Reviewed by Stiliana Milkova
“I imagine a book containing every kind and genre,” declares the first-person narrator of Georgi Gospodinov’s novel The Physics of Sorrow. And then he elaborates, “From monologue through Socratic dialogue to epos in hexameter, from fairy tales through treatises to lists. From high antiquity to slaughter house instructions. Everything can be gathered up and transported in such a book” (140). This statement occurs about half-way through the book and at that point its self-reflexivity is apparent: it neatly summarizes the text we are reading. The Physics of Sorrow mixes genres, styles, and forms, words and images, points of views, geographies, histories, chronologies, even languages. It is at once a compendium of the past and a textual map of the future. It is a semi-autobiography grounded in the cultural and political realities of Bulgaria’s communist past and its post-communist present, in Bulgaria’s creative imagination and folklore. But it is also a book about the universal experiences of sadness and happiness, childhood, parenthood, and pondering the fate of the world. It is a harrowing, riveting book.
In line with its multifacetedness, the novel has multiple openings. It begins with a long list of epigraphs, quotes that in some way, we assume, relate to the narrative. Drawn from various sources including T. S. Eliot, Fernando Pessoa, St. Augustine, Jorge Luis Borges, and even Gospodinov’s own character Gaustine, these epigraphs underscore the novel’s own polyphonic nature, the multiple texts, voices, and narratives intersecting within. Next, a prologue sustains the polyphony effect by listing the first-person narrator’s many bygone and forthcoming births, and concluding with his ontological proclamation “We am” (8). Finally, the narrative proper begins with a haunting scene at a Bulgarian country fair where the magical, the bizarre, and the melancholy meet. The narrator, inhabiting his grandfather’s childhood memories, encounters the Minotaur for the first time at a freak show:
In the middle of the tent stands an iron cage about five or six paces long and a little taller than human height. The thin metal bars have begun to darken with rust. Inside there is a mattress and a small, three-legged stool at one end, while at the other – a pail of water and scattered hay. One corner for the human, one for the beast.
The Minotaur is sitting on the stool, with his back to the audience. The shock comes not from the fact that he looks like a beast, but that he is in some way human. Precisely his humanness is staggering. His body is boyish, just like mine.
The first down of adolescence on his legs, feet with long toes, who knows why I expected to see hooves. Faded shorts that reach his knees, a short-sleeved shirt…and the head of a young bull. (14)
In this first encounter, the Minotaur is a child, abandoned by his parents and punished cruelly for his difference. The Minotaur becomes the figure that haunts, structures, and drives the narrative.
Soon we find out that the narrator, whose name is also Georgi Gospodinov, has the ability to empathize with others so that he can enter their memories and relive their experiences. This might account for his plural identity constructed in the prologue. Georgi sees the Minotaur in his grandfather’s past and associates the forsaken bull-headed boy with his grandfather’s abandonment as a child. The novel compulsively revisits the image of the three-year-old grandfather forgotten in a mill by his mother. A catalog of abandoned children joins a long section of the book dedicated to the defense—and acquittal—of the mythical Minotaur, forsaken by his mother and imprisoned by his father.
The narrator reminds us in various ways of the ancient Greek myth and then traces its afterlife in the Western literary tradition. The Minotaur was the son of Pasiphaë and a bull sent by the god Poseidon. Pasiphaë’s husband Minos, the king of Crete, imprisoned the Minotaur in the labyrinth underneath the palace. Every nine years Athens sent seven young men and seven young women to be fed to the Minotaur. Until Theseus, aided by Minos’s daughter Ariadne, killed the Minotaur and found his way out of the labyrinth following the thread that Ariadne had instructed him to tie to the entrance. In The Physics of Sorrow, the Minotaur displaces Ariadne’s thread as the thematic thread that runs throughout the text. Accordingly, the novel works as the labyrinth through which readers must make their way.
The narrator imagines the Minotaur as a melancholy little boy, doomed to solitude and darkness, pining away in the labyrinth, innocent of the slaughter of Athenian youths. To support this image, Georgi draws a picture of happiness—Pasiphaë holding the bull-headed baby in her arms, looking at him tenderly, in a pose anticipating the iconography of Madonna and Child (66). An illustration from the Parisian National Library included in the text intensifies the affective quality of this image and for a moment undoes the myth’s authority. The narrator continues the work of undoing the myth by compiling a legal case against the Minotaur discourse that pervades the Western imagination. His goal is to exculpate the bull-headed boy, to clear him of all the charges accumulated over the centuries, to make us imagine the abandoned child, to make us empathize with him, the little boy in the labyrinth’s darkness. The narrator constructs a compelling apology of the mythological Cretan monster. After that, the Minotaur appears, time and again, dispersed through the text, in pictures, names, stories, even in the guidelines for the humane slaughter of livestock illustrated with drawings of a bull’s head.
