Because of the wonder that is Twitter, a couple of years ago I was able to give a virtual high-five to Open Letter when they signed on to publish Georgi Gospodinov’s multi-prize-winning novel The Physics of Sorrow (Finika na tagata, 2011; tr. from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel, 2015). Of course, I then had to wait those two years. I am not disappointed.
Though I was looking forward to it for some time, I had no idea what this book was about. I’d just heard that it was excellent from reliable sources. So I sat down to read it and was completely captivated by the surprising turns in Gospodinov’s stories about his family in twentieth-century Bulgaria.
To tell these stories, Gospodinov’s narrator, who has a life similar to Gospodinov himself, introduces himself as someone who can walk through the labyrinths of others’ memories. More than simply relive them, though, he can move through them with some degree of volition, thus fully assuming the identity of such figures as his grandfather and father. He says, as he begins, “I have always been born.” From the “We am” of the prologue, we move from memory to memory, from person to person. Meanwhile, Gospodinov remembers his own life in the latter part of the century. All are one and the same.
The twisted nature of history, and its effect on identity, becomes underlined in the image of the minotaur and his labyrinth. Gospodinov’s narrator sees himself as the minotaur, a misunderstood creature, abandoned, hidden, roaming. History, and the stories, take wrong turns, meander in side-passages, and hit dead-ends.
The Physics of Sorrow, despite its title, is a playful book while making its point:
A story in which eras catch up with one another and intertwine. Some events happen now, others in the distant and immemorial past. The places are also confused, palaces and basements, Cretan kings and local shepherds build the labyrinth of this story about the Minotaur-boy, until you get lost in it. It winds like a maze and unfortunately I will never be able to retraces its steps. A story with dead-end corridors, threads that snap, blind spots, and obvious discrepancies.
Despite this playfulness and deliberate “obvious discrepancies,” the book is surprisingly coherent, both in narrative and theme, though that’s not to suggest it isn’t rich. After all, along with the consistent playfulness in structure, theme, and tone, loneliness exists. The book is highly personal, so how could it not? Children are placed in basements or abandoned. There’s the confusion of life.
Indeed, inside me, the Minotaur shivers, afraid of the dark, but otherwise I look completely normal, I wear the body of a white, middle-aged man.