Rumjana Zacharieva’s “Bearskin” Grappling with One’s Own Past

The bears won’t let go of Rumjana Zacharieva Bernd Zabel
The bears won’t let go of Rumjana Zacharieva | Photo: Stefan Rutzmoser
Photo: private

Who can tell a story about growing a bearskin of their own? Rumjana Zacharieva can! The German-writing author of Bulgarian origin knows her way around bears. By Bernd Zabel

Even as a child, Zacharieva was tracking the bears in the mountains of the Balkan. They haven’t let go of her since. Zacharieva’s development is a complicated story, difficult to understand from a modern viewpoint, and actually a Bulgarian version of The Drama of the Gifted Child (Alice Miller). As a teenager, her poetry attracts attention. While most literati are singing the Party’s praises, the schoolgirl floors them with fresh imagery and new tones. Impressions from nature alternate with insightful love poetry. She is permitted to take a leave from school – the only English-speaking school in Bulgaria – to accept an invitation to the academy.

The demands and expectations of the outside world increase unremittingly and threaten to overwhelm her. She slips into a bearskin that grows ever thicker. She puts herself at risk, suffers abuse, falls ill and seems destined to fail miserably. Then an opportunity for a journey abroad arises.

She finds her way to Germany. Here, she marries, has children and many years later dares to come to terms with her own past. In German, she is able to pour out what happened on paper. Not as a simple biography, but in an eclectic style of dream sequences, lyrical elements and idiomatic phrases that the German language enriches with a new nuance.

The reader, quite incidentally and very personally, also experiences recent Bulgarian history on a journey that leads back to Bulgaria, to the settings of the early years, the city of Ruse on the Danube and the mountains of the Stara Planina. Not until then does the bearskin slowly disintegrate. To reveal whom? Read for yourself: Rumjana Zacharieva, Bärenfell. Verlag Horlemann, Berlin 1999.

Bernd Zabel was born in 1950 and grew up in the Pied Piper’s town of Hameln. His pathway from Schiller Gymnasium to the Goethe-Institut led via universities in Tübingen, Heidelberg and Berlin. The literary scholar received his doctorate in 1978 with a dissertation on the first novels written after 1945. He has worked for the Goethe-Institut since 1981 in places such as Brazil, Japan, Serbia, Sweden and, for four years now, in the head office in the Literature and Translation Promotion Division. The location of the Goethe-Institut’s head office in Munich is quite convenient since in his free time, Zabel is mostly drawn to the mountains, preferably those in Tyrol and Bavaria, and on, by and into the Upper Bavarian lakes.