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Georgi Gospodinov: Физика на тъгата (The Physics of Sorrow)

Gospodinov’s second novel to be translated into English is a story of his family but not a straightforward story. I can’t offer a linear story, because no labyrinth and no story is ever linear, the narrator says. Though it is told by the author, he also readily identifies with his forebears. I was born at the end of August 1913 he tells us at the beginning (the date of his grandfather’s birth) and then I was born on January 1, 1968 (the actual date of the author’s birth) and then I haven’t been born yet. I am forthcoming. I am minus seven months old. and I was born on September 6, 1944. In short, he is his family.

In the novel he tells us tales of his family. We learn about the strange minotaur boy, a strange twelve-year old boy who seems to have a bull’s head and who is exhibited at a fair, which the narrator’s grandfather attends. The three-year old future grandfather is almost left at the fair. He falls asleep and his family set off without him. His mother, who has seven other children to look after, does not notice he is not there. She is tempted to leave him but fortunately for our narrator (and us, as readers), she sends the eldest to find him and he is returned to the fold. But his relationship with bulls is not over. He suddenly goes mute, apparently scared by a bull. Witchcraft is tried and fails but, fortunately, he does recover.

We also learn about the two wars. In World War I, the family suffered many hardships and had to sell off family heirlooms to get food. However, it is the World War II story that is more interesting. Shortly before he dies, the grandfather gives our narrator a piece of paper with an address in Hungary on it. There is no explanation. The narrator decides he must investigate and gets permission to visit the area from his newspaper (he is a journalist), nominally to visit and document the large Bulgarian military cemetery in the region. He does visit the address on the paper, where he finds a very old lady and her grandson. He speaks to the grandson in English but only knows a few words of Hungarian. Those are enough when the lady speaks a few words of Bulgarian, including the name Georgi (his grandfather’s name as well as his). He then concocts an interesting story about what actually happened at the end of the war with the Hungarian lady and his gradnfather.

From here on, the novel takes a slightly different path. The narrator recounts his life, various stories, his thoughts, his political views and his relationships, romantic and otherwise. His main obsessions continue to be the minotaur, both as a character and as a symbol, and labyrinths, clearly as a metaphor for his life. The minotaur may well be his stillborn brother but it plays a larger role in his life. Despite his clear contempt for the Bulgarian political system, he has a certain nostalgia for his early life, even to the extent of going back to the town of T. where he was born and grew up and he decides to stay for some time in the house where he grew up, to the landlord’s surprise. Indeed, on one occasion he does not go out for eighty-four days. I’m not a hermit, I have a television downstairs (I only watch the evening news), I subscribe to thirty-odd newspapers and magazines, so I’m certainly no hermit. I still need to follow the world closely, I’m gathering signs. I read Aristotle’s Poetics and listen to some surviving vinyl record. In short, this novel is about the narrator’s attempt to find himself, who he is and what he is.

Nostalgia plays a big role. I’m getting sidetracked, but let’s have a minute of silence for the souls of: The pagers of yore, Tamagotchi Videocassettes and the VCR Cassette-tape players, which buried eight-tracks, which buried record-players, Audiocassettes Telegrams, with their whole accompanying ritual Typewriters (allow me to add a personal farewell to my Maritsa, filled with cigarette ashes and coffee from the ’90s.) Her remembers the town and Bulgaria of yore. However, at the same time, despite this (or, perhaps, because of it), he got out as soon as he could and we get detailed accounts of his travels round Europe (The best mantra for forgetting a woman). Indeed, it is only on his travels that he has ever been happy, albeit for only six minutes. I remember that I was once happy. It lasted about six minutes. It happened in the Kensington Gardens in West London, early in the morning. I can’t find a reason for that happiness.

As this is a postmodern novel, lists are also important, from cities that look good at 3 a.m. to various responses to the annoying How are you? I’m developing a peculiar kind of memory for those memoryless places, hotels, he says and describes his thoughts on the hotels he has visited – the cheaper the hotel, the more furious the fucking. He even buys personal stories from people. I could have the childhood of everyone I had bought one from, I could possess their wives and their sorrows.

This is definitely a postmodern novel so do not expect a plot, easy answers, a linear narrative. Do expect diversions, lists , inconsistencies, characters that come and go. I very much enjoy these type of games and welcome the fact we now have two of his novels in English and I look forward to reading more.

Publishing history

First published 2012 by Zhanet 45
First published in English 2015 by Open Letter
Translated by Angela Rodel