Tuesday, June 14, 2016

"While alive, he had hay fever. Now he was lying there, piled with flowers"

The first idea is that memory is a labyrinth. Then the book becomes a labyrinth, language becomes a labyrinth, history a labyrinth, all life a labyrinth. Nothing is straightforward, and everywhere you turn looks like the dead end of sorrow, because all light, all love, all that is good, is trapped within this labyrinth. The images pile up: of mazes, of burrows, of tunnels, of ants leaving the anthill to be trampled by an unfeeling child who is god, of Minotaur torn from his mother's breast to be thrown into the maze where he will be murdered by a foreigner aided by Minotaur's half-sister. Are we all Minotaur, then? Half man/half beast trapped in a labyrinth, waiting for our killer to appear?
That which has not been told, just like that which has not happened--because they're of the same order--possesses all possibilities, countless variations on how they could happen or be told.

Alas, the story is linear and you have to get rid of the detours every time, wall up the side corridors. The classical narrative is an annulling of the possibilities that rain down on you from all sides. Before you fix its boundaries, the world is full of parallel versions and corridors. All possible outcomes potter about only in hesitation and indecisiveness. And quantum physics, filed with indeterminacy and uncertainty, has proved this.

I try to leave space for other versions to happen, cavities in the story, more corridors, voices and rooms, unclosed-off stories, as well as secrets that we will not pry into...
Georgi Gospodinov wrote The Physics of Sorrow in response to a 2010 Economist article which declared Bulgaria to be "the saddest place in the world." Physics is less a story than a catalogue--one of the conceits of the novel is that Gospodinov is collecting material for a time capsule that will be like Noah's Ark, holding an example of every form of Bulgarian life/experience--of the sorrows of Bulgaria. We read Gospodinov's memories, and the memories of his family, and the memories of people he meets by chance. The narrator at one point begins buying anecdotes from strangers, all to be included in the time capsule of the novel. The narrator becomes obsessed with quantum physics, attempting to reverse the flow of time, to bring the dead back to life, to undo all the sorrows endured during history. He gives up this experiment when he realizes that moments of horror, even when lived backwards, remain horrific and who could put someone through such pain a second time?
Our history and literature textbooks--we got a kick out of adding finishing touches to the painfully familiar photographs inside. A mustache and a pirate's skull cap on top of the general secretary of the communist party's head, which was as round and bald as an egg. And on the poet-revolutionary Hristo Botev's heroic face--may the gods of literature forgive me!--I drew round, John Lennon-style glasses. The glasses completely transformed the fearsome Botev into a slightly bewildered, bearded hippie of Bulgarian revolutions, which are as a rule unsuccessful.
The threads, the long straight passages that at first look like the central movement of the novel (the story of Gospodinov's grandfather, the story of the Cretan Minotaur) get lost as the narrative moves into the labyrinth and the narrator follows side passages, stumbles in the darkness and finds heaps of hidden and abandoned sorrow. Once in a while he makes his way to the main passages again, but he leaves them after a few uncertain steps and takes us back into the depths of the labyrinth. We don't know where we are going, but after all there is nowhere to go but further into the infinite twisting paths. But at least the labyrinth contains everything: not just sadness, but love and humor and beauty are also buried in the darkness.
Brezhnev died the very next year.[...] I was twelve and had kissed a girl for the first time the day before, albeit in the dark during a game of spin-the-bottle at a birthday party. First kiss, first death.

That marked the beginning of the end. Soviet general secretaries started dying off every year or two.[...] In fact, the whole period I was in puberty can be briefly described through the prism of the complex political context of the '80s.
First kiss (with a girl).
Brezhnev dies.
Second kiss (different girl).
Chernenko dies.
Third kiss...
Andropov dies.
Am I killing them?
First fumbling sex in the park.
To return to the Noah's Ark image: in the midst of all this sorrow Gospodinov has given us a dove in the form of the protagonist's young daughter, who is a ray of light in the labyrinth, and possibly a guide out of the dark. The Ark matters because it is designed to outlast the present, to wash up on some future Ararat at the dawn of a new world. Will the dove return with an olive branch? It is too early to tell.


  1. I'd really like to read this one. Sometime soon, I hope. For this month, the only one I could get right away was a digital copy of Under the Yoke. I'm only a little way in--we've been on a trip and I just haven't been reading at all.

    1. It's less like reading a novel than reading, I don't know, someone's very interesting blog. An interesting blog written by a Bulgarian novelist. But not quite like a novel.

  2. wondering: is the act of reading print comparable to threading a maze? and does that communicate itself to the brain? what if there is no real connection between the inside and the outside of the skull? maybe eyesight reflects only the spaces between what's actually there...

    1. Maybe reading requires the same sort of memory of where you've just been, the same kind of imagination of holding a long series of things in mind until you see the bigger pattern?

      If everything my brain thinks is just imaginary, what's really "out there"?

    2. exactly; so i'm going to go around with a tape measure and find out...

  3. Well, I read and remain puzzled, entrapped (I suppose) in the labyrinth without a thread. But one random thought occurs to me in spite of my confusion: is there some general rule that can be applied to nationalism in literature (i.e., why do some writers pursue the parochial as a means of exploring the universal, and how does national identity complicate that challenge)? Too vague? Too pointless? Hey, like I said, I'm confused.

    On another note, I once attempted prose inspired by fractals. It gave me and readers headaches. The project died a merciful death after several thousand words.

    1. I don't see any reason to believe in a strong connection between nationalism and literature. I don't see any reason to believe that most writers explore the universal, either, I guess. I sure don't.

      The Physics of Sorrow isn't doing anything new with fiction. It's not any kind of baffling book to read; it's very straightforward, just not put together in a linear fashion like a story is being told. It's more like riding in a car with someone who knows the city really well, and he points interesting things out in passing while telling you an unrelated story about a girl he used to love. Yes, it's sort of like that. A perfectly normal sort of encounter, just not normal for the shape of a novel.