The Minotaur’s doomed childhood underwrites another major theme in the novel: the living and reliving of one’s childhood in different historical eras, under different political regimes. Georgi, the narrator, recalls his own growing up in the 1970s, a lonely child confined to a tiny basement apartment, daydreaming by the half-interred window, fixated on the mournful mooing he has heard outside a mental institution on the outskirts of his provincial home town. The absurd, bleak, tragi-comical reality of everyday life in communist Bulgaria sets the tone for this thematic cluster. But this reality also enables the narrator’s fascination with myth, memory, and family history. The physical confines generate creative, imaginative freedom, the ability to enter the memories of others and uncover their stories. Georgi follows his grandfather, a Bulgarian soldier, through World War Two to find out that he had a son in Hungary by the woman who kept him in the darkness of a basement to save his life—a son his grandfather never saw.
The story of Georgi’s childhood recalls my own childhood in communist Bulgaria in the early 1980s. Just like the narrator, I had a much cherished copy of Ancient Greek Mythology which I read and reread obsessively, memorizing gods and heroes, geographies and deeds, living and breathing their stories. The book illustrated the text with abundant images, scenes taken from ancient Greek pottery just like the ones used in The Physics of Sorrow. I remember reading about the labyrinth and the Minotaur, Theseus and Ariadne. Theseus abandons Ariadne on his way back to Athens and ends up marrying her sister Phaedra, another story in Gospodinov’s catalog of abandonments and betrayals.
The theme of abandonment recurs when the aging narrator himself leaves his newborn child and sets out on a never-ending trip. He vagabonds from European city to European city, his perambulations mapping a geography of sorrow. As he travels, he ponders his own and his country’s past, conflating personal and political histories, and sinking deeper in melancholy. His child—a girl named Aya (perhaps after the first and last letters of the Bulgarian alphabet, A and Ya, as a reminder of the textual nature of the book in our hands)—too appears several times, as an antidote to sorrow: “While I am writing about the world’s sorrows, Portuguese saudade, Turkish hüzün, about the Swiss illness – nostalgia…she comes to me, at two and a half, and suddenly snatches away my pen” (177).
The Physics of Sorrow does not seem an easy book to translate. The translator, Angela Rodel, captures both the sound and sense of Gospodinov’s prose. Towards the end of the novel the narrator reproduces entries from his secret notebook in which he records the signs of aging. At age 85, the entry reads: “Our lifelong, round-the-clock jabbering seems to have a single, solitary goal, which we never say out loud. To bamboozle death, to send it off on a wild goose chase, to make a feint at the last moment” (255). Rodel has masterfully recreated both the phonetics and the semantics of this passage. The phrase “our lifelong, round-the-clock jabbering” with its repetitive sounds l, o, r echoes the Bulgarian original’s repetitive d, o, r (“denonoshtnoto ni durdorene tsyal zhivot”). The “o” in both translation and original is stressed as if to underscore the circularity and futility of the narrator’s quest to eschew death. The verb “bamboozle” in the next sentence echoes the Bulgarian verb “zabalamosame” (to mystify, confound) through the shared consonants z, b, l, m. This is just one example of Rodel’s sleight of hand which allows us to enter and get lost in Gospodinov’s novel.
Despite its multiple voices and encyclopedic scope, The Physics of Sorrow concludes by tying many narrative threads and circling back to its opening frame. To me, Gospodinov’s book articulates a theory of physique in addition to the titular physics (in Bulgarian physics and physique are the same word, “fizika”). That is, it elaborates a theory of the body as the site of empathy, history, myth making, and ultimately as the locus where the future is encoded in our children. In the novel’s emotive ending, which releases, as it were, the Minotaur from the manacles of history, the narrator’s daughter Aya charts a not-so-hopeless future.
Gospodinov, Georgi. The Physics of Sorrow. Translated by Angela Rodel. Rochester, NY: Open Letter Books, 2015.