Sunday, April 4, 2021

Georgi Gospodinov's The Physics of Sorrow

 "We needed quite some time to pull ourselves together after the battles, to climb down off our horses, and reenter the dull Bulgarian world."

The Physics of Sorrow (2011, 2015 in the English translation by Angela Rodel) is Georgi Gospodinov's second novel. In it, the main character, whose name is Georgi Gospodinov, has the ability to enter the thoughts, the consciousness, the soul of other figures, human, but also not just human, a snail, a fruit fly, a cloud.

A metaphor for what a writer does?

The final paragraph of the Prologue reads, "We am." (Though in an interview I read, Gospodinov says it's more like 'I are' in Bulgarian, but that he preferred 'We am' in English.)

But most of the figures, whose consciousness our narrator inhabits, are members of the Gospodinov family: the father, a veterinarian, is born in the closing days of World War II; his grandfather, also Georgi Gospodinov, just before the beginning of the first world war. The book wanders pretty freely, but at its core, it's family history as novel.

There are other Georgi Gospodinovs in the novel, not just the ones in the family; in the book (maybe in real life, too?--but I don't know) the name turns out to be the John Smith of Bulgaria. 

This capacity to suddenly be inside someone else's thoughts first manifests itself when he's a child, and it alarms narrator Georgi, as well it might, when suddenly you see the events of World War I as if through your three-year-old grandfather's eyes. As a young man he goes to a doctor where he's given the comic diagnosis of 'pathological empathy or obsessive empathetic-somatic syndrome.' The doctor tells narrator Georgi it's OK, it's usually something people grow out of, and narrator Georgi does, at least partly. Though this entails a sense of loss, too. 

The Minotaur (that's a stylized minotaur on the cover, though I did wonder at first if it was an ungeheueren Ungeziefer) serves as a leitmotif. In the communist era, narrator Georgi is a latchkey kid in a basement; which makes him the Minotaur; but others are as well. A sympathetic minotaur, who's internalized that sense of monsterhood.
"We bang around like Minotaurs in these basements."
"We're talking about the abandonment and forcible confinement of a child, branded by his origins, for which he is not to blame."

The novel is also interested in the nature and purpose of stories:

"I can't offer a linear story, because no labyrinth and no story is ever linear."

"...stories always end in one of two ways--with a child or with a death."

"Researchers believe that the conscious cultivation of empathy, including through the reading of novels (see S. Keen), will make communication far easier and will save us from future world cataclysms." 

The novel is essayistic and episodic in the way of W. G. Sebald or Olga Tokarczuk's Flights. If you like that sort of thing. I do, and I did in this case--quite a lot, in fact. I was on a bit of Gospodinov bender the last month. This was the third of his I read--pretty much all of him in English--and I thought the best. The others were his first novel Natural Novel and a collection of stories And Other Stories. (But kind of schematic titles, don't you think?) He's also a poet, which should probably be published under the title, Some Poetry, but I don't know that any has made it into English. My visit to Bulgaria for the European Reading Challenge at Rose City Reader:



















11 comments:

  1. how interesting! i haven't done much overseas lit; i've missed out on some good stuff, it seems... doesn't gospodin mean comrade or companion?

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    1. It seems like roughly so. I just did some googling. Tovarisch seems to be comrade, but gospodin is gentlemen or sir, at least in Russian. So, I suppose, Gospodinov is son of a gentlemen, which would make it a pretty common name, I guess.

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  2. Sounds interesting. I have enjoyed Tokarczuk's work so I shall put this on my tbr list.

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    1. Especially if it was Flights you liked, I think you'd like this. Drive Your Plow felt a bit different.

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  3. Bulgaria...not the easiest place to find for a book setting. I do have 'Under the Yoke' by Ivan Vazov so I probably should read that for the challenge. I've had it for a few years and have never got to it.

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    1. I think I'd heard of him before, but then I also found this list, which is definitely going to help with Gilion's challenge:

      https://www.calvertjournal.com/features/show/12441/100-books-eastern-europe-central-asia

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  4. I know I personally wouldn't want to go into the consciousness of other people or things! Talk about TMI. ;D But I do like the sound of this book. I just might have to give it a try.

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  5. I tried Flights and couldn't get in to it - returned it to the library mostly unread. I will try again with Drive Your Plow some day but will probably skip this title. I generally need a plot to hang on to, though there are exceptions, for sure.

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    1. This has got more plot--well, family history type plot--than Flights. I liked it better than Flights. Though it's still somewhat essayistic.

      Drive Your Plow, though, is pretty plot-driven. Classic mystery plot. Who is it killing all those people who are not nice to animals? (And are we rooting for him or her?)

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