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Georgi Gospodinov: Естествен роман (Natural Novel)

Living in Bulgaria or a similar East European country after the fall of Communism probably does not lead to the writing of realist novels and this novel is very much a case in point. First it is a story about a man who finds out that his wife is pregnant by another man. She wants to stay with him but he does not went to stay with her – he thinks. In the end he leaves and, finally, he finishes up sitting in the market square in his rocking chair. The second story is the framing story to this story. A publisher has received the manuscript of this book but with no indication of the author. He expected a visit from the author but he never came, so he starts publishing it in a magazine. He then gets visit from the wife of the author who points out that not only does she recognise herself but that the names of the protagonists have not even been changed. She begs him to stop publishing and tells him where he can find her ex-husband, the author. He does meet the author but gets little out of him and, eventually, the author disappears from his spot in the rocking chair in the market. Interestingly enough, both the publisher and the author are called Georgi Gospodinov. As the publisher cannot find the author, he signs the author’s contract himself.

The novel is not, of course, a straight narrative of the break-up of a marriage. Gospodinov (whichever Gospodinov) goes off on a variety of fascinating and often funny tangents. At first he tells us that, as Flaubert famously suggested, he would like to write a novel about nothing. He then says he only wants to write a novel of beginnings and proceeds to quote the beginnings of various famous novels, including Catcher in the Rye, David Copperfield, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Treasure Island and others. The beginnings would float around in an endless possibility of combinations. This is what he calls a natural novel. But then he is off on other tangents. He tells us of the history of the toilet and toilet graffiti. He talks about flies. He expounds various possible approaches to the novel, including a novel consisting entirely of verbs. He talks about language. He throws in various other stories. All of this is mixed in with his own story of the break-up of his marriage.

In the end… What? He sits in his battered and much repaired rocking chair. He becomes a tramp and his old friends don’t recognise him any more. In the end, nothing. This is not a realist novel so, while it can have multiple beginnings, it really does not need a conventional end. It is very well done and very well written. If this does not kill the realist novel, nothing will.

Publishing history

First published 1999 by Korporatsiia Razvitie
First English translation by Dalkey Archive Press in 2005