, the opportunity to meet interesting people and travel the world.
Her quest to the truth starts when she is about the age of 15 and has only but a few years to graduate from school and continue her studies in university. This is also the first time she experiences love and obsession over someone – Milev (Милев), an actor and a paying house guest. Zara desperately tries to be seen by Milev, even though he is old enough to be her father.
As you can imagine, her attempts to make him fall in love with her fail and she has a minor nervous breakdown. These events mark the start of a long string of failed romances, which leave Zara disappointed in people, in the idea of true love, as well as in the prospects of her becoming a famous author in a moral and honest way. What about the truth? Zara strives to find a genuine and pure connection with someone, preferably a love interest. However, she quickly discovers that if you know a person long enough, he or she is bound to reveal a darker side of themselves sooner or later.
On several occasions she stoops to the level of her contemporaries only to be engulfed by her desires and emotions, often making her question whether she is also as fake as the people around her.
Coming of Age and Expectations
Since Zara’s hopes and dreams shape her path in life, more often than not her choices are based on the person she’s in love with at the moment. That’s why when first asked what she wanted to pursue as a career in life, she exclaims: “I want to be an actress!”. Given that she’s raised in a predominantly patriarchal society, her father angrily refuses to support her decision and, as a punishment, sends her to a remote village, where she is stationed as an assistant teacher.
It’s safe to say I kind of expected her father’s reaction, but having read through the entire book I now tend to agree with his decision. He doesn’t want his daughter to stop aspiring to greater heights and is very encouraging of her writing endeavours. We also find out from Zara’s brother what is the fate of most actresses, and in some cases, female poets: there are two paths to fame – the honourable and dishonourable way. The first path to fame and recognition is by becoming the wife of a famous critic, thus having your work talked about by other people operating in the same field for the chance to have their work critiqued by the wife’s husband. The second path is by offering your body as a payment to famous critics, who will then write an excellent review of your work. Even if they haven’t the foggiest of what it is you do exactly.
Whilst working in the remote village, Zara has the time to gather her thoughts and think about what she really wants to do in her life. She also has the chance to see her colleagues are no better than people from the upper echelons of society. Her only solace is one of the village boys, Nedko (Недко), who is both full of admiration for her and infatuated by her. Zara doesn’t let Nedko stray away from being a good person and eventually helps him continue his studies.
I was a bit disappointed to not see Nedko’s friendship and love not considered as a genuine one when Zara reminisces about all of those who treated her fairly. Sure, he was many years her junior and couldn’t properly convey his feelings, but nothing untoward really happens between them.
Upon Zara’s return to the middle class society, she chooses to study linguistics and pursue writing poetry more seriously. However, she is once again stuck between her family’s wishes on what to do in life and her own hopes of finding someone genuine who reciprocates her love.
With the current resurgence in interest in life after the end of the Ottoman rule and pre-WWI, many old and forgotten gems are being dug up and republished again. Evgeniya Dimitrova’s Zara: Pages of a Diary is an interesting glimpse into middle class life of Bulgarians at the start of the 20th century.
The only reason why I give it only 3.5/5 stars is because of the way Zara is portrayed. She has a very nervous disposition and I understand from personal experience how one’s anxiety can tangle one’s seemingly unrelated thoughts into a very big ball of confusion. One can say Dimitrova did a good job in actually conveying this confusion, however, it also made for a difficult read as Zara was presented as a very capricious and childlike individual, even in her late 20s, constantly changing her moods.
This book was one of my picks for the year. I wanted to choose something a bit different, something lighter and shorter, and perhaps with a focus on the internal world of a person at a more peaceful time, as opposed to other titles we have looked at this year which cover different transitionary periods. I settled on Zara in particular, as it was in the format of a diary, written by a woman and with a female main protagonist. The time period of the novel also intrigued me – 1910s – the prime of tsar Ferdinand I, the last monarch of Bulgaria. In this sense, it is fair to say I got what I wanted from the book, and more.
Firstly, a few words about the author – Evgeniya Dimitrova. She wanted to be a poetess, but her poems never gained much popularity. Her short stories and novels did on the other hand – she was published in a variety of periodicals, many of which are now lost, so a definitive collection of her works is unlikely. Zara is one of the first novels to enter mainstream audiences, as Nelly has mentioned below, most female authors focus on children’s books and poetry; not only this but the focal point of the book is a young woman trying to find her place in life.
Secondly, I would like to mention the novel was first published without being edited – either because editing was not common practice at the time, or because it required additional funding. Either way, I was stunned by how well the text read. The modern publication we read has some “excessive” exclamation and question marks removed, but the overall text is left as in the original.
As I was reading the book, I often had the feeling Zara is a friend I’ve sat down for a coffee with and she’s sharing her love struggles with me – if only I could reply or give her some consolation and advice! Zara’s character is believable in a way many characters from more renowned authors are not – I could recognise parts of myself, friends and family members in Zara, in both her good and bad traits. In this sense I would like to make an important distinction – I liked Zara as a character (how she fit her own world, how fully developed she is as an individual), but I often found myself irritated by her as a person – and I think this speaks highly of Dimitrova’s storytelling skills.
I feel much the same way about the rest of the characters in the book – Zara’s family and acquaintances. I cannot bring myself to call them her friends, as Nelly explains in those times it was uncommon to show your true feelings and emotions, it was a time of chivalry and pretense. Instead, Zara shares freely in her diary and thus she makes a friend out of the reader.
An underlying notion in the novel is Zara’s search for the true self, for a genuine human connection with her peers or a lover. Her desire to be understood and to nurture forces her to go out of her shell time and again, to open up and make herself vulnerable to others, but she continuously fails to appreciate the quiet flame of a true love (upon which she stumbles twice), instead she ends up bedazzled by the flare of passion she finds in more experienced men who manipulate her for their own ends.
Both times Zara finds the genuine connection she desires, it ends in tragedy. The first time this is down to her naivety and poor judgement, but the second time had nothing to do with her actions, and I thought it was overdone and unnecessarily cruel of Dimitrova to twist the narrative in such a way.
I have to wonder how representative Zara is as a character for middle class young women of that generation – she has no internal drive to achieve anything, despite her good education, as a punishment by her father she ends up as an assistant teacher and later continues to teach around her studies, but that isn’t a passion regardless of how well she bonds with children. She is naïve, to put it mildly, but this naivety is shared by her younger cousin, as well as other young women with similar upbringing.
Zara’s solace is in poetry – after each breakup, her poetic skills are put to practice, and she even becomes popular without the support of a male patron. Her writing is encouraged by her family as it is seen as an appropriate pastime for someone of her status, but is never looked at as a career, as something Zara can support herself or a family.
The novel ends with Zara marrying someone outside her creative circle, who offers her seeming freedom and stability. By this point, Zara is disillusioned, more cynical and I think it is also fair to say she has given up hope on finding the “truth” she has previously searched for. In her diary she writes that marriage and children are the two primary goals for each woman, all else is secondary. Initially this statement infuriated me as this is not the moral I would derive from the story thus far, but later I realised this bold proclamation is not intended as a moral, but something which anyone who has surrendered their lust for life would write – Zara hasn’t cultivated a motivation, doesn’t have a calling, or anything else to lean upon; she believes it is too late for her to find the genuine human connection she has longed for, so settles for what she considers might be her next best chance at happiness – family life and motherhood.
The novel depicts a rotten highlife in Sofia at the start of the 20th century – full of favouritism, adultery, rivalry and deceit, where a quick shag gives you a good review for your acting, writing or singing skills. It is a man’s world – the critics are all men, they say what is a good and what is a bad performance, seemingly uninterested in whether the subject of the review has any real talent. How close this is to the reality of the time, I cannot say with certainty, but for a young girl full of ideals and potential it proves quite harsh.
Indeed, Zara has much potential, but to me it seemed like she had hardly any guidance or direction on which path to take. She ends up stumbling about, governed by her whims and emotions. Having thought about how to analyse the novel for a couple of weeks now, I come to realise Zara is a collective character for all those young girls aspiring to become the modern woman – strong, driven and respected, only to be batted down by the lack of emotional support and honesty from the people closest to them.
Overall, I enjoyed getting to know Zara and her struggles, the novel was a masterclass on character building, even if I have my disagreements with some narrative decisions.
Edition Published: 2019, First Published: 1914
Language book read in: Bulgarian