Even if, as G [the narrator] writes, “the classical narrative is an annulling of the possibilities that rain down on you from all sides,” Gospodinov reminds us that there are other ways to construct a story, and we are devising new blue prints all the time. — Geeda Searfoorce
B y interlacing Greek myth, autobiographical and ancestral stories, and reflections on growing up in Bulgaria during the latter part of the twentieth century, Georgi Gospodinov constructs The Physics of Sorrow, a novel of fragments that reads like a playful hybrid between a frenetic roman à clef and a collection of diary entries untethered by chronology. The book’s unifying image—the halfling Minotaur imprisoned in a labyrinth—underscores the protagonist’s struggle with acute melancholy and provokes the reader to consider how individuals struggle in the wake of larger political transformations. And its structure—replete with interruptions, digressions, visual imagery, and anecdotes—is necessarily labyrinthine in order to immerse the reader in its protagonist’s experience of attempting, through fits and starts, to simultaneously escape and return to his homeland and in the process rediscover himself.
One of Bulgaria’s most translated authors since the country’s shift to post-communism in 1989, Gospodinov has won critical acclaim for his work, which includes four poetry books, his first novel, Natural Novel (published in English by Dalkey Archive Press, 2005), a collection of stories titled And Other Stories (published in English by Northwestern University Press, 2007), two plays, several screenplays, and a graphic novel. His skill working between genres is evident from the beginning of The Physics of Sorrow, first published in 2011 and newly translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel, and several of the nine—yes, nine—epigraphs alert the reader to abandon any previously held preconceived notions of the constrictions of form.
What follows—in nine chapters bookended by eight prologues and eight epilogues—is a nonlinear recounting of various tales by a narrator, named Georgi Gospodinov (sometimes referred to as “G”). After embarking on an extensive period of travel to attempt to moderate his profound mid-life melancholy after his grandfather’s death, his father’s dementia, and his divorce, G returns for an extended visit to his boyhood hometown, staying in one of the many basement apartments his family inhabited during his youth as they worked toward a more solvent financial future which never materialized. He takes up residence in a “gloomy birthright of a basement,” wanders the town, encounters an old classmate, now working in a dilapidated “kitsch emporium” filled with tzotchkes that once enchanted G’s childhood imagination, and gazes at the “sullen, tired, and expressionless” people who are struggling in a Bulgaria that has been transformed during the last two decades of the twentieth century and at the dawn of the twenty-first.
G devotes himself to compiling his grandfather’s stories, along with the tangible records of his life thus far—myriad lists, newspaper clippings, a gasmask “filled with the exhausting fear of atomic and neutron bombs, of air raid sirens being tested,” an excerpt from a sex scene in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, a sharp retelling of Little Red Riding Hood in which old age is the wolf that devours the grandmother, and books with their “old socialist price tags”—and other memories and ephemera from his childhood and young adult life that would disappear if it were not for his doggedness. He wants to create a time capsule for posterity and fill it with everything and everyone he has ever known. The implication is that this time capsule will forestall annihilation, a fear that has plagued G from an early age.
“Some books need to be equipped with Ariadne’s thread,” G writes, referring to the tool Theseus used, in the Greek myth, to navigate his way through the labyrinth to kill the Minotaur and restore peace to Crete. Gospodinov offers a few strands to guide the reader through the labyrinth of his novel. The first thread is the notion of story itself—its vital importance in G’s life and its necessity throughout history. Even if, as G writes, “the classical narrative is an annulling of the possibilities that rain down on you from all sides,” Gospodinov reminds us that there are other ways to construct a story, and we are devising new blueprints all the time. Materials are forever being tested and retested and combined in new ways. Midway through the novel Gospodinov offers a primer for how the reader can enter it. In Chapter IV “Time Bomb (To Be Opened After the End of the World),” G writes:
Since other capsules depicted the world like a postcard—kind, pretty, dancing, endlessly inventing various trinkets—the capsule in my basement had to contain the signs and warnings, the unwritten stories, such as “The History of Boredom in the 1980s,” or “A Brief History of the Ephemeral,” or “An Introduction to the Provincial Sorrow of Late Socialism,” “A Catalogue of the Signs We Never Noticed,” “An Incomplete List of Fears During 2010,” or…my grandfather, the abandoned boy, the stories of all those coming of the void and going into the void, nameless, ephemeral, left out of the frame, the eternally silent ones, a General History of That Which Never Happened…. I imagine a book containing every kind and genre. From monologue through Socratic dialogue to epos in hexameter, from fairytales through treatises to lists. From high antiquity to slaughterhouse instructions. Everything can be gathered up and transported in such a book…. (140)
Lists and catalogs populate the novel to form another thread. With them Gospodinov displays G’s predilection for conflating world events with personal history—the engine upon which the book builds its momentum, albeit fitfully:
First kiss (with a girl).
Second kiss (different girl).
Am I killing them?
First fumbling sex in the park.
A long half-life of exponential decay ensues. (103-4)
The backdrop for G’s “half-life” is modern-day Bulgaria, a country he deems is running on a “physical and metaphysical deficit” and which he describes through images of darkness, rust, and concrete even as it draws him back from his travels abroad. In Chapter VII “Global Autumn,” an annotated list of places G travels is preceded by a statistic: “Eighty percent of Bulgarians had not left their native country before 1989.” A startling observation, but no less so than the fact that in just fifteen years after the collapse of communism over one million mostly young people left because of the economic crisis that enveloped the country still in transition.
Gospodinov, who lives in Sofia, Bulgaria, has witnessed firsthand the tumult of his native country during the years following Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Todor Zhikov’s resignation in 1989 after thirty-five years. Democratic reform since the Autumn of Nations has led to widespread corruption and a stagnant economy that have caused a wide swath of the population to feel caught in a system that seems to be perpetually teetering on the brink of ruin.
The principal organizing image for The Physics of Sorrow—the famed Minotaur of Greek myth—is a creature with the body of a human male and the head of a bull. “I have not found any compassion for the Minotaur in all of the classics,” G tells us. “No departure from the established facts.” G begs the readers’ empathy for the Minotaur and, as the labyrinth of the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that the human/animal is not only G’s psychological doppelganger, whose salvation may ensure G’s ability to emerge from the labyrinth of his misery, but also a stand-in for Bulgaria.
Even as G’s misery threatens to overtake him, Gospodinov’s humor is at play throughout the book, often amidst passages recounting brutality or injustice. In Greek mythology, the author notes in the second chapter, children “insofar as they exist…are most often devoured by their fathers. Any left undevoured will devour their fathers.” This observation is followed by a section titled “Devoured Children in Greek Mythology (An Incomplete Catalogue)” and a “P.S.” that depicts a “wacky echo in modern times” of a staged photo of a baby jokingly posed on a baking pan about to enter an oven, exposing the link between this classical motif and a modern family endearment (“You’re so sweet, I’m going to eat you up with rice.”). The chapter then ends with a fragment of “The Minotaur’s Speech in His Own Defense”—an alternately quirky and dire polemic, written in hexameter, during which the ostracized human/animal asserts his humanity (“I’m kin to all you all”) before King Minos orders his son locked up again.
Gospodinov employs repetition and ellipses to create an elegiac rendering of G’s past. Through these devices, Gospodinov asks the reader to consider not only images but the idea of language as an incantation, meant to simultaneously conjure G’s memory and release him from it. But the sheer number of memories conjured in the book are at odds with the desire to linger that the language creates. In one section, recalling his youth spent as a latch-key kid of socialism, awaiting his mother’s return from work and studying survival manuals in preparation for the atomic annihilation that racked him with fear as a child of the Cold War, G repeats the line, “We bang around like Mintoaurs in these basements…” Rather than unraveling the implications this metaphor carries with it, G decides it should be included in his “catalogue of epiphanies” and tucked into the capsule along with all the detritus he has stockpiled and saved for posterity and the reader is led toward another fragment.
The strongest thread is comprised of a handful of fragments scattered throughout the book describing G’s daughter Aya in beautifully simple language as a source of joy amidst his melancholy. He writes, “While I’m writing about the world’s sorrow’s, Portuguese saudade, Turkish huzun, about the Swiss illness—nostalgia…she comes to me, at two and a half, and suddenly snatches away my pen.” (177)
By interweaving all these threads Gospodinov offers G the possibility of deliverance from the sorrow gripping him, along with reminders that he can always duck down a side corridor for respite or if he’s worried that he’s lost his way. Because ultimately the “stories coming out of the void and going into the void” are what will lead him and Bulgaria—and the reader—through a maze dense with memories to a new idea of what it means to return home.
— Geeda Searfoorce
Geeda Searfoorce is a graduate of the MFA in Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She writes fiction and plays and teaches through the Vermont Young Playwrights program. Her work is forthcoming in Short Fiction in Theory and Practice